Fireground Size-Up: Check the Rear


You don’t have to be a firefighter in a congested urban city to be mindful of fire conditions in the rear of the building. Buildings of any significant square footage, buildings that are attached in a row, or buildings that extend back from the street for any appreciable distance will require that you take a look at “what is going on in the rear.” In many of what are referred to as “downtown areas,” firefighters will find attached buildings making up the business district in their town. This may be nothing more than a few commercial buildings attached or placed together up to dozens or more that consume an entire city block. In a more common setting in our nation’s cities, firefighters will not only find a number of attached buildings, but they will also often encounter structures that vary in height, square footage, and layout. Additionally, some may have garages and driveways accessible from a rear alley. Others may have small yards that back up to buildings of similar type and design on a parallel street. Still others might present a unique setting in which structures have been erected behind structures on the same parcel of land.




In Jersey City, we refer to the latter structures as “rookeries.” A rookery identifies a building that is built totally in the rear, or behind, another building in what some would have assumed to be a rear yard. Rookery is defined as the “grouping or rambling of buildings in a congested setting” or, as in this case, within a plot of land. This concept was intended to maximize the rental income from a parcel of land that is deeper than it is wider. This concept should sound familiar. This same practice was used for plots of land that are wider than they are deeper. Landowners would erect a row of stores to offset their property taxes in what we still term today as “taxpayers.” Obviously, the thought of building structures behind structures gave no regard to the fire service’s need to access the building for fire suppression. Access to a rookery is often limited through a small alleyway alongside the building in front of it or through a doorway and hallway in the building in front of it. Buildings built around the rookery usually hide its presence. Rookery structures can be framed private dwellings to multifloored apartment buildings.

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(1) The middle door leads to the hallway/rear yard of a rookery. (Photos by author unless otherwise noted.)
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(2) The view at the end of the hallway.
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(3) A Class 3 multiple-dwelling rookery.

Many firefighters who have these structures in their jurisdictions don’t even know that they exist. Barring preincident information, in Jersey City we often seek them out from alarm information that indicates a “½” or an “A” address. For example 110-A or 110½ Main Street in a congested city block points us toward a shared building lot and the probability of a rookery. But, we have also found a rookery sharing the same address as the structure in front of it. We always take extra time to have a look.




Other concerns when we are standing in front of a row of attached buildings are the layout and the square footage of the fire building. Not all structures to which we respond and in which we operate reflect predictable layouts and square footages. Standing in front of a uniform row of building fronts may lead us to assume that they all measure 20 feet wide by 40 feet deep, but they could very well contain a mixed grouping of structures of varying heights, buildings that extend deeper than their neighbors, as well as structures that may wrap around another structure. Unless you and your members frequent those buildings or have preplan information that highlights the concerns, you may be caught off guard when fire begins in or extends to the rear of these types of structures.

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(4) Fire conditions in the rear. [Photo by Alison Ashley, Jersey City (NJ) Fire Department Communications.]

The obvious concern is the need to conduct reconnaissance (recon) of the area. This is more difficult than it sounds. Without a doubt, we should attempt to conduct a multisided, preferably 360° view of the fire building on our arrival, but this is not possible in many situations. The most obvious is when you’re confronted with a significant number of attached buildings, which makes it literally impossible to view the rear of these buildings. In these situations, the quickest way to get a look at the rear is from above.




Ladder company members assigned to the roof have a clear and early advantage to recon the rear of the building. Members assigned to this position will see a much different picture from that seen and assumed from the command post side. Simply, if it looks bad in the front, it could be much worse in the rear.

For a quick assessment of the rear, consider the following: As members go to work on the roof performing their assigned duties, assign one member to walk the “rim” or perimeter of the roof looking over the side for a number of concerns that can be reported to the incident commander (IC).


Roof Radio Report Contents


Following are factors that should be covered in the roof team’s reports to the IC:

  • Fire/smoke on other than the command side. Is fire or smoke showing other than on the command side? Be specific: “Fire showing from three windows on the third floor/rear.”
  • Fire/smoke in an air shaft. Is fire or smoke showing in a shared light/air shaft? Again, be specific. Stating that “it” is heavy in the shaft is not good enough. Is it heavy smoke? Fire? “Fire showing in the shaft on the B side” is better.
  • Occupant life hazard.This is the reason it is important to walk the rim and look over the side. Be observant. Are people hanging out rear windows? Have civilians jumped and are lying in the rear yard? Again, be specific: “A woman is hanging out the fourth-floor window in the rear.” This will also help identify the size of the ladder that must be brought to the rear.
  • Fire extension in the rear. Command must be told if fire is exiting windows and spreading to neighboring exposures by way of the combustible exterior sheathing or if it is extending to the rear of the attached exposure buildings by the same means.
  • Surrounding exposure concerns. The concerns here are the exposure buildings from the adjacent street. In congested areas, fire departments may experience a row of buildings that share small yards and can easily allow fire to spread from the rear of one building across the yard to the rear of another building on the opposite street.
  • Structural add-ons. If the original fire building has a structural add-on—that is, a building extension—or if the building is irregularly shaped, the IC needs to know. A tip for quickly noticing an extension would be a difference in the level of the roof deck. This probably means there is some type of structural add-on.
  • Irregular shaped buildings. If the roof members advise you that the building wraps around the back of the D exposure an additional 50 × 50 feet, this is important.
  • Division walls or parapets.Notify Command if any of these are present in the row.
  • Dead loads. For top-loor/cockloft fires, note the presence of any significant dead loads on the roof—hoppers, air-conditioning units, and water tanks, for example.
  • Roof support/deck system. If you can do so, identify the type of roof support/deck system—bowstring truss or rain roof, for example.
  • Accessibility. Buildings may have limited to almost nonexistent accessibility to the rear. Roof members can advise of the easiest and quickest way to access the rear of the fire building. You may have to go through rear yards of buildings on the parallel street, alleys or narrow driveways, rear yards at the end of the block, or the buildings in front of them to reach the rear yards. Don’t be deterred. Regardless of the accessibility options, resources must get to the rear.

Being able to gather information from all areas of the incident is critical for the IC. When building design and congestion will delay your getting this information, use overhead reconnaissance.

MICHAEL TERPAK has been in the fire service for 34 years; he has spent the past 30 years with the Jersey City (NJ) Fire Department, where he is assigned as a deputy chief and citywide tour commander. Throughout his career, he has worked in the city’s Lafayette and Greenville areas with Engines 10 and 17, Ladder 12, Rescue 1, and as chief of the city’s 2nd Battalion and the former chief in charge of the city’s Training Division. Terpak travels extensively around the country lecturing on fire/rescue topics and is the founder of Promotional Prep, a New Jersey-based consulting firm designed to prepare firefighters and fire officers studying for promotional exams. Terpak has a BS degree in fire safety administration from New Jersey City University and is the author of Fireground Size-Up and Assessment Center Strategy and Tactics (Fire Engineering, 2002 and 2008, respectively).


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