Engine Company, Firefighting, Structural Firefighting, Truck Company

Incident Report: Four-alarm fire in Prospect Heights, IL

By Drew Smith
Phoos by Tim Olk

We received the alarm at 10:10 hours on December 27, 2006, for an apartment fire. Initial companies were:
Squad 9 (Capt., driver and FF)
Truck 9 (2 FF/medics [they jump from our ambulance 9])
Engine 39 (Lt. and driver)
Ambulance 39 (2 FF/medics [fill in as back step of E39])
900, 901, 3901 (chief and 2 deputy chiefs)
Mt. Prospect Engine 14 with 3 personnel

This scene was a 3-story frame building with some areas of masonry load bearing construction. “Almost” firewalls separated each wing. I say “almost” firewalls because they do not fully extend out past the construction, particularly the mock mansard roof that was the cause of most fire, hear and smoke spread. During overhaul and the investigation, you could look into the mansard from the third floor inside corner apartment and see it run the length of the building without a fire stop anywhere to be seen.

The building’s topography was such that it was composed of three wings. Each wing had two halves and each half was composed of 12 units: 2 front and 2 rear X 3 stories X 2 halves, for a total of 24 units to each wing. Looking down on the building and facing north, the structure appears to be a 200-foot by 200-foot letter “C.” The fire was in the bottom part of the “C.” The “A” sides of the building were each on the inside of the “C,” where you walk up a flight of stairs and enter such that you are midway between the first and second floors. The rear of the building (or outside of the “C”) had grade level entry.

The building had a local alarm but lacked sprinklers and standpipes due to age (it was built prior to the City of Prospect Heights’ incorporation in 1976). While the floor systems between floors one and two and two and three were dimensional lumber, the roof was all lightweight wood trusses with metal gussets. There were also vents in the sofit of the mansard over each balcony, another contributing factor to fire spread.

Engine and Ambulance 39 arrived at 10:15 and reported heavy smoke showing. One minute later, Engine 39 reported a working fire and requested a Code 4 (a confirmed working fire), dispatching additional equipment to the working fire. Code 4 companies were:
Northbrook Truck 12 with 3 personnel
Wheeling Engine 23 with 3 personnel
Arlington Heights Ambulance with 2 personnel
Northbrook Chief 1100
Wheeling Chief 2400

With E39 positioned at the “A” side, the crew advanced a 2&1/2 hand line up the stairs to the second floor hallway door but were unable to advance on the fire due to heat. Squad 9 arrived and found the rapidly advancing fire had trapped several people on the third floor balconies. With heavy smoke and heat coming from the sofit, they deployed ground ladders for rescue after securing E39’s water supply. Between the time that Squad 9 arrived and noticed the victims and was able to ladder the building, most of the victims were obscured by the thick smoke.

The official cause has been listed as electrical. A two-wire extension cord used to power holiday decorations appears to have overheated and started a magazine rack adjacent to the outlet on fire. The cause and origin investigation indicated that the second floor neighbor smelled smoke, climbed over the balcony to find a fire. He then broke out the patio door and removed the Christmas tree but was driven back by the fire, which by then had added oxygen.

With the room now vented, the fire grew rapidly. The police had arrived just ahead of the engine and were told there were kids in the fire unit. The police kicked in the door, not knowing the patio door had been removed. They were promptly driven back by heat and smoke and focused on evacuating occupants in the exposed areas.

Truck 9 was directed to ladder the roof near the fire on the C side. What the E39 and Squad crews did not know was that the fire had auto-exposed to the third floor and was entering the flat-roof truss space and the adjacent second-floor apartment, resulting in multiple apartments becoming fully involved.

Prospect Heights Deputy Chief 3901 arrived at 10:19 and assumed command and immediately requested a first alarm MABAS box. As I arrived on scene, I reported
to 3901 while observing fire conditions and listening to the radio traffic. Our chief was at the command post. The Truck 9 crew was understaffed, so I
informed command that I would be joining their company. This is not what I would normally do (which would be to become the Ops chief or safety), but I felt
this was where I was needed at the time, due to the volume of fire and the lack of company members. Mt. Prospect Engine 14 was also making rescues on the east end of Side C, as smoke was also coming from the sofit of the third floor and people were yelling and saying they were trapped.

