Garden Apartment and Townhouse Fires

By TOM DONNELLY

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, when housing was in incredible demand, a common approach was to build multiple-dwelling type structures. These structures were nonfire-resistive in construction and presented firefighters with hot, smoky fires and a serious life hazard.

Although these structures still present great challenges to firefighters, a new problem has arisen: the garden apartment and townhouse fire. Like multiple- and single-family dwellings, these structures present great challenges to the modern day firefighter. This article will look at this relatively new fire problem, some of the dwellings’ construction features, and some suggested practical tactics.

Although garden apartments and townhouses have some similarities, they are actually different from each other. A garden apartment is a low-rise, multiple dwelling anywhere from one to three stories high. Most garden apartments have the living space and bedrooms on the same floor; there is 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.

The townhouse, like the garden apartment, is a very popular form of housing that continues to grow in popularity across the country. But the townhouse is different from the garden apartment in that it is has a single-family home on each of its sides. A townhouse can be as high as five or six stories and is connected by the ever-dangerous open interior stair. Room size, structure height, and fire loading challenge firefighters under serious fire conditions.

One of the biggest problems that firefighters face is the geographical design of these complexes; they are not fire apparatus friendly, which hampers the initial attack. Conducting ladder operations and setting up the initial attack line become more challenging. Be sure to adequately preplan these complexes. Depending on the size of the water main, it may be difficult to locate a functional hydrant. A garden apartment or townhouse fire may require a long stretch, thus delaying water on the fire and hampering the initial search.

The prevalence of lightweight combustible construction has had a huge impact on how we confront these structures; time is not on our side Because of the danger of the lightweight construction’s collapsing, a garden apartment or townhouse fire requires fast water on the fire for your efforts to be a success. Generally, most firefighting texts would say that you can aggressively attack a fire’s contents from inside the structure, but once the fire involves the building’s structural components, tactics must turn defensive.

Another problem for these structures is the common attic space or cockloft, which will extend over the entire garden apartment or in the case of a townhouse will extend across several townhouses. Because of these structures’ lightweight nature, we cannot safely attempt roof ventilation; thus, opening the roof is taken out of the tactics equation. This allows the fire to gain headway more quickly. These structures may have a fire wall or party-type wall, which may be the best option for stopping a rapidly spreading attic fire. Generally, if the fire has not passed the fire wall or party wall, position the hoselines, pull the ceilings, and drive the water into the cockloft space. Draftstopping, if present and uncompromised, will aid in slowing fire spread.

Some practical tips for determining if these structures have lightweight construction are to make inspection holes in the ceiling early and to consider the structure’s age. Anything built after the 1960s may be a truss structure. Also, look for visible 2 × 4 rafter tails under the eaves. This is another good indication of a potential lightweight truss. Remember, do not cut a lightweight truss roof with a fire burning underneath it.

Another new concept is the introduction of lightweight I-beams to these structures, similar to a truss, which cannot support the weight of a firefighter using a power saw. Holes are often drilled into these beams in plumbing facilities and electrical installations. These structures are lightweight tinder frame matchboxes. Fire will travel vertically and horizontally. The fires will be hot and smoky, and the terrain will complicate your vent-enter-search (VES) operation.

 

TACTICS

 

Tactics, like those for any other structure, have several main priorities: rescue and removal of trapped civilians, positioning hoselines, confining the fire, VES operations, and extinguishment.

You must also consider topography. For a contents fire or room fire, use a 1¾-inch hose for speed and maneuverability. Because of the distance, you may have to stretch the line using the preconnect, which may not be a viable option. Because of friction loss, do not use more than 300 feet of 1¾-inch hose. One popular option is to stretch a 2½-inch hose with a smooth bore type of break-away tip, then hand-carry two to three lengths of 1¾-inch hose to the operation point. The solid breakaway tip nozzle serves as a reducer, and if you encounter tough fire conditions, you now have the striking power of the 2½-inch line, the same as your initial attack line. This approach gives the first attack team the option of the 2½- or 1¾-inch line. However, if the stretch is long, you will need many hands to make the stretch; personnel becomes a key ingredient in a successful stretch.

