Multifamily Dwelling Fire Lessons

BY TRACY J. RAYNOR

At 0426 hours on August 15, 2006, the Boise (ID) Fire Department responded to a reported fire in a multiple family dwelling located at the corner of Curtis and Overland Roads. The caller reported to dispatch that “there were flames everywhere”; prior to disconnecting, the caller stated, “It just blew up.” After receiving this updated information from the dispatch center, the chief from the second battalion ordered a second alarm at 0429 hours, which brought a response of five engines, two trucks, two battalion chiefs, an incident safety officer, and a number of command staff.

The structure was a two-story, wood-frame multiple family dwelling approximately 50 feet wide by 150 feet long, consisting of 16 apartments, eight per floor. The building used traditional wood framing members; no lightweight engineered wood members were used. At each end of the building, four apartments (two per floor, set side by side) faced four similarly arranged apartments across a breezeway. Two sets of four apartments, set back wall to back wall, were between the end apartments. A common attic area extended from end to end over the apartments and breezeways. The fire building was one of 10 in the apartment complex. There was a manual “pull station” installed in the building. The closest exposure was 25 feet away.

The first-arriving engine company on-scene reported 25-percent involvement, with heavy fire showing on the D side of the building. The company officer passed command to Battalion 2. The fire involvement was concentrated in the breezeway area between the apartments at the northwest corner. This also blocked the main egress of many occupants. A post-fire analysis showed that there was debris and old furniture in the breezeway, creating a large fire load. It also appears that the fire started in the breezeway and extended to the first- and second-floor apartments.

The first-arriving engine company stretched a 2½-inch line to the breezeway area to protect the means of egress; a second 2½-inch line was placed into service to assist the first line in the D side breezeway (photo). Crews reported little effect on the fire with both lines operating in the area. This indicated how heavy the fire involvement was in the top-floor apartments on the D side (photo).


Photo by author.

The second-in engine provided water supply, and an additional engine was assigned to stretch another line to the B side of the apartment building to protect egress in that end of the building. The first-due truck company started a primary search in the fire area; because of access problems, the truck performed vent-enter-search (VES) on the first-floor apartments on the D side of the building.

The third-due engine went to the B side of the apartment building and reported fire showing from the attic. There was no draftstopping in the attic. Command assigned the second truck (from the second alarm) to assist in evacuation and primary searches of the apartment building.

At 0433 hours, command was advised of a burn victim located in an apartment across from the burning structure, and at 0443 hours, Command received a report of a second victim suffering chest pains at the same location. The fire victims were located and treated by the county ambulance system.

Command requested the Boise Police Department to shut down traffic in the area at 0435 hours. Command had received all-clear reports for all of the exposed apartments within the fire building, but this did not include two apartments on the D side of the structure, because of heavy fire involvement. At 0445 hours, Battalion 3 reported to Command that fire was starting to show through the roof and suggested the use of elevated master streams. Twenty minutes into the fire, Command requested a third alarm; this brought two additional engines, a battalion chief, and some remaining Command staff.

Lines were placed for exposure protection; an elevated master stream started operating from the building’s A/D corner, and several large handlines were in service on the D side apartments. Command announced that operations at the D side of the building would be defensive; this was confusing to crews operating at the B end of the building.

Command reorganized the fireground and assigned crews to pull ceilings in the apartments on the B side of the building to attack and cut off the cockloft fire to protect these units. This was completed in conjunction with the elevated master stream attack on the D end of the building. This tactic worked well; the four top apartments in the B end of the building received only minor interior damage.

At 0555 hours, Command reported fire control; units were assigned to begin salvage operations and secondary searches, reporting all clear on all secondary searches at 0609 hours. Command worked with the Red Cross to relocate citizens affected by the fire and began rotating fire crews through rehab.

* * *

Using an aggressive attack strategy to protect the egress points and VES searches enabled us to limit the number of fire victims and fire damage. Limited staffing required that additional units be requested to assist in the strategic plan; Battalion 2 requested the second alarm early, which helped put the plan into action. Company officers have a good understanding of their limitations for initial operations and how critical it is to start the basic plan in the right direction; this allows the chief to easily build on that plan instead of starting over. This incident helped reinforce standard operating procedures and training related to strategy and tactics.

LESSONS LEARNED

• If possible, first-in officers should do a 360° walkaround to determine if there is a life safety issue and to observe the fire conditions at the rear of the structure.

• Despite the fact that heavy fire cut off occupant egress in the breezeway, no rescues had to be performed, as everyone had self-evacuated prior to our arrival. This would not always be the case; expect to find victims and the need to perform ladder rescues in apartments whose occupants are incapable of getting out of the building in such situations.

• In areas with limited access, engine companies must consider truck company needs in apparatus placement.

• All companies on the fireground must understand which side is designated as the A side; this assists in assigning companies. In this fire, the address side was not the designated A side.

• Command should use Groups and Divisions early in a rapidly expanding fire incident.

• Obtaining apartment complex maps and occupant registers will assist the commander in making informed strategic decisions.

• Use outside agencies to assist in sheltering displaced occupants. At this incident, the Red Cross did a great job even though we requested its help late in the incident.

• The Boise Police Department assisted in moving displaced residents to nearby shelters.

TRACY J. RAYNOR has more than 25 years of fire service experience and is the deputy chief of training and safety for the Boise (ID) Fire Department. He has served on engine and truck companies and also on the hazardous materials team. Raynor has developed company officer development and other training programs and has taught for four years as an FDIC H.O.T. instructor.

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