Fires in Apartment Buildings


Apartments, garden apartments and townhomes comprise a portion of the dwellings in nearly every fire jurisdiction. This article will point out the construction features of these buildings, the special problems they present under fire conditions, and will establish acceptable methods of fire operations and recommended precautions that must be taken.

The term “garden apartment” includes all multi-family, low-rise combustible dwellings of one to three stories, usually containing four to twelve or more units per building. Most garden apartments are typically wood frame or ordinary construction and are laid out so that each apartment has living space on one floor. There is normally no interior stair found in the individual apartments. This is the major difference between garden apartments and townhomes. Townhomes are single family homes that are connected on the sides. Townhomes typically have two or more floors connected by an interior stair. Both garden apartments and townhomes generally have poor access for incoming units, along with high-density construction. This allows rapid building-to-building fire spread. The common feature of both is lightweight construction. A good generality is “the newer the building, the lighter the construction.” In addition, fire stopping in the attic spaces of most garden apartments and townhomes is inadequate to control the spread of fire throughout.

In some older areas there are older, tenement style apartment buildings. These apartments range from 1 to 5 stories or more. For this article, apartments will refer to multifamily dwellings three-stories or less. They will have a common stairwell that leads to the apartments. Some apartment buildings will be outfitted with fire department connections for standpipe operations or supplementing the sprinkler system.

Hazards and Structural Considerations

A high life hazard should be one of the first things we consider when responding to an incident in an apartment building. This will hold true regardless of the time of day or day of the week. We can assume more residents will be in their apartments during the night but, given today’s work schedules and lifestyles, we should expect residents will be in their apartments at any given time.

Accessing these buildings is also a potential problem. Many apartment complexes are dotted with carports, walking trails, green spaces, etc. These features result in tight roads and limited access for our apparatus. Many of these buildings have large setbacks with sidewalks and parked cars to negotiate. These features and obstacles become of even greater importance when we are trying to leave room for a ladder truck to position correctly. Engine companies will need to plan for longer hose stretches. Water supply in many of these complexes may be supplied by private hydrants or they may have pressure reducing devices on the water mains coming into the complex.

Structurally, these buildings have a limited amount of fire protection built into them. Most are built of lightweight materials with limited fire stopping. Contractors are notorious for breaching fire stopping and fire walls to stretch cable and phone lines, and to install electrical wiring and plumbing. The attic spaces of these occupancies are especially vulnerable to rapid horizontal fire spread. Facades, parapets and other ornamental architecture can create hidden voids where fire can burn and spread undetected. Any attempt to vertically ventilate these buildings will need to be completed with added concern for roof integrity and firefighter safety.

Other considerations include the open stairwells commonly installed in these buildings and the potential for multiple locked doors needing to be forced. Apartment buildings with common hallways will create added problems for evacuation and the potential for lost and disoriented occupants unable to self- evacuate due to smoke or heat conditions.

Managing the Fire Fight

Depending on the staffing and response times for a fire department, it is important to start additional resources early into the incident. These incidents can quickly outpace the staffing of many fire departments.

Getting handlines deployed will require moving around parked vehicles and other obstacles. If a deep setback is encountered, crews will need to consider adding a length or two of hose to their handline or possibly stretch a yard-lay and hook their handlines up to it. In some scenarios, throwing a ground ladder to an upper floor landing or balcony may allow a hoseline to be deployed faster than stretching up the common stairwell. The first line should go to the fire apartment. Once the initial attack line is in place, a second line should be placed in the apartment directly above the fire apartment. To minimize vertical fire spread.

Ladder companies will also have their work cut out for them gaining access to multiple apartments for search and rescue. In addition to conventional forcible entry tools, departments should consider deploying hydraulic forcible entry equipment for use at these fires. The layout of many apartment complexes requires attention to engine and ladder company placement. Leaving room at the front of the building for a ladder company is important for possible master stream operations and victim rescue.

Incident commanders will have trouble maintaining accountability and span of control at these fires. Multiple companies will be required to bring these fires under control. Many times, the footprint of the building limits the ICs ability to adequately view all sides of the incident. Assigning additional command level officers to oversee operations will improve accountability, limit freelancing and add to the safety of firefighters operating at the incident. If the building is especially large, more than one RIT team may need to be staged and ready to deploy.

In closing, these fires can overwhelm any fire department very quickly. Fire departments are well served by focusing on the basics of good hose deployment, proficient ladder deployment, forcible entry and search. In situations where a fire department does not have adequate personnel on scene to handle the incident, the incident commander will have to decide where to draw the line and make a stand to maximize life safety for civilians and firefighters.

Crews should make a point to visit the apartment buildings in their response areas. Look at the building construction, neighborhood layout, areas with limited access and the other myriad of issues at these types of fires. Success at these fires boils down to solid basic firefighting skills, an understanding of how fire travel in these buildings, how the buildings are constructed and a solid command structure.

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