Suburban Firefighting: Tactics, Strategies, and Critical Concepts

Article and photo by Jerry Knapp

Suburbia, with its mix of single-family homes, apartments, row houses, balloon and lightweight construction, light industry, strip malls, mega malls, gas stations, and even power plants, is the focus of this column. Suburbs bring to mind quiet, sleepy little towns, but, in reality, the “burbs” contain a wide variety of fire hazards with which firefighters must contend.   

This column will concisely examine hazards that will challenge you as a suburban firefighter. One short column cannot make you an expert, but it can is hit the most important points from an operational perspective to help improve your performance on the fireground. This is take-with-you information for your next fire–tactics and strategies to fine-tune your skills and your department’s efficiency.
Suburban firefighters are called to a variety of hazards and alarms. How do you organize yourself and prioritize our training and planning to make your department and yourself effective and efficient? Look over all your calls and determine where people are dying, getting injured, and where the greatest threats to you and your firefighters are. For suburban firefighters, that alarm is the common everyday house fire.
Let’s start with the house fire. By “start,” I mean that we must be fully prepared to respond effectively to this type of fire to ensure we can do the most (usually with limited personnel) for our residents and be as safe as possible while taking sensible risks on the fireground. Are your standard operating procedures (SOPs) correct and up to date? Have you conducted full-scale live training? Do you have a standard search and rescue plan? Have you identified lightweight and balloon construction in your first-due area?  
We mistakenly take house fires for granted. How significant are house fires to suburban departments? Here are the facts, according to the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA).
1. Residential structure fires outnumber all other structure fires, three to one.
 2.  On an average day in the United States, eight or nine civilians perish in fires and 49 are injured, most of them in their own homes. That is one fire death every three hours.
3. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) estimates that 83 percent of all civilian fire deaths and 77 percent of civilian injuries from fire occur in residential structures.
4. The largest percentage of these deaths (76 percent) is in one- and two-family dwellings.
5. Multifamily occupancies account for only 17 percent of the overall deaths from fire annually.
6. Home fires cause roughly $200 in damage every second of every day.
7. Residential structure fires (in 2005) cost our nation $6.9 billion. Single-family and duplex homes accounted for 75 percent of this cost.
8.  According to the U.S. Fire Administration report “Firefighter Fatalities in the United States in 2008,” 21 firefighters became fatally ill or injured while on the scene of a structure fire; 71 percent of these incidents occurred at residential properties.
9. In terms of firefighter injuries, the impact of house fires is overwhelming when viewed on a national level. In 2004, 76 percent of firefighter injuries at structure fires occurred at residential properties. Overall, residential properties accounted for 68 percent of all firefighter injuries. The number of firefighters injured at one- and two-family properties is similarly outstanding: 59 percent of all firefighters injured in 2004 were injured at one- and two-family property fires. Interestingly, apartments and row houses accounted for only 15 percent of the injuries, a proportion that has remained almost constant for several years, according to the USFA. 
10. To really understand the operational hazards of the house fires we face, read several of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) firefighter fatality reports. These short but comprehensive reports contain a wealth of information about costly errors (or sequences of fireground errors) that resulted in firefighter fatalities. The reports are excellent and do not place blame. Instead, after careful investigation, they reveal the sequence of events—some of which may not have been known to those on the scene—that, together with other events, resulted in a fatal outcome for one or more firefighters. We must share the experiences of these firefighters to protect our own and to ensure that they did not die in vain.
Suburban firefighters face the huge challenge of house fires. Often, we respond with few personnel and a limited water supply and encounter complex rescue and fire attack situations. Clearly, the house fire is the number-one killer of civilians and firefighters. It is our most important alarm. We must recognize the house fire as our most dangerous alarm, and we must train and be fully prepared to respond to it.
The next few columns will focus on specific tactics and strategies for the deadly house fire. We will also look at other important types of calls and operational tactics and strategies for the common alarms you will face.
JERRY KNAPP is the assistant chief for the Rockland County (NY) Hazmat Team and a training officer at the Rockland County Fire Training Center in Pomona, New York. He is a 35-year veteran firefighter/EMT with the West Haverstraw (NY) Fire Department, has a degree in fire protection, and was a nationally registered paramedic. Knapp is the plans officer for the Directorate of Emergency Services at the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York.

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