By Salvatore Ancona
While all multiple-dwelling fires entail labor-intensive and time-sensitive operations, fires in row frame multiple dwellings are especially challenging. The fast-moving conflagration hazard present at these buildings can tax even the most experienced firefighters and get out of hand very quickly. The often-heavy fire load and heavy life loads mean fires in row frame multiple dwellings are profoundly dangerous operations. Although layouts and design may differ in various localities, the principals of fire travel, construction features, and collapse hazards are all the same. You may or may not have a row frame in your area, however similarities in building features should be noted in attached buildings of Type V (Combustible) construction. (Photo 1).
The row frame multiple dwelling has been around for more than 100 years. These buildings, as the name implies, are built in rows that contain as many as 20 buildings or more. They vary in height from two to five stories, are 20-30 feet in width, with depths ranging from 40-60 feet. When constructed, each builder may have used varying designs: shafts, siding, façade, with or without cornices. They were constructed over a period of many years in the 1800s and early 1900s. Row frame building fires are fast moving. They all share one very important characteristic, the common cockloft. (Photo 2) Fires in row frames should be considered one building with respect to our operation. Row frames use either balloon framing or braced framing. The old, dry wood coupled with the often-heavy loading of personal belongings and storage makes these buildings conflagration breeders. Row frames were built in succession; in addition to common cocklofts, they often share common cornices, load-bearing partition walls, lack of fire stopping at cellar walls, open interior staircases, and renovations yielding two or more families per unit.
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Row frames often share utility voids similar to that of garden apartments, meaning pipe chases and shafts are back to back from unit to unit. This presents an open, unimpeded vertical shaft for fire to spread and mushroom at the cockloft, thereafter transitioning to horizontal fire spread. While some consider each unit to be a separate private dwelling, this will prove false when fire is present and you may end up paying for that later on in the operation. Cornices may or may not be present, but you should be aware that these can spread fire horizontally and are eccentrically loaded. Cornices are either wood or metal and can collapse without warning when fire burns unnoticed from behind.
Fire walls are not as common as you would think. In new constructed row frames, you may get lucky, but the reliability of fire walls in these buildings is questionable. Over time, during renovation and expansion, firewalls, if present, can be penetrated and compromised. Brick nogging in between units has been seen as well, but any non-combustible assembly should be inspected for openings that can promote fire spread. For a fire wall to be truly effective, it must extend at least 3 feet past the exterior walls and roof of the building at all locations.
It is not uncommon to see more than two families in a single unit of a row frame. Each floor can be its own apartment or even broken down into one room apartments with no egress other than the stair hallway. Fire escapes are not common, so the use of portable ladders especially in the rear is a game changer.
The biggest concern at these fires, as previously stated, is the cockloft. Often the unimpeded void space between the top floor ceiling and the roof, this combustible void space can allow fire to spread from one unit to the next or even skip units. We have always tried to convey that the cockloft is nothing more than horizontal balloon framing. Once fire extends to the cockloft, firefighters on the roof and in exposures must act quickly to stop the spread of fire. You may get a call for a smell of smoke 10 units away from the actual fire building. This is why our inspection of the cockloft is paramount in row frames. When opening up sky lights or scuttles, check the returns for fire as this may indicate fire within. No matter what you have, check the cockloft!
Row frames are nothing more than private dwellings attached to each other in the cheapest way possible. Walls between units are often no more than studs with lath and plaster or gypsum board. Horizontal fire spread in these buildings is our main concern. A labor-intensive type of fire, row frame fires require the flanking of fire from surrounding exposures. It is important to inspect each unit for horizontal and vertical fire spread as all of these void spaces are combustible. Be aware of collapse hazards as a result of uncontrolled fire within the cockloft, such as the collapse of the roof onto the upper floor. Firefighters must also be wary of exterior wall collapse as a result of detachment (this includes veneer walls), fire escape collapse or detachment (If present), cornice failure, or load-bearing elements removed in overhauling.
SALVATORE ANCONA is a deputy chief fire instructor at the Nassau County (NY) Fire Service Academy; a member of the Seaford (NY) Fire Department; a former captain and training officer for the Bellmore (NY) Fire Department; and a paramedic supervisor in Queens, New York. He has an A.S. degree in fire science from Nassau Community College and is in the emergency services administration undergraduate program at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Ancona is the author of the building construction page “The Sons of Brannigan” on Facebook and was a recipient of the 2019 FDIC International Honeywell DuPont Scholarship.