FIGHTING FIRES IN “MONSTER HOUSES”

BY JEFF Shupe

A trend in today’s residential construction and one that has been growing for some time throughout the country is the development of single-family dwellings of extreme size and volume. In some areas, these homes have been nicknamed “monster houses,” and rightly so. These structures have the size and volume of some large commercial buildings. The potential problems these dwellings can pose during firefighting warrant special attention.


(1) Monster houses like this one can pose gigantic hazards and challenges for firefighters. (Photos by author unless otherwise noted.)

Just what is a “monster house”? Where are monster houses found? A loose definition of a monster house is a single-family dwelling of approximately 8,000 square feet or greater of livable space. Many of these homes are in suburban areas, especially near large metropolitan cities. However, many rural communities also have these homes in their jurisdictions. It is noteworthy that building codes in some communities require a commercial structure of much less square footage to have a sprinkler system on-site but not this single-family monster.

HOME FEATURES

Some of the important features of these of homes include the following:

Lot size, setback. These houses may be situated on land ranging from a 100-foot by 200-foot plot to an estate setting of many acres. The smaller lots may be found in suburban developments; the larger lots may be found in rural areas, where large tracts of land are abundant. There are also irregularly shaped lot configurations. The land’s character may range from a gentle slope to a hillside tract. What may appear to be a large two-story house from the street-side elevation may in fact be four stories in the rear. Some communities allow lots to be far back from the street by using a long easement or “right of way,” and it is possible that several monster homes may use this single access road to get to their properties. This could create an access and placement problem for responding fire apparatus.

Many communities have enacted codes and ordinances to regulate where a building may “sit” on its land. A “setback” is a code process that determines where a structure is allowed to be erected within the lot limits. Further, “setback” defines how far back a structure must be from the front, rear, and side lot lines. This is done to protect property values. It’s also done to stop encroachment on property lines so neighboring structures don’t impose on each other. The lot itself may be on the street or may sit back a considerable distance from the road or street, accessible by a narrow lane or even a private driveway.


2) Single family homes of extreme size, like this one, have living areas that span more than 150 feet in length and an elevator servicing three levels.

For an example of how setback works, take a lot measuring 200 feet in width by 400 feet in depth. Using our example of a particular city’s setback criteria, the front of the house must sit 85 feet back from the front lot line and the rear no closer than 60 feet to the rear lot line. The sides of the structure can be no closer than 20 feet to each of the side lot lines. Theoretically, a monster house of 40,000 square feet could be constructed within these boundaries. Although it’s not likely you will see a house of that size built on a lot of those dimensions, this gives you an idea of just how large a structure could be put on this particular sized lot, using setback criteria.


(3) From the corner, this house appears to be an extremely large 21⁄2-story single-family home, with good access from the street. A living area of approximately 1,000 square feet is over the double two-car garage.

Some homes will sit back quite a distance from the street or road. In many cases, the water supply is located on the street. Long hoselines may have to be supplied from the street. Other areas may not have a nearby municipal water system, so an alternative way of getting water to the structure would have to be preplanned.


(4) The back corner of the same house reveals a third-floor living area above the living area over the garage. You must be aware of unique floor layouts and floor levels common to these large structures. Preplanning during construction and neighborhood tours can alert firefighters to these and other potential problem areas.

A narrow, single-lane driveway will have an impact on apparatus placement and how they gain access to the building. If you have an aerial ladder or tower ladder responding, you must consider access and placement during the preplanning of these homes. In this case, you get only one chance to place apparatus for maximum efficiency and safety.

Unusual floor plan. Because of the uniqueness of these homes, their floor layout is not the typical right-angle style found in most smaller residential dwellings. In fact, firefighters should expect hallways that will run at different angles and have other intersecting halls leading from other areas of the building. Balconies and open staircases are very common, adding to the cavernous interiors. Basements likely will be finished and may have living areas, kitchens, spas, pools, and/or exercise rooms. However, exercise areas can also be found on the upper floors, adding a “weight concern” for firefighters. Also, unusual floor layouts may have the rear of the house as the focal point or main entranceway, along with the main entertaining area, such as outdoor pools, spas, patios, and the like.

Firefighters operating in heavy smoke in this type of building can become disoriented very easily because of the hallways, floor levels, and cavernous interiors. Use of lifelines is advised, or hoselines if fire is suspected. A lower-level fire can create other concerns, especially where spa chemicals are involved. This could lead to a complex fire situation involving hazardous materials.

