“BREAD AND BUTTER OPERATIONS: THE RANCH-STYLE HOUSE
Fire department response districts can include numerous bouses of various architectural styles. Successful suppression operations in these structures depend on our familiarity with their specific construction features and floor plans—before we are forcer! to view them under “combat’’ conditions.
Although ranch-style houses have a very simple floor plan, they still can present some unique problems for firefighters, like the 2 1/2-story frame, the ranch usually has two entrances to the first floor. The front door opens directly into the living room or an entrance hallway leading to the living rtx>m and other rooms. Rear doors generally are off the kitchen. Occasionally, a third door—either sliding glass or French-style—leads from the dining area to the outside, often a deck or patio area.
In one style of ranch, the kitchen/ dining area is directly behind the living area. The size of the ranch determines whether the kitchen/dining area is a combination room or two separate rooms. Separate rooms usually are found in larger ranches (some newer ones are longer than 100 feet). When separate rooms are present in smaller houses, it usually is possible to go directly into the dining room from the living room and the kitchen. It is not always possible to go directly from the living room to the dining area. The dining area must be accessed through the kitchen unless a portion of the wall separating the living and dining rooms has been removed.
The other popular style of ranch house has a living room that runs completely through the house—from front to rear—with the other rooms leading off this central room. This pattern effectively splits the house into two parts, and the living room should be used, if warranted, to help control or limit fire spread.
In both styles, you will find a hallway running off the living room that leads to the bathroom and the bedrooms. In a three-bedroom house, the bathroom and master bedroom usually are found at the rear of the house. The two smaller bedrooms are toward the front and visible from the street (see illustration opposite page). This design provides more floor area for the master bedroom than for the two smaller rooms at the front of the house; it also provides a more private and quiet setting for the master bedroom, which is farther away from street noises. Smaller houses with the kitchen located behind the living area feature a single pipe chase shared by the bathroom and kitchen from the basement through to the roof. If the house has a second bathroom off the master bedroom, it, too, can use the same pipe chase.
Unless built on a slab, the ranch house will have a basement. The basement frequently has the same dimensions as the first floor, but it will not be broken down into as many rooms.
Ranch-style houses of all sizes may have attached garages. Unless the garage was added after the house was built, it is almost always off the kitchen end of the house. It is extremely rare to find a garage connected to the bedroom end unless restrictions caused by lot size or neighboring structures force this type of addition. If an attached garage is present, you probably will find a door leading from the garage to the kitchen.
As in all house fires, life safety is the primary concern. All members must don full protective clothing and SCBA complete with approved PASS devices. Firefighters, especially those working inside a burning house, should work in teams.
Design advantages. Some features of the ranch house facilitate firefighting operations. Since it is only one story, for example, the house is readily accessible to all personnel. Front doors opening into the middle of the house help contain the fire to one end of the house, which in turn helps us in our searches. Access to the rest of the house from the living room is relatively easy. As soon as the handline is in place and operating, the opposite end of the house can be searched rapidly, since the line provides a “break” in the fire area. All windows can be reached easily, making rapid horizontal ventilation possible. Laddering will be at a minimum unless it is needed to remove attic vents or to access the roof. Even then, only smaller, easily handled ladders are required.
Design challenges. Two features of the ranch house create problems not found in other house styles. These problems involve large, usually open areas. Attics in ranches are rarely divided. Fire entering into the attic area, therefore, can extend to what amounts to a lumberyard of exposed wood. Walkways and storage areas usually are found only in the middle area of the attic, since the roof slope generally makes storage at the outside walls impossible due to height restrictions. This impedes opening the ceiling to try to introduce streams into the attic area. Access to the attic is almost always through a drop-down staircase. Once fire has extended to the attic, it will spread rapidly along the length of the house, feeding on exposed wood and any stored goods. In some cases, this open area also extends out over the attached garage.
The other kind of fire in a ranch house that can tax our resources is a basement fire. In addition to providing the same size/area problems as the attic, the basement, because it is below grade, limits access and ventilation operations. Some basements may have been converted to living areas for use as recreation rooms or bedrooms. Under such conditions, you can expect maze-like floor plans with zero visibility and extremely high heat conditions.
In newer, larger ranch houses, the attic and basement fire areas may exceed 2,400 square feet; 80-foot by 30-foot ranches are not uncommon.
As is the case with other style houses, fire conditions on arrival dictate which hoseline to use. Stretch enough hose to the front of the house to permit rapid advancement into the fire structure. Once inside the house, you should be able to access the fire area without difficulty unless the fire is in the attic or basement. For singleroom fires in the kitchen, living room, or bedrooms, the attack should be made through the front door with a 1 ¾-inch handline.
For a fire that has started in the basement, the tactics should be as follows. Stretch a protective handline to the interior stairs leading to the basement (usually in or near the kitchen), even if this line cannot advance down the stairs. The doors at the top of these stairs usually are not of the best construction; they will fail in an intense fire and allow the fire to extend up into the first floor. If the basement fire is minor, this line can advance down into the basement area and extinguish the fire. Whenever you advance the line at the top of the stairs into the basement, always stretch an additional line to cover the vulnerable position at the top of the stairs. Be careful when try ing to use the interior stairs, as the fire may be drawn to the stairs and intensify’ rapidly as it extends up this natural flue.
