MODIFIED FRONTAL ATTACK AND THE ATTACHED GARAGE FIRE
BY MICHAEL E. HABERSKI
Fire departments across the United States respond to hundreds of thousands of fire incidents every year. While some jurisdictions may face special or unusual fire problems particular to a certain area of the country, one type of fire incident we all share is the residential structure fire. Easily the most common type of structure fire, fire in a residence is also responsible for the majority of civilian fire deaths and injuries each year. Most departments are familiar with the single-family home. If you serve a community that has had residential development since the late 1950s, you will also be familiar with a common feature of single-family homes?the attached garage. Attaching the garage to the home came into vogue in the 1960s, and its popularity has continued into the ?90s. Attached garages are convenient; they take up less room on the building lot and are slightly less expensive to build. But the attached garage fire poses some significant problems for the firefighter and can also be deadly for residents in the adjoining house.
Residential structure fires that start in a garage are relatively common. During the three-year period from 1992 to 1994, the California State Fire Marshal?s Office reported that 38,532 residential structure fires occurred in the state. Just more than 10 percent of these fires?3,895?originated in the garage. These fires caused nine civilian deaths, 151 civilian injuries, 124 firefighter injuries, and $135,246,945 in property losses.
Garage fires are extremely hazardous. An inspection of your own garage may reveal some of the problems. First, a garage is not designed to be lived in. What that usually means is that OstuffO that people do not want inside their home ends up piled in the garage. A broad spectrum of OstuffO is stored there: flammable liquids, assorted pesticides and herbicides, corrosives, vehicles, parts of vehicles, and ordinary combustibles by the ton.
Generally speaking, storage conditions are hazardous. Items and products are kept on open shelves or?worse yet?in overhead rafters or lofts, where it is waiting to fall on a crew advancing an attack line.
Housekeeping can also be pretty bad in these garages, making it difficult for fire crews to gain access.
DOOR A VITAL CONSIDERATION
The most significant hazard of a garage fire, however, is not the contents but the door. I?m not referring to the large vehicle-type door, but the one between the garage and the house?the simple 20-minute door that most of us take for granted. A specific, important consideration is determining if it is open or closed. This information is vital for setting fireground strategy. An open door between the garage and the house is big trouble. Fire gases and smoke generated by all the OstuffO in the garage will find a quick and easy path into the living quarters, where the residents may be sleeping, unaware of the fire. Doors between the garage and the house are often equipped with a self-closer, to avoid this Oopen doorO scenario. Unfortunately, these closers often are broken or have been disconnected.
Conventional interior fire control dictates that fires be attacked from the unburned/unaffected side of the structure. This strategy also ensures that an attack line will be placed between the fire and any potential victims. This strategy in most cases is very sound and has served as Rule No. 1 to a generation of fire officers. However, a working fire in an attached garage may require some modification of this rule.
Let?s examine two key points of conventional fire control and how they work with a garage fire. First, fire crews enter through the front door and advance their lines to the door between the house and the garage, which they find in a closed position. Good, except that now that door will have to be opened to begin extinguishment, releasing smoke and fire into the residence. Second, in most homes, firefighters will be forced to enter the garage through a single wide door and move down toward the fire. The conventional method undoubtedly will contain and extinguish the fire, but there may be a better method for controlling the fire in this case?the modified frontal attack.
NEW TACTICS?ISOLATE AND ATTACK
We have just reviewed a typical fire attack scenario using conventional strategy. The best part of that scenario was that a hoseline was in place to protect occupants. However, another way to attack this fire is to compartmentalize the fire room. The firefighter?s first priority is always to rescue victims. After that, we want to contain the fire to its site. If a fire crew in the example discussed above were to simply make entry and close the door between the house and the garage, another crew could force the vehicle garage door and make an attack there. The fire room?in this case, a garage?has been made into a fire resistive compartment by closing the door and benefiting from built-in fire protection such as installed gypsum board on common walls. Fire crews are now working through a relatively huge opening and from the outside of the fire building. The modified frontal attack method is fast; is easier on personnel; and, if done properly, protects occupants more efficiently.
The frontal attack may be used when two conditions are present: the garage is attached to the house by sharing some portion of an interior wall and the wall has a door installed in it. This door creates a potential opening through which fire and smoke can travel from the garage into the living area.
Most attached garages are built on either side of a house and have a doorway installed between the garage and kitchen or some type of service porch. However, like other aspects of firefighting, there are no absolutes with regard to the location of a garage. Occasionally, houses have garages attached to the rear of the house, where they are less visible from the street. Garages are sometimes found below- or abovegrade from the house. In the western portion of the United States, garages are sometimes separated from the house by a narrow, covered walkway called a breezeway. In some areas, the living quarters may be directly above the garage. The important thing to remember is that these slightly different construction features should not stop you from using the frontal attack method. As long as there is a door between the garage and the house, the problem will be the same, and your fire control tactics should not vary.
