Three- to Six-Story Apartment Fires: Fire Extending into the Flat Roof and the Command Sequence

By John Macdonald

The multifamily residential fire pose one of the greatest challenges for the incident commander (IC). Having systems in place can greatly impact the decision-making process and lead to better outcomes with respect to safety, incident stabilization, and the preservation of property. The following points with respect to fires in Type 5 multifamily residential buildings may help guide the IC in attempting to deal with a myriad of problems relating to these types of fires. The following information is based on lessons learned from numerous apartment fires I attended as well as from articles related to this topic and recent tests and experiments from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and Underwriters Laboratories (UL) that point to best practices in firefighting.


Rethinking RECEO VS: Breaking Up with an Old Friend

Improving Size-Up…One Letter at a Time

Multifamily Dwelling Fires Training


Officers are taught that size-up begins when the “alarm sounds and the emergency call is received.”1 An officer will lean on his understanding of the first-in area and the type of building to which he is responding. Part of this size-up can involve all of the following things, and it may give the IC a better understanding of what the responders are up against as they move through the “think phase” of the Command Sequence.

·       Preincident plans.

·       Area familiarization.

·       Information from dispatch.

·       Smoke conditions en route or on arrival.

·       Policy and procedures for a report of smoke or fire (second alarm).

·       Standing orders for crew members concerning water supply and exterior attack.

·       Manager or owner/bystander information.

·       Doing the actual 360° size-up of the building.

By performing a thorough size-up, ICs can make a more informed risk-benefit analysis that will ultimately lead into command options (command post-fast attack-investigation) and the decision to use an offensive or a defensive mode.


During the initial command phase, the IC must sort through numerous problems, which may include, fire, smoke, occupants, possible rescue, and exposures, to name but a few. Incorporating the SLICE-RS principle within the 360° size-up can assist an IC in the early stages of the incident. Recent studies from NIST and UL support this as a means of prioritizing some early actions that can lead to positive outcomes. As you complete your 360°, consider the following as you identify problems and begin disseminating information to your crew members and incoming units:

·       Paint a picture.

·       Describe the building: type, roof, construction.

·       Realize there may be challenges to get a 360° done. Identify the problems, usually smoke, fire, and residents.

·       Find out where the fire is located from the building owner or manager or during the 360°.

·       Have your crew members access the alarm panel if you are investigating or establishing a command post while you locate the manager or residents for information.

·       Confirm the location of the fire (from the alarm panel or bystanders, if not visible on arrival).

·       Consider a quick attack through the exterior if there are visible signs that the fire is venting or has affected the exterior of the structure–fast attack (make sure your crew members know what to do).

·       Use the appropriate hoseline–critical flow rate and proper angle of attack.

·       Recognize that hitting it from the exterior will make things better for occupants inside. Containment of the fire will support rescue efforts.

·       Try to block air flow from soffits into the roof void by transitioning to a higher foam concentration after the initial exterior attack.

·       Understand that a fire that has started on the exterior and has impinged on roof soffits may have extended into the roof. This must be mitigated by getting water into the roof void in a rapid and systematic manner.

·       A flow path may be difficult to establish. Door control coupled with gas cooling may be the only option for containment in the suite of origin.

·       Consider the wind direction.

·       Do not establish the command post in the lobby if possible.

·       Call for the resources needed, and secure a second source of water.

·       Do not immediately commit aerial devices.

·       Coordinate attack with rescue if possible (understand that there will be challenges with rescue).

·       Use standpipes or advance apartment packs off 2½-inch hose with gated wyes.

·       Do not break down doors indiscriminately.

·       Use stairwells if possible. Triage those needing help; those nearest or adjacent will receive help first. Once again, understand that containment will make rescue safer for firefighters and occupants.

·       Provide positive-pressure ventilation to stairwells to ensure stairwells remain safe and tenable.

·       Establish a collapse zone, especially in instances where brick cladding or a chimney is in place.