Sleeping areas. These structures, even though they are termed “single-family dwellings” have more than one area where people may sleep. This is especially true where there are live-in workers who have their own living quarters, separate from the family. In many cases, the parents have their own sleeping area separate from the children’s sleeping area. The owner’s master bedroom quarters are large and have a master bathroom, several walk-in closets, a dressing area, and a spa or exercise room. The children’s sleeping areas may have rooms together, or there may be a separate sleeping area in another part of the home for older children. Whatever the situation, in a smoke condition, firefighters will have numerous areas to account for. Numerous firefighters will be needed for search operations in a severe fire situation.

Living area. Typically, much entertaining takes place in these homes. Because of this, these structures may have two or more complete living areas under one roof. This means possibly two kitchens and two separate living areas, along with dens/studies, sleeping areas, and other facilities. Internally, the living areas may have ceiling heights of nine feet or higher. Atriums and “grand” staircases with wide-open foyers are common; they provide openness to several floors. One such structure had an overhead sky-walkway connecting two areas of the home. The walkway overlooked a two-story library on one side and a grand foyer on the other.


(5) The back side of this house shows several roof styles and floor levels not visible from the front elevation. Landscaping and other obstructions may hinder placement of ground ladders during fire operations. The steep roof angles preclude safe roof ventilation using ground ladders.

Features such as tall cathedral ceilings are common. You may even find an elevator in the house, especially if the house is three stories or higher. The same hazards found in taller buildings are present in these houses. Fire, heat, and smoke from a lower-level fire can enter the shaft and travel throughout the structure, quickly spreading fire to all upper floors. The elevator car may become incapacitated in the shaftway, trapping anyone using it. Firefighters should not use the elevator for access during firefighting operations. A dumbwaiter shaft is another vertical artery that might be found in these homes. Firefighters should be prepared to lay hoselines to cover these points of extension in a fire.


(6) Because of the length of these houses, firefighters may have to carry ground ladders and tools a considerable distance to the point of their use. Fighting fires under these conditions require firefighters to be in good physical condition and of sufficient strength to meet the demands of this fireground. (Photo by Greg Gettens.)

The volume of fire, its location within the structure, and its internal extension will affect firefighting operations and personnel resources. You must have enough firefighters on the scene to cover the critical areas. With higher ceilings and areas beyond the reach of normal hand tools, firefighters may need to bring ground ladders inside to reach some areas within the structure.

Roof. Roof styles in these structures vary. However, one thing is certain: They will be large and dramatic. In building construction classes for firefighters, we are taught that the job of the roof is to keep the elements out of the interior and that the roof is the “cheapest” part of the building. That is not the case here. Many local regulations or deed restrictions call for roof angles to “decorate the sky” by reaching as high as possible; thus, steep pitches are the norm. The roof will be a large, heavy dead load overhead. Of concern to the firefighter are the roof-supporting system, most likely a network of trusses, and, of course, how much weight is overhead. If this system is being attacked by the fire, expect collapse.

If your fire department does not have an aerial apparatus, it’s time to start thinking about it. Access to these roofs creates an operating hazard for personnel, especially under firefighting conditions. Many fire departments are now carrying 35-foot ground ladders on their engines because of what is being constructed in their communities. In the meantime, you need to have a good mutual-aid or automatic response system in place. Nothing takes the place of working safely from an aerial ladder or a tower platform, especially at the angles and heights of these structures.

Security. Of course, security will be a concern. In most cases, security forces are encountered before you enter the structure. Fire apparatus may have to go through a gateway to get into the property. Iron gates at the entrance will stop apparatus from entering the property until they are opened. This slows your response into the structure and may give a small working fire the chance to develop into something much larger, even if fire departments are notified by an automatic fire alarm system. Doors to the house are substantial and may have heavy-duty locking mechanisms. Some of the doors are solid wood and larger than those normally found in average-size structures. Windows may be sealed and nonopening, made even more substantial because of glass thickness and the number of panes. Many homes may have a courtyard to access before entering the house. Decorative wrought-iron gates may be covering windows and doors.

