Apparatus access, water supply, long hose stretches, and lightweight construction are among the considerations in fighting fires at these structures, Lieutenant Tom Donnelly told the students at “Garden Apartments, Condominiums, and Townhouses.” The firefighters, company officers, and chief officers involved in operations at these structures require a different approach. Preplanning these complexes in your response area is essential.

Generally, garden apartments are low-rise, multiple dwellings between from one to three stories high, with the living space and bedrooms on the same floor, and have no interior stair within the apartment. In multistory garden apartments, the stairway to the upper floor apartment is usually on a street side or in a courtyard. A townhouse, however, may have a single-family home on each of its sides, may reach as high as five or six stories and have the ever-dangerous open interior stair. Room size, structure height, and fire loading challenge firefighters under serious fire conditions. 

Geographically, the design of garden apartment and townhouse complexes are not fire apparatus friendly, which hampers the initial attack. Conducting ladder operations and setting up the initial attack line can be more challenging. These complexes may require a long hose stretch, thus delaying putting water on the fire and hampering the initial search.

Because of possible lightweight construction, Donnelly said, time is not on our side. These fires require fast water for success. Although most firefighting texts would say that you can aggressively attack a fire’s contents from inside the structure, once the fire involves the building’s structural components, tactics must turn defensive.

The common attic space or cockloft will extend over the entire garden apartment; but in a townhouse, it will extend across several townhouses. Because of these structures’ possible lightweight construction, we cannot safely attempt roof ventilation, which allows the fire to gain headway more quickly.

Donnelly insisted that developing preplans at regular drills at these structures is essential. Obtain as much information on these complexes in your area for your preplan—access, water supply, construction, life hazard, and sprinklers, among other issues. Practice hoseline stretching options, apparatus positioning, and ground ladder placement.

“Preplanning these complexes within your response area should be the norm, so everyone has the playbook for game day,” Donnelly said.

Tom Donnelly is a lieutenant in the Fire Department of New York, where he is assigned to Rescue Company 1. His article, “Training Notebook: Garden Apartment and Townhouse Fires,” appeared in the November 2009 issue of Fire Engineering