Consider the Building a High-Rise–Toothpick Towers

Moving into the planning phase of the Command Sequence, ICs must establish their incident priorities to accomplish their strategic objectives. Lloyd Layman’s RECEO-VS provides a template for meeting strategic objectives when formulating the incident action plan. Most departments that have high-rises have guidelines in place for a high-rise fire.2 The multifamily residential fire poses many of the same problems, yet most departments do not have guidelines or systems in place for tackling these types of fires. Consider the following points in establishing best practices to meet strategic objectives and tactical decisions:

·       Prioritize strategic objectives and implement tactics to contain the fire: exterior attack and exposure protection, lobby control, recon, attack, rapid intervention, rescue, stairwell support, vent, staging, base.

·       Containment (by exterior or interior means) must be a priority. Consider the worst-case scenario where someone is on an adjacent deck next to the involved area of the building. Is it quicker to ladder or contain the fire to make things better for our members and the individual prior to rescue? If the fire is contained to the suite of origin and is vent-limited, the same principle applies: Would we send rescuers into the suite prior to an attack team?

·       Decide whether you will use standpipes, if available, or hoselines from an engine.

·       If unsure, consult with the recon/attack team leader. It may be faster and more reliable to use hoselines.

·       Standing orders or procedures for recon/attack: Bring apartment pack, thermal imaging camera (TIC), pike pole, piercing nozzle, irons, and extra self-contained breathing apparatus bottles.

·       Support Interior Recon with personnel when possible (have additional members take extra air cylinders up, if possible, and make them part of a Recon/Attack Group). Too often, we lose momentum as crews retreat from the fire floor to replenish the air supply.

·       Consider sending a roof team to the roof through a roof access or an aerial device (safe side). Make sure they have hoseline, a thermal imaging camera, a piercing nozzle, and a chain saw should they be needed, or simply have them report on smoke conditions from vents to ascertain fire travel in the void space.

·       Have the roof team inspect the roof depth if the roof void is to be actioned with water from above. This may be done from an existing roof vent or by cutting an opening well away from the origin of the fire. Cover this opening afterwards to prevent a flow path exit. New flat roof structures may be constructed of TGI joist systems. Roof teams must be aware of the hazard associated with roof failure with this type of construction.3 If fire demonstrates vent point ignition from the roof area, do not flow master streams from aerials down into the structure. This could endanger firefighters working inside the structure. It could also affect flow paths and could ultimately inhibit firefighters’ systematic work inside the structure. (3)

·       Use positive-pressure ventilation (PPV) with caution if voids to the roof area have been created within the structure. PPV could provide oxygen into voids, increasing the heat-release rate if the fire is not extinguished in the roof or in wall voids.

·       Interior teams must be careful and continually assess smoke conditions in hallways and stairwells. If conditions are untenable, consider systematic ventilation to improve conditions for the interior teams. Exercise caution in all cases where ventilation is used; it could impact tactical considerations and safety. A tactical change involving ventilation could involve a change in the IAP and may signal a new operational period. Smoke curtains may be a viable option where ventilation is needed.

·       Consider natural or mechanical ventilation once the fire is contained to help remove cold smoke from the structure.

·       Also consider PPV to assist in removing smoke that has traveled into adjacent buildings or positive-pressure pressurization to limit smoke travel into adjacent structures.

·       Aerial devices may flow water into pitched roof voids through soffit or gable ends when possible.

·       A two-sided building setup for the aerial is essential.

·       Consider staging two floors below the fire in an unaffected area of the building.

·       Once fire is contained in the interior, consider shutting down fire suppression (sprinklers) systems on the affected floor, limiting water damage.

·       As the incident develops, have an incident safety officer (ISO) in place (consider having an assistant to the ISO so interior operations can also be monitored.)

·       A four-person RIT is essential.

·       Set up a base for incoming units.

·       Establish rehab.

·       Notify emergency social services (residents will need shelter).

·       Secure the area. Allow no bystanders in the warm zone.

·       Guard all entrances until security is in place to prevent looting.

·       Ensure that the public information officer has all the correct details.

·       Use the department’s social media means to get correct and timely information out to the public. Attempt to get information to residents, and ensure that they know their belongings are safe.

·       Assist with pet removal and water removal if possible.

·       Have crews conduct professional and systematic salvage and overhaul. Assign a team leader for this.