When arriving at a serious garden apartment/townhouse fire and it’s immediately evident you need a defensive attack, blitz the main body of fire with a 2½-inch or large-caliber stream, and stretch 1¾-inch attack lines into the exposures to cut off any horizontal extension. If the building has lightweight construction, ensure that the blitz attack is outside an established collapse zone. Smaller lines can then flank the fire from side exposures.

Dedicate ladder company operations to addressing the life hazard, and then facilitate getting water on the fire. Because of terrain problems, portable ladders are a must for upper-story VES operations. Another problem specific to garden apartments is the cellar, which is common in garden apartments and where the laundry room is often located. A cellar fire will quickly find vertical arteries for traveling upward. It is essential to open up the first floor and get water into these arteries, or you will chase the fire in many different directions, with heavy property losses.

In townhouse fires, single-family dwellings are built alongside one another. In the early 1900s, many urban areas built several blocks of these row-frame dwellings. The only difference is that today we face the truss. The dividing walls between townhouses will generally be one or two layers of gypsum board, which is not an effective fire barrier. A key task of ladder company personnel is to determine the fire’s boundaries. You can easily breach these walls if you properly coordinate the breaching operation, which could provide a means of getting water on the fire. Be cautious with hose streams; they can easily penetrate these walls and cause the fire to spread to an adjoining dwelling.

Strategic and tactical concerns with townhouses include open interior staircases, which can provide a vertical artery for hot, smoky, toxic gases to rise to the structure’s upper levels and then mushroom back down from where they came, possibly affecting crew members. Like many other structures, the townhouse will encapsulate the heat, creating a potentially explosive fire once you vent the windows.

In older garden apartments, you may see older, casement-type windows and a typical all-wood frame or ordinary construction with lath and plaster. These older structures have all the fire extension arteries and also the added problem of a common nonfire-resistive attic. The initial attack line must ensure protection of the common stairway, which is a vital egress route.

When you encounter a serious fire and make a stop opposite the fire wall or party wall, be cautious of a truss collapse; it could push the wall into your operating position. When a concrete block wall is built as a party-type wall, the trusses simply rest on the wall with no other lateral stabilization.

At regular drills, develop preplans that address these structures in your area. Develop a checklist of the problems you may face, which may include the following:

1. Apparatus positioning.

2. The ability to get master streams into operation. Use the apparatus’ mounted deck pipe or aerial platform.

3. The distance the handline stretches from the pumper to the building. Create stretching options that will work for you; you must flow enough water to have striking power. If the stretch is long, do not overuse the 1¾-inch hose. Friction loss will decrease the water flow at the nozzle.

4. Ground ladders—where you place them, which size to use, and the terrain where you must use them.

5. Life hazards and the occupants’ ability to evacuate. Remember, many senior complexes are built in garden apartment fashion.

6. Trusses—are they used in the construction? If so, where are they located? Ensure that this information is given to responding firefighting units.

7. Does this structure have sprinklers? Many jurisdictions require that sprinklers be installed in these types of structures.

These are just several items you might want to include in your preplanning visits. Obtain as much information on these complexes in your area as you can. Practice hoseline stretching options, apparatus positioning, and ground ladder placement. Make sure all personnel, whether career or volunteer, have the game plan. This way everyone is on the same page for game day.

References

1. Brady Series, Garden Apartments and Townhouses, 1978.

2. Norman, J. Fire Officer’s Handbook of Tactics, 3rd edition, Fire Engineering, 2005.

3. Clark, W. Firefighting Principles and Practices, Fire Engineering, 1991, 334-336.

TOM DONNELLY is a lieutenant with Fire Department of New York (FDNY) Rescue 1. He previously served as a firefighter with Ladder 176 and Rescue 2. He is an instructor at the FDNY Technical Rescue School and has been an instructor with the Suffolk County (NY) Fire Academy for 17 years. He has been a volunteer firefighter for 24 years with the Deer Park (NY) Volunteer Fire Department. He has a bachelor’s degree from Saint Joseph’s College in Brooklyn, New York.

 

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