    (7) Large, open spaces and lack of compartmentation can lead to a quick-spreading fire that will easily extend to other areas of the home. During live-burn training, this fire in its beginning stages grew with lighting speed to involve the open foyer, spreading to the second floor, over the skywalk, and into the two-story library on the other side of the house. A 21⁄2-inch attack line with a 11⁄8-inch solid bore nozzle and two 13⁄4-inch attack handlines from interior positions were used to achieve knockdown. (Photo by Greg Gettens.)

In some parts of the country, “hurricane shutters” are installed over windows and doors so the residents can literally encapsulate the home to protect from severe weather conditions. When in the operating position, these shutters act like security doors found in inner-city neighborhoods; they create forcible entry concerns for firefighters. Because they are designed to keep out the environment, a fire could burn unnoticed for some time, creating for arriving firefighters the potential for a backdraft or a quick-spreading fire when the structure is opened up. Appropriate tactics should be used to protect firefighters and deploy a large handline should the situation deteriorate.

This is not the typical frame structure where you might be able to beat your way in through an outside wall. (On the other hand, a firefighter should think about what is needed to get out of this structure should a self-survival situation arise.) Doors are thicker and heavier and may have several lock mechanisms that might present a challenge to unprepared firefighters. Preplan the tools and methods you will need to gain access to these structures. Another thing to watch for is the four-legged security systems.

BUILDING MATERIALS/CONSTRUCTION TYPE

In most cases, these homes will be of type V construction, but that is not to say that a different type may not be used. Some of these houses have been built utilizing steel structural framing systems. Exterior walls of wood frame may be of 2-inch by 6-inch studding, sheathed in plywood or oriented strand board (OSB). In some cases, metal studs are used instead of wood. The exterior finish may be of any material such as brick, stone, stucco, wood siding, vinyl, or any combination thereof. The interior wall finish will probably be of 58-inch drywall, but rooms finished in wood, oak or maple tongue-and-groove boards, may have a backer like 12-inch plywood, which can create a substantial wall thickness. Framing in some areas of the home may be solid wood joists, box beams, or wooden I-beams; other areas may include trusses, especially when spanning open living areas or living areas above home gyms or racquetball courts. Wooden glue-laminated beams and arches may be used in libraries, ballrooms, and other areas of the home that host large numbers of people. Heavy masonry finishes on floors are common, as are large masonry fireplaces. These items can be a collapse potential especially if fire is underneath and burning their supporting systems.

FIRE LOAD/POTENTIAL

In most cases, fire load should be keyed to the type of building occupancy. In residential fires, we expect a class A type of fuel, in both the contents and structure. Because of the size and volume of the interior living areas, there is a good chance for a large fire to develop, especially if a fire is undetected for an extended time. Because of the lack of compartmentation, fires will have a ready fuel supply and can grow quickly and involve several areas internally in a short time. Some local governments are looking at requiring residential home sprinkler systems in these structures because of their size. Attached garages may house as many as six vehicles, creating another type of fire/fuel concern. There may also be storage or living areas over this space.

Like the many different types of building fires to which the fire service responds, tactics should be specific to that problem. Firefighters need to look at these buildings as a new fire problem to deal with and develop appropriate strategies and tactics for them. These structures require special firefighting considerations. When encountering a working fire in one of these structures, attacking the fire with large handlines should be considered. A small developing fire could quickly spread and possibly overpower a smaller handline because of the type of fuel, surface area, and size of the structure.

Training and experience in fighting fires in a monster house are going to come along slowly because of the low number of fires in them. It may be hard for firefighters and officers to understand the potential that exists should such a fire occur. Should you be given an opportunity to acquire a monster house to train in, it is something you must do. If there is a chance for live-fire training, by all means take advantage of it, but do not get carried away with how much fire you can create. The speed and volume of fire can surprise even the most experienced firefighters.

AN OPPORTUNITY TO TRAIN

During the summer of 2003, a monster homeowner went to his local fire department in Westlake, Ohio, and asked the officers if they would like his home for training, Of course, the answer was a resounding yes. It just happened that the owner needed his 11,000-square-foot home demolished so he could build a new 15,000-square-foot home on the same site. The fire department obliged and secured all proper paperwork and permits to conduct live-burn training.

This type of opportunity comes along once in a career, and a plan was put in place to maximize the training, making it available to as many firefighters as possible from Westlake and surrounding departments. In the end, 75 firefighters from four fire departments participated in the training.

The structured training had all participating firefighters take classroom sessions first, which covered basic fire attack principles, hoseline selection, incident command, fireground organization, rapid intervention, and a discussion on the “commercial-size” residential structure.

