By Michael J. Lopina
They have been around for years but are not always easily recognizable: multi-family dwellings converted from single-family dwel-lings. These conversions can be found in almost any urban or suburban area from upper-middle-class to poorer sections of town. Typically, they are located in college neighborhoods and in former upscale neighborhoods that have changed over the years. The building at a quick glance may appear to be a large single-family house, but it may in fact be subdivided into as many as eight to 10 apartments ranging from three bedrooms or more to a studio or single-room occupancy (SRO).
(1) This building has five mailboxes to four gas hookups. Until a few months ago, this house also had only four electrical hookups. It now has six working meters. (Photos by author.)
IDENTIFYING THE STRUCTURE
One of the quickest ways to identify this type of conversion is to look at the mailboxes on or in front of the house. Usually, each apartment will have its own mailbox along with the corresponding apartment number. Typically, the building has only its existing street address but will use an apartment numbering system.
Take a closer look, and you will be able to find and count the utilities. In a typical converted building, the number of service drops will match the number of units. For example, six electrical and gas meters mounted on the outside of the building would indicate that there are six apartments. But BEWARE! This does not always hold true. In many cases, a larger apartment has been subdivided even more, resulting in units sharing a gas and electric meter.
Always pay attention to buildings in your district. Knowledge of any building’s characteristics may come in handy at a later date.
Also, exterior doors do not always give an accurate count of units. Make sure the door you are entering is the one that leads to the incident!
(2) A hot dog stand was built off the existing house. In time, an addition was built on the rear of the house to accommodate an apartment. Note the house is of balloon-frame construction.
INSIDE THE STRUCTURE
When you enter the structure, you may find that things are not as they seem from the outside. What once may have been an opening to a stately dining room may now be a door leading to an entire apartment complete with kitchen and bath.
Expect hidden hazards such as removed or rearranged load-bearing walls. In houses where additions were made to the existing structures, void spaces between, above, and below units can make an already complicated fire that much more intense. Most of these buildings are older and may be of balloon-frame construction, requiring additional companies to adequately find, control, and extinguish the fire.
In older, urban neighborhoods that have declined over the years, these buildings may be in a less than ideal state of repair. If they have been illegally converted (and they often have been), exits may not be adequate and utilities may have been jumped to save the tenant or owner money. Such practices make an already unsafe building that much more dangerous. Be aware that some buildings may have seen previous fire activity.
(3) Although this building appears to be abandoned, do not assume it is. In many lower-income areas, this may be the only shelter some people can afford. Beware of illegal hookups in these situations.
While preplanning or conducting district familiarization tours, be sure to look for signs of illegal hookups to utilities. Be aware of extension cords going from one window to another. Check the exterior to see how many units there are and if the doors and utilities match. Almost all building codes require two means of egress to every unit. In the illegal conversions, not only will that be sidestepped, but several apartments may also share the same door. As with any building in a high-crime area, be on the lookout for burglar bars and other security devices that may hamper forcible entry efforts and victim egress.
It is important to find these buildings in your community and identify the added hazards. These dwellings are no longer typical single family and also may not have been originally built as an apartment. Be aware of the dangers. Just as important, notify your local building code official of the location of illegal conversions that you have identified. Anytime your company responds to one of these buildings, most likely on an EMS or service call, take the time to look around after the incident winds down. Note, for example, how narrow halls and steep staircases independent of existing means of egress may complicate removing a patient.
As with any building, you must perform a complete walk-around of this type of building on fire. This is one of the most overlooked job functions of company and chief officers, and the results have been tragic for civilians and firefighters. Make this a habit! Walk around and check all four sides for hazards, trapped civilians, escape routes, and the possibility of a walk-out basement. Don’t confine yourself to the front of the building!
Michael J. Lopina has been a firefighter for 15 years and is currently a career firefighter in Lockport, Illinois. He is also a fire science instructor at two local community colleges and a local fire academy.