As I joined the Truck 9 crew, members were focusing on setting up the aerial. I gave out assignments: Pump operator to tag the hydrant, one firefighter to raise the aerial and a third to get in the platform and prepare to deliver water. Based on the volume of fire and the lack of progress by the 2&1/2 inch hand line, I requested command insure all companies were out of the west half of the building. With Truck 9 connected to a hydrant (T9 has a 1500 GPM pump), we opened our solid bore 1&3/8 tip onto the second floor and knocked down the fire. We then moved up to the third floor and repeated the tactic.

Fire had made it way into the roof, so we worked the stream under the roofing material and made some progress. About the time the fire appeared to be knocked to where we could get hand lines inside, I was told there were children in a second floor apartment. I had the platform lowered to the second-floor balcony and I entered for a search. The man in the basket and I kept in contact. I could only search the living room because the path to the apartment’s hall was blocked. As I retreated to the basket, the third-floor roof had lit up again. We hit it again with the aerial pipe. We lowered the basket to the ground and I told the firefighter to keep working on the roofing with the stream.

I threw a 24-foot ladder to the second floor window of the apartment adjacent to fire and performed a brief search of the first bedroom, then moved the ladder to the next window and repeated the search. Both bedrooms and the hall were without fire damage and had minimal smoke staining and water. I tried to drop in into the glass when I raised the ladder, but it just bounced right off the dual thermal pane. I had the ladder at a low angle in case I had to remove a victim solo. The ladder was heeled into the soft ground and then by Tim Olk.

With the rescues completed and the fire area under control, command focused on a primary search of all floors by two mutual aid companies and having the roof
opened in several areas to check for extension. It took about one hour to bring the fire under control and insure we did not have extension. Then we turned
to extensive overhaul.

We had a total of five aerials set up, three of which were doing roof work. Trucks 9 and 12 were set up on side C. Trucks 14 and 25 were on side C of exposure D. Truck 2 was set up on side A of exposure D. At least three handlines were advanced onto the second and third floors via the side A stairwell and
portable ladder on side D. Because the aerial pipe extinguished the bulk of the fire, the 2&1/2 inch hand line was abandoned. Only one engine company, Engine
39, pumped handlines. Truck 9 pumped itself and a hand line. Truck 12 supported its search of the third floor by tagging a hydrant and converting its
waterway to a standpipe, but I am told this was never charged. Truck 14 was also tied to a hydrant and prepared to pump itself.

We had all companies through the second alarm committed to fire control and rescue. Due to the number of rescues, the initial designate RIT was placed to work and then replaced by companies on the additional alarms. Most of the third and fourth alarm companies were used for relief with a few fourth alarm companies never being committed.


  • Know when to use a 2&1/2 versus a 1&3/4 inch line. Our first arriving officer did know and it was a great move. Even with the 2&1/2, the company could not advance onto the fire floor.

  • Dedicate enough resources to rescue, but put water on the fire. With this volume of fire you must at least try to keep the fire in check if not knock it out, or the fire’s volume will increase and spread.

  • Be prepared to use your elevated stream as an OFFENSIVE tool. I made the call to hit all four fire apartments with the aerial pipe and it paid off in a
    big way. Just make sure everyone knows the plan and no one is interior at the time.

  • Know your local construction. We knew how this building was laid out and how it was built. We knew if the fire was in the mansard it would spread and it did.

  • Don’t hesitate to call extra alarms. We had our normal working fire upgrade and added the MABAS Box Alarm within minutes. The second alarm was requested
    two minutes after the first, followed by the third alarm 21 minutes later and the fourth alarm 14 minutes after the third.

  • Have ambulances if you are doing rescues. We pulled a MABAS Ambulance box alarm but none of the rescued wanted to be transported even though many had taken in smoke, including a pregnant woman. We established an EMS group and had six ambulances ready to go. Don’t wait for the victims to pile up outside the building.