A TYPICAL FIRE SCENARIO
Fire companies respond to a reported fire in a residence. On arrival, they find that the fire is in the attached garage of a two-story, single-family home. A size-up shows heavy fire conditions in the garage with some very light smoke in the residence. The fire officer decides to use the modified frontal attack for containment and extinguishment. The first attack line is deployed to the front of the rollup garage door. A second company is assigned to the interior to search for victims and check the condition of the door between the garage and the house. The interior group enters and finds light to moderate smoke conditions inside the house but no fire extension. The door is half open. The interior crew members close the door and notify the incident commander of their action. They also relay that there is no fire extension at this time. The interior group continues with a primary victim search while the fire control group is given the go-ahead to begin extinguishment.
Until the interior group can secure the door, the incident commander must prevent fire control companies from opening hoselines. The fire control group opens the rollup door and begins extinguishment; a second attack line should be added for faster knockdown. Remember, there is plenty of room to operate from the driveway. Meanwhile, the interior group completes its search, and the Oall clearO is given. The fire was easily extinguished in a short period of time. There is no fire extension into the house because you compartmentalized the fire room. It was a relatively easy operation, and it was safe.
What about forcing those residential garage doors? Residential garage doors, both the rollup and slab-design types, are easy to force. Most of these doors are attached to an automatic opener and have no other lock. The mechanism that moves the door up and down is most often plastic and will break with little effort. When confronted with this type of setup, you can force a rollup door by simply prying up from the bottom of the door with a halligan or some other prying tool. Slab doors are even easier; often they can be forced by pulling outward on the exterior handle with a hard jerking motion.
Doors that are bolted closed require a little bit more work. You may have to cut the lock/ bolt if it is exposed. If it is inside, like most rollups, you may have to cut through the door to the lock with a saw. Even an ax will cut through the thin metal on most rollup doors. If you are confronted with a particularly tough door, you can always use a saw to remove the entire door. Overall, most residential garage doors are much easier to force open than a typical front door of the same residence.
Also, do not forget to hold the garage door open with a pike pole. The springs that normally hold it open will be hot from the heat, and you have already broken the automatic opener to gain access.
I have just described a fire attack method for attached residential garages that is safer for firefighters, reduces the chance of fire extension into the house, and is much easier and more efficient than a conventional fire attack strategy. Yet, the fire officer must be aware of the drawbacks of this method. The frontal attack method is based on the assumption that once the interior door is closed, the garage has been compartmentalized?isolated from the rest of the house. Fire spread from fire streams is not a big concern, but fire officers need to be aware of some construction deficits or features that could be a problem with this attack method.
First, drywall (wallboard, gypsum board) is an excellent tool?if it is intact. Many homeowners have modified their homes to increase storage area by cutting a large hole in the drywall between the garage and the house attic. These access holes become a huge problem when the fire is driven through them into the attic. Check the integrity of the wall as soon as possible. If there is a void, check the attic immediately. If the wall is intact, check the attic anyway.
Second, in most western states, the house heating and air-conditioning units are installed in the garage. An aggressive frontal attack may push fire into the ductwork via the furnace. Fires can and do travel through ducting, especially the flexible style in use today. Again, check the attic for fire extension; you may have to open the plenum where the ducting is run to make sure that the fire has not moved into these spaces.
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The fire officer should take advantage of types of built-in fire protection featured in many modern homes. Most jurisdictions require that drywall be installed on at least the walls that are common to the garage and the house. Many cities require that the garage be enclosed with drywall entirely. A 20-minute door is installed between the garage and the house. It may be closed already thanks to the self-closer. If not, have your interior crews close it while they report on conditions inside the house. Interior firefighting is hazardous. Interior firefighting inside of a garage is extremely hazardous. With the proper size-up and well-trained fire crews, the modified frontal attack is a beneficial strategic alternative for garage fires. n
(Top left) Look familiar? The single-family home with an attached garage is found in every city and town. (Right) Toxins, corrosives, flammable liquids, and other hazardous consumer goods stored in the garage pose additional threats for firefighters and civilians. (Bottom left) The frontal attack enables you to avoid this kind of built-in storage hazard. (Photos by author.)
An open door between the garage and the house facilitates the spread of fire and the accompanying noxious smoke and fumes into the house, endangering occupants.
(Top left) This exterior locking bolt is locked in the open position–a sure sign that the door is operated by an automatic garage door opener. (Bottom left) Many garage door openers are partially constructed of plastic and are easy to force open. (Right) When forcing a residential rollup door, drive the blade end of the halligan under the door and pry, trying to break the drive mechanism on the automatic opener. Always secure the garage door with a pike pole to keep it from closing on the crews.
The unprotected opening from the garage into the attic can present huge problems. Fire crews must get in and check the attic for fire extension immediately.
MICHAEL E. HABERSKI, a firefighter since 1976, is a captain in the Petaluma (CA) Fire Department, where he has been an engine company captain since 1990. He is also supervisor of the research and development program, program administrator for hazardous materials response, and a shift training coordinator. He is a registered instructor with California State Fire Training and has community college teaching credentials.