When fire or heat conditions prevent handline advance down the inside stairs, you must find an alternate attack route. Outside doors, if present, usually are at the rear of the house and provide additional ventilation and another point for attacking the fire. If conditions prevent entering from this vantage point, place lines through the basement-level windows to darken down the fire so that the lines can advance from interior stairs or exterior doors. If the layout of the basement rooms prevents stream penetration to the seat of the fire by way of the windows, you can use a cellar pipe, if your department has one (see “Cellar Pipes and Bresnan Distributors,” Fire Engineering, August 1992) or cut holes in the first-floor flooring so that a stream can be introduced and the basement can be further ventilated. Eventually, you will have to advance lines into the basement proper to complete extinguishment. When operating above a basement fire, keep in mind that if the cellar area is not finished, the fire already is attacking the unprotected floor joists and flooring. Expect early and rapid failure of unprotected floor assemblies in these circumstances.
Fires that have started in or extended to the attic area necessitate multiple handlines, especially in larger homes. Consider stretching a handline into each area of the house being threatened. One handline is not enough to properly cover all bedrooms, especially if you have to “bounce” back and forth across a hallway and in and out of three separate rooms. The strategy applies to living and kitchen areas as ceilings are opened to expose fire. Be sure lines are in position to hit the extending fire.
Truck company operations at all private house fires—including those of ranch design—must be carried out rapidly and with a purpose. Freelancing only endangers the lives of civilians and firefighters. On arrival, note the locations of the fire and any trapped occupants. Look for other clues that can help you size up and formulate strategies. Take the proper tools for forcible entry to the front door, even if you do not expect entry problems. If they are not needed to gain entry, they may be needed later to force interior doors or to open up walls to look for hidden fire.
Searches. Search teams should enter the house as soon as possible to start a primary search for victims. The location of the fire determines how much of the house is readily accessible to the teams. If the fire is in the rear bedroom, the rest of the house can be searched as the handline is being put into position. If the fire is located in the living room, the problem is serious, since all other rooms and the means of egress will be blocked. Some limited searches may be started by way of the rear door. Remember, however, that the fire will draw toward the open door and that once engine personnel get water, they, too, will push the fire in your direction.
The vent-enter-search (VES) method (Fire Engineering, November 1992, p.73) easily can be used in ranch homes because the first-floor windows are easily accessible. Be aware that in some older ranches, the bedroom windows may be high up on the wall and narrow. Even if you can enter from the exterior, you might have a problem getting out. You would need a bureau or chair to reach this level in the house; and if conditions are deteriorating, this position could rapidly become untenable. Once a firefighter has entered a room through a window, he/she must remember to close the door to that room to limit the spread of smoke and heat into the room. In ranch houses, it is possible to enter a window, perform a search, exit to the outside, and move on to the next room and repeat the process. But remember that horizontal ventilation before a handline is in position can intensify the fire and draw it to uninvolved parts of the house.
(Photo by author.)
In the case of a serious fire in the basement of a ranch house, a search of this level almost always has to wait until the engine has its line in operation. Limited egress to this level, high heat and smoke conditions, and possible maze-like layouts make searches without a protective hoseline very dangerous. Searches on the floor above (the first floor) can start immediately. While searching, be sure to check for signs of extension, especially in the vulnerable pipe chases that run from basement to attic in the vicinity’ of the bathroom and kitchen. Fire can extend up this void and break out in the attic without spreading horizontally on the first floor. Regardless of where the fire is located, completely search the entire house as soon as possible.
Ventilation. Window accessibility, as already noted, makes it possible to rapidly ventilate horizontally when the fire is on the first floor of a ranch house. One or two members with sixfoot hooks should be able to provide the ventilation needed for the engine company’s advancement. Remove all of the glass and any blinds, drapes, or curtains to create an unobstructed opening through which smoke and heat can exit. As previously mentioned, ventilation opportunities for basement fires are limited. If venting the available windows does not permit the engine company to advance, the truck may have to open holes in the first floor for ventilation or to introduce a stream into the basement. If the holes are opened for ventilation purposes only, a handline still must be in place at the opening to prevent the fire from extending to the first floor. Do not operate this stream into the vent hole; use it to cool the surrounding flammable material on which extending fire is impinging.
Vertical ventilation, when needed, also is simplified. Ladders needed to reach the roof can be smaller than those used for taller houses. The low pitch of most ranch-style house roofs makes it possible to operate on them without using a roof ladder. It also allows for safer power saw operation. Because of the large, uncompartmcnted attic area in ranch homes, start vertical ventilation as soon as fire is discovered free-burning in the attic. Iliis does not mean that you should cut a hole in the roof because embers are dropping down from the attic while you’re pulling ceilings. It means that it should not be delayed if fire is visible or smoke and heat conditions indicate that the fire has extended into the attic; otherwise fire will quickly spread throughout this concealed space. To prevent horizontal spread, cut the hole directly over the section where the fire is extending into the attic. As the vent hole is being made, the firefighters inside must find the location from which the fire is extending and knock down the fire. You must also pull ceilings so that a stream can be introduced into the attic area for final extinguishment. Engine and truck personnel must be coordinated to ensure successful operations.
Don’t let the small size and low profile of the ranch house cloud your judgment. Fire in these houses can seriously challenge even the bestprepared fire departments *
(Photo by Tim Klett.)