Confusion on how to identify floors in a fire building is more of a common concern than many of us realize. Buildings built on a grade or that present unique floor references because of terrain have been around for longer than most of us have been in the business. A problem that occurs often, but is given little attention, is the confusion that can develop when identifying floors at a fire scene, most notably when dealing with residential structures. Building types or specific geographical areas within your own city or town that present challenges in this area need to be addressed well before the receipt of an alarm. Complacency or ignorance relative to what seems to be a simple identification could present critical challenges not only with scene management but, more importantly, with the need to rapidly deploy forces to a specific floor when a member calls for help.

Department policy or procedure must address grade/terrain identification. Responding to and operating at a building that is two stories from the street/front side of the building and has four floors accessible from grade in the rear will present difficulties if not planned for.

For example, in the building in photos 1 and 2, if a firefighter inside that structure were to call for help, indicating entrapment on the second floor, what floor would the member be on? Buildings built on a grade present problems in properly identifying floors if members’ view and entry point are limited to one or two sides of the structure.


1) The same building: two stories, A-side view. (Photos by author.)

In an attempt to eliminate this difficulty, departments use various procedures for identifying grade/terrain concerns. In one department, members are instructed to invert the numerical floor references of the building in question when presented with a residential building built on a grade. Specifically, they start counting from the top down. As an example, if the building were two stories in the front and four stories in the rear, members would call the top floor the first floor and the bottom, or the lowest floor, the fourth floor. The inverted floor reference would be used for managing the incident.

(2) Four stories, C/D side view.

In another department, members are advised to numerically identify the floor from the lowest grade level, regardless of side. Specifically, if the building has four floors accessible from the rear and only two from the front, the building is identified as a four-story building regardless of the side or floor from which you entered (photos 1 and 2).

In a more common approach, many departments require a floor/height size-up from the first-arriving officer that automatically dictates the operational height of the building. If the first-arriving engine, ladder, or chief officer indicates in the on-scene size-up report that he is arriving at a “two-story, Type 5, residential structure,” not only does this size-up report indicate the construction and occupancy type, it also establishes the designated floor reference for the entire incident. The concept behind establishing the floor reference from the command side of the building is based on the flow of information to and from the command side of the incident. If, during the incident, more floors are identified than what the command side initially referenced, the incident commander (IC) must immediately announce additional floor designations for that incident. If no information is relayed to the IC about additional floors within the building or if no identification is established indicating any grade/accessibility concerns, then complacency will breed dangerous results.

In Jersey City, a Floor Identification Guide (FIG) is used for all residential buildings that present challenges with floor or grade identification (Table 1). If a building presents additional floors other than the command side of the address, or if the building has a court level below street grade, ICs are required to use the FIG as an operational guide.


The residential floor guide used in Jersey City was developed because of the difficulties in identifying our brownstone inventory. Brownstones are buildings constructed of ordinary construction, Type 3 design. Originally built and designed as private dwellings, they often range in height from two to four stories and have building widths averaging from 20 to 25 feet and depths ranging from 40 to 60 feet. The uniqueness of this type of building is not with the building’s height or square footage; it is more with the building’s court entry level and how it can influence the designated height of the building.

(3) More than one-half below street grade, it is referred to as a basement.

Court entry levels found with brownstone-type occupancies are patio-type areas that are actually a few steps down from the sidewalk or street level. Their depth below street grade can vary significantly from one side of the street to another. The original intent and design of the court level was to allow light and access to the partially below grade level of the home. When first built, this particular level of the home often served as the kitchen area. Direct access to this floor space can still be found through a door under the building’s front steps (also referred to as a front stoop).

(4) More than one-half above street grade, it is referred to it as the first floor.

Depending on the court’s individual square footage, in early years it served as a gathering place for entertaining or relaxing in the outdoors. In more recent years, this area came to serve as a collection point for garbage cans or discarded material. In either case, the floor space accessed from the sunken court needs to be identified and referenced. The residential floor guide allows for the identification (photos 3 and 4).


(5) A terrace apartment.

More modern residential occupancies can continue to present grade/terrain challenges. Garden apartments, because of their design and because they are commonly within a sloped and landscaped setting, present similar areas of concern. Terrace apartments are dwelling units that are partially below grade in the front or accessed side of the building (photo 5). They get their name from the fact that although their entrance is partially below grade, the rear of the apartment is fully above grade, exiting onto a patio from a sliding glass door. Depending on the square footage and layout of this area, firefighters will often find a number of apartments sharing storage and laundry rooms within this space.

(6) A side of a complex.

Another more modern type of building that can present a challenge is the townhouse. Townhouses, like the garden apartment complex, are often placed within a sloped terrain. The reasons for their design and placement within a sloped landscape, some will say, is to take advantage of the aesthetics the topography offers. The more realistic reason is that land that was not considered suitable for building a number of years ago because of its terrain has now found its way onto the tax roles as a garden apartment or a townhouse complex. The immediate concerns from developments that present these challenges are not so much from the floor designation; your department’s floor identification guide should eliminate any difficulties. The main concern is with accessibility, most notably for members of your ladder companies as they attempt to target and ladder bedroom areas (photos 6 and 7).

(7) The rear of a complex.

• • •

Regardless of the building type and its location within your town or city, the focus of any grade/terrain concerns should be whether you and your members are prepared to identify, reference, and operate with the recognized challenges.

Table 1. Jersey City (NJ) Fire Department Residential Floor Identificaton Guide (FIG)

Identification: Incident commanders are to use the command side of the incident to identify and designate the operational height of a residential building.

Grade accessibility: If additional floors are accessible from grade on one or more sides of the building, individual floor references must follow the floor identification as designated from the command side of the incident.

Street grade vs. court level: Members are to use street grade as the reference point for building floor identification. Court levels found in some of our multiple-dwelling and brownstone-type occupancies are not be used as reference points in building floor identification.

First-floor references: From the command side of the incident, any area that has more than half of its height above street-level grade will be identified as the first floor.

Basement: From the command side of the incident, any area that has more than half of its height below street grade will be identified as a basement.

Quick reference: If it appears close in consideration to a basement or first-floor reference and there is uncertainty with the identification, identify the area in question as the building’s first floor.

Cellar: From the command side of the incident, any area that is entirely below grade will be identified as a cellar.

Subcellar: From the command side of the incident, any area below a cellar will be identified as a subcellar. Although it is rare within our residential housing, if there is any area found that is below a subcellar, that area will be identified as subcellar #1.

Responsibility: It shall be the responsibility of the incident commander to identify any additional or unusual floor references to all responding and operating units.

Previous articleFE Volume 159 Issue 3

No posts to display