When the classroom sessions were completed, firefighters moved outside to work with 134– and 212-inch attack handlines, each equipped with solid bore nozzles for attack. Nozzle pressures, friction losses, nozzle mechanics, and hoseline management were covered in the hands-on training.

There were also evening training sessions during which the firefighters performed walkthroughs of the entire structure, noting the home’s features and floor and room layouts. Afterward, firefighters participated in search drills using thermal imaging cameras after the structure had been filled with theater smoke created by two smoke machines.

The live-fire training was conducted over three days and was very successful, much because of the size of the structure. Each day saw at least six good “all hands” fires, with seven fires on one day and nine on another. On several occasions, the fires extended and gave firefighters a run to contain them, but they performed admirably. In one evolution, the fire grew so quickly that interior-attack operations called for one 212-inch attack line and two 134-inch lines for knockdown and containment. And, of course, the building availed itself to more of our abuse.

In the end, a critique was held to discuss some of the things we noticed regarding the training sessions.

LESSONS LEARNED

The lessons learned included the following.

Apparatus access/placement: This home had a single-lane, 400-foot-long driveway coming from the street, which was the only access to the property. It was realized early in our planning that apparatus placement was an important issue.

With actual structural firefighting, the arrival of the first fire company must consider the other responding units. If you are the first-due engine, you must think about truck placement along with the potential for fire travel or spread.

The driveway may be a long, narrow lane. The ground on either side of the pavement may be soft and unable to support heavy vehicles moving about or turning around. Another question is how will you get water to the fire building? In actual fire situations, the water source may be several hundred feet away and may have to be pumped or relayed to an attack engine. The supply hose may have to be hand-stretched, which would be a labor-intensive, time-consuming part of fire attack. If the fire is large and spreading quickly, heavy streams will be needed. Again, this is an apparatus placement concern.

The incident commander’s (IC) position: Because these homes may be in communities where fire forces are lacking in resources, a good mutual-aid or automatic response system is imperative. In any case, initially, a good working fire in a building of this size is going to require between 25 and 30 firefighters organized into several engine and truck companies just to cover the basics. If you compare this size building with a commercial structure of equal size, you can better understand the personnel requirements needed for coverage.

The IC needs to be mobile, especially in the early part of the fire, so that he may see all sides of the fire building. During our live-fire training, we clearly saw two different pictures of the same working fire between side A and side C in some scenarios. There was a medium smoke condition and no visible fire at side A, while at the rear (side C), fire was venting heavily from the windows, indicating a much more serious condition. Visually seeing this is important for an IC so that he has a better picture of what his firefighters are going into and so he can gauge the effectiveness of their attack and safety. Along with that, the IC may be able to read the fire’s travel potential and see if water is reaching the fire by looking for changes in flame and smoke conditions.

Communications are critical, as with any structural fire; but because of the size and area to be covered in this fire, good, factual information must be relayed by radio to all members so that they can stay in touch with what is happening.

As for other fire units responding and arriving, simply to find the IC, they should maintain company concept and notify the IC by portable radio that they are on the scene and are located at a certain spot on the fireground. In this disciplined manner, no freelancing takes place, and the IC can assign resources easily, knowing their location.

Fire attack: Statistically, most fires in residential or commercial structures are handled with one or two 134-inch handlines. Minimum flow per attack handline should be at least 150 gpm. Although this size of attack is very effective on most fires (180 gpm when a 1516-inch solid bore nozzle is used), firefighters must never become lulled into complacency thinking that the 134-inch attack line can handle any size fire that comes along. Remember, large buildings can make large fires!

Looking at the depth and volume of these houses, a large fire may require fire streams that discharge far more gallons per minute than firefighters are normally accustomed to. Along with greater gallons per minute is the need for streams with greater reach and penetration. Firefighters should be capable of deploying 212-inch attack hand-lines quickly and easily when necessary. The solid bore nozzle should be used for these attack lines.

Along with more powerful streams, the larger-diameter handlines can supply larger flows over greater distances, as longer stretches may be necessary. Keep in mind that fires in these structures, like many other large buildings, may require several attack hoselines to confine and extinguish all fire spread. The need for multiple attack hoselines affects a fire department’s engine company apparatus and the number of attack hosebeds. Attack lines should be loaded to play out easily with the nozzle attached and no adapters. Local fire departments need to look at their community’s fire potential and see if their engine hosebeds can provide multiple attack lines of sufficient diameter and length that can be put into service quickly at a fire.