Maximizing Roof Operations: Flat Roofs


Construction Concerns: Flat Roof Membranes


Fire Extending into the Flat Roof

Vincent Dunn (1988) wrote extensively on the prospects and dangers of building collapse. He believed the solid wood beam roof (built with dimensional lumber spaced on 16-inch centers) provided the greatest stability to a flat roof. When fire enters the flat roof area from the exterior or interior of the building, the IC must make sound strategic decisions based on size-up, risk vs. benefit, and the resources at hand.4 Knowing that these roof systems are safe and do show signs of softening prior to failure provides opportunities for teams to attack the fire from above or below by using piercing nozzles to get water into the void. Roof teams approaching from safe unaffected areas can also provide the IC with valuable information concerning fire travel based on TIC readings and smoke showing from roof vents.

Firefighters must continue to broaden their understanding of modern building construction techniques. With respect to the flat roof in Type 5 apartment buildings, this means new building techniques include TGI (lightweight trusses) in the flat roof in place of traditional dimensional lumber. To mitigate this hazard, firefighters must inspect the roofs to determine if these joists are present. Cutting inspection holes well away from the affected area (then covering them to prevent further vent openings) will give firefighters a better understanding of construction and roof depth. Knowing the roof type and its potential structural integrity will positively affect fireground efficiency and safety.5

Preparing for Apartment Fires

In my 23 years as a firefighter, by far the most destructive and devastating fires I have been to involved Type 5 wood-frame multifamily residential buildings. Fire losses for most of these buildings, if the fire impacts the void space in the roof, often are in the millions of dollars. Training for firefighters and officers as well as preventative measures and education for apartment owners are the keys to limiting fire losses while ensuring firefighter and resident safety. Fire departments should consider the following measures to mitigate the hazards that multifamily residential fires pose:

·       Put in place operational guidelines based on best practices.

·       Educate the public on the dangers of flammables like candles on decks.

·       Homeowner Associations should restrict barbeques to common exterior areas at ground level.

·       Tenants should know how to exit the building if there is smoke or fire.

·       If tenants are trapped, they should stay in the unit if possible, put a towel under the door, call 911 with the unit number, and keep doors and windows closed to prevent smoke from entering their unit.

·       Tenants should go to the deck only if smoke conditions inside a unit not involved in fire are not bearable. Often, residents unnecessarily expose themselves to smoke by moving onto deck areas. This can also distract firefighters.

·       Educate and train fire department members in strategies and tactics as well as in building construction.

·       Use multicompany tabletops.

·       Train with neighbouring departments.

·       Conduct effective post-incident analyses or critiques.

·       Pass on lessons learned.

·       Realize there will be successes and failures. Celebrate success, and learn from failure.


            1. International Fire Service Training Association (IFSTA). (2014). Fire and Emergency Services Company Officer, Fifth Edition. Stillwater, OK, USA.

            2. National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA). (2010). Fire Officer: principles and practices 2nd edition. Sudbury, Mass., USA: Jones and Bartlett Publishers.

            3. International Association of Fire Chiefs, National Fire Protection Association. (2016) Evidence Based Practices for Strategic and Tactical Firefighting. Burlington, Mass. USA: Jones and Bartlett.

            4. Dunn, Vincent. (1988). Collapse of Burning Buildings: A Guide to Fireground Safety. Saddlebrook, N. J., USA: Fire Engineering Books and Videos.

            5. Mittendorf and Dodson. (2014). The Art of Reading Buildings. Tulsa, Okla., USA: Pennwell Publishing and Fire Engineering.          


John Macdonald became a career firefighter in 1994 when he was hired by Coquitlam (BC, Canada) Fire Rescue. He is the assistant chief of training. Previously, he was training captain and then suppression captain. He has a B.A. degree from Simon Fraser University and a master’s degree in disaster and emergency management from Royal Roads University; he is a certified Fire Officer 1-4. His interest in apartment fires stems from lessons learned at several large apartment fires in the community he serves. He has been published in Fire Engineering and presented at FDIC 2016. He was recognized as “Trainer of the Year” in 2016 by the British Columbia Fire Training Officers Association for his work in increasing firefighters’ knowledge of the challenges inherent in apartment fires.





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