Greater fire attack flows require large-diameter supply lines capable of supplying water to the fireground over longer distances. Fire departments need to train and preplan on the most efficient and time-saving ways to get water on a fire.

Other points to consider are the number of engines available for response and coverage of the fire building, exposures, and water relays and estimated response times.

Ventilation/forcible entry: Any structure fire requires truck work. Because of the nature of these houses (i.e., size, type of materials, construction methods, building security, for example), these homes require extra forcible entry considerations. As mentioned before, operating on a peaked roof will most likely require a platform or an aerial ladder from which firefighters can work. Again, apparatus placement is going to be a concern, so preplanning these structures in advance is necessary. If ground ladders are needed to accomplish ventilation of the rear or sides of a structure, keep in mind that firefighters may have to carry ladders and tools a considerable distance from the apparatus to the point of operation. Longer ground ladders may be needed to reach some areas.

These structures may be “overbuilt,” meaning that there will be more mass and density of materials. An example we found was in a party room where the walls and ceiling were finished in tongue-and-groove oak planking. Firefighters using hand tools were having trouble trying to open them. As we finally opened a small hole after some extra effort (along with some accusatory language), we found the oak planking was one-inch-thick tongue and groove backed by 12-inch-thick plywood. Any fire running behind walls or ceilings is obviously going to have some headway before openings large enough to get water through are made. In this case, getting ahead of the fire and opening up are imperative.

Search and rescue: Depending on the extent of fire and its location, firefighters will have a larger than normal area to search compared with other residential structures. It may take a couple of search crews to cover those areas closest to the fire. With that in mind, consideration must be given to the number of personnel who will be available for the tasks required. With a low number of personnel initially available, it may be necessary to perform only extinguishment at first. As the numbers of personnel and resources build, priority assignments would then be given until all areas of the structure have been accounted for.

Tools that may enhance rescue efforts, such as thermal imaging cameras, will help firefighters to cover larger areas; however, training to learn the camera’s limitations and how the searching firefighters will coordinate and maintain themselves must be determined in training drills before any active firefighting with the camera takes place.

Automatic aid/mutual aid: Most fire departments do not have enough personnel to properly attack a fire in a structure of this size-or any other structure of comparable size, for that matter. It is imperative from a safety standpoint that good response agreements exist with neighboring communities. If these agreements are not in place, they need to be developed so that adequate resources can be brought together to handle these situations. Fire officers need to know how many personnel are available to respond, along with things like how many engines, ladders, or other types of apparatus and equipment there are.

After resource and response plans have been agreed on, training is the next important item to establish. It is one thing to cover for another community’s EMS calls, but it’s an entirely different thing to work with other fire departments at working fires. One incident command system for all departments in the participating response system must be established. Communications and terminology along with standardization of radio hardware must take place. (A large percent of fireground problems are related to communications.)

Fire apparatus should be looked at for standardization of attack capabilities so that when firefighters from different communities work together and are given assignments, they will have some degree of familiarity with the equipment. A couple of examples are hosebeds and their capacities, along with types of nozzles. Body styles and cabinetry are other things that can be considered. Future apparatus and equipment specifications could be developed jointly by fire departments. Again, nothing takes the place of training together with other departments on a regular basis.

The monster house is not a new fire problem to the American fire service. It has been around for decades and is actually growing in many new areas, especially those cities, towns, and rural areas that have not seen them before. It may pose a serious potential problem for fire departments, especially those with limited resources and knowledge or training. As with most fire situations, good, coordinated, aggressive fire operations can be the difference between saving lives and property and not saving them. However, because of the nature and size of these residential homes, fire departments need to take a look in their own communities to see if these houses exist, and, if so, to determine how to overcome these potential operational problems before they happen.

Preplan, and have discussions, on-site inspections (perhaps with owners present), and hands-on drills.

JEFF SHUPE is a career firefighter with more than 30 years of service. He is a firefighter in Cleveland, Ohio, and a former volunteer firefighter. He is a certified fire instructor for the State of Ohio and has served as training coordinator for volunteer and full-time fire departments. He has an associate degree in fire technology from a local community college and attended the University of Cincinnati Fire Protection Engineering program. He is an FDIC H.O.T. team member for Engine Company Operations and an FDIC classroom presenter.

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