The term “garden apartment” applies to a grouping of apartments within a building of varying types of construction. Often, many of these buildings are grouped together to form a complex. On average, buildings can range in height from two to four stories. Many are set back on sloped terrains and grassy areas, causing immediate accessibility and operational concerns.

“Townhouse” is a term applied to a single-family dwelling, which also may be of varying types of construction. These buildings are attached to several other buildings within a complex. On average, buildings can range in height from one to three stories and are grade level or have underground parking. What is referred to as “the modern day row house” presents new challenges to responding firefighters.

(1) Garden apartment.


(2) Townhouse. (Photos by author.)



Following is an operational review consisting of 15 size-up factors. These factors are designed to give sensory cues to firefighters and fire officers, initial concerns for the first-due engine and ladder companies, and operational considerations for the chief officer.


The garden apartment and townhouse hosts varying methods and types of construction. In both types of occupancies, firefighters can find construction methods representative of Type 3 (ordinary), Type 5 (wood frame), and Type 2 (noncombustible) construction, all with varying uses of lightweight building materials.

The firefighter and fire officer’s primary construction concern when responding to a fire in a garden apartment and townhouse is the use of truss design supporting systems, cold form steel, and prefabricated or modular designs.

Truss supporting systems are often found in the building’s roof and floor designs. When these systems are present within any building design, it is critical that firefighters and fire officers prioritize their efforts to determine if the fire is beyond the contents and attacking the structural members. With the primary focus being on lightweight wood designed trusses, keep in mind that significant research has shown that a fire attack on lightweight wood trusses will produce early structural failure. For this reason, quickly determining the fire’s location and extent is key to your members’ operational safety. To assist with the decision making, fire officers must prioritize the use of thermal imaging in the building. Preincident information identifying the locations of the lightweight trusses, combined with the early identification of their involvement, is key to a successful operation.

Another significant concern when sizing up construction is the possible presence of cold form steel within the building design. The garden apartment and townhouse building industry is using cold form steel more extensively for partition walls, bearing walls, and floor joist replacements. You must fully understand how the fire may affect these structural members. Thin-gauge designs and unprotected or exposed structural members are the primary concerns. Any time a fire officer considers the effect of fire on steel, the key considerations must focus around the thickness of the steel and the temperature of the fire. With this in mind, the generation of British thermal units (Btus) commonly associated with a residential building fire can easily affect the structural integrity of cold form steel.


When reviewing the occupancy size-up factor, you must consider two areas: the contents of the building and the number of people in the building. Regarding contents, expect that materials most common to a residential dwelling unit will be stored within the structure. These materials may range from ordinary combustibles to propane cylinders for the BBQ grill to paints and solvents; all will present difficulties if involved in fire.

Concerning occupants, the number of people any given building can house is unpredictable. Fire officers should keep in mind that the townhouse is considered a single-family dwelling attached to another single-family dwelling unit. On the other hand, the garden apartment complex must be viewed and approached as an apartment building with many individual apartments served off a common public hallway, all under one roof. This fact alone will definitely influence your decision making.

(3) Preset hosebed of 21/2-inch hose with a gated wye.


Apparatus Staffing and Operations

This size-up factor includes concerns associated not only with staff-ing and response but also significant concerns arising from terrain setbacks and street conditions that often plague first-arriving companies.

  • Engine company considerations. Operations for the engine company at a fire that involves a garden apartment and townhouse focus around the company’s ability to establish a water supply, select and stretch the proper size hoselines, and quickly extinguish the fire. In many instances this may seem easy, but both types of buildings can present difficulties, most notably with apparatus placement and the company’s operation.

Preplanning of the streets, building layouts, and accessibility and having familiarity with the terrain associated with the complex are key to the effectiveness of apparatus placement. Garden apartment and townhouse complexes may be on streets that make it difficult to establish attack and supply positions. The streets may be long, narrow, and winding and may have dead ends, which can complicate initial placement. Fire departments accustomed to one way of establishing and obtaining water may find it difficult to deliver quick and sufficient water on the fire when confronted with an incident in one of these complexes. Initially, thoughts of arriving units, when nothing is showing, must focus around investigation, and then direction. Committing most or all of the alarm assignment to the reported street address may not be the best course of action, especially in complexes with known mobility problems. Identify the difficult areas, and plan ahead.

Proper hoseline selection and stretch methods are critical for the operation of the first hoseline. Depending on the complex, the closest engine company to the fire building may require a 200- to 300-foot stretch to reach the front door of the complex, let alone the number of additional lengths needed to cover the entire apartment or townhouse. If the apparatus hosebed is not set up for long hose stretches, members must be taught and trained to put into motion the steps that will ensure that the hoseline will have enough volume to do the job once the line is at its intended destination. In many towns and cities that respond to locations with these types of setback concerns, engine company hosebeds are preset to handle the long hose stretches. Preset 21/2- or three-inch hose with a gated wye or manifold stretched to the front door or courtyard allows for the stretching of a number of smaller and more mobile hoselines into the building (see photo 3).

  • Ladder company considerations. Efficient and effective ladder company operations for the garden apartment and townhouse will, again, depend on preplanning and identifying any difficulties with apparatus maneuverability and placement. Complexes that have long, narrow streets with buildings set back off the street and with limited accessibility can quickly trap a poorly placed ladder company. You need to know where you can get in and where you can get out, and you must plan ahead for a potential operation.

Operations can be further restricted when sloped and decorative landscaping and terrain are present. Placing ground ladders to specific areas at a townhouse or garden apartment complex may require the placement of a 40- or 50-foot ground ladder to allow firefighters to access the roof of a two- or three-story building. Positioning a ground ladder and then finding that you can’t reach the target height will cause a serious delay in achieving the objective. Preincident size-up is the key again.

When operations begin, priorities will focus around forcible entry, ventilation, and occupant searches. Forcible entry for the garden apartment and townhouse will for the most part focus around conventional means. There will be additional challenges in this area, but they seem to be limited to the building’s storage areas.

You must be able to identify key ventilation options in all operations. Vertical ventilation considerations for the ladder company in garden apartment and townhouse complexes vary according to the building’s design and construction. Knowing the design type and the construction methods used will greatly aid ventilation efforts when the fire is located on the top floor or extending into the roof space. Of particular concern in this area is the construction method used to support the roof deck. For many buildings, firefighters must anticipate the use of a truss-designed roof and floor supporting systems. When these building systems are present, identifying the fire extent and degree of involvement is crucial. From visual observations, reconnaissance reports, and the use of thermal imaging, fire officers must determine the level and type of commitment in these areas. Committing members on top of or below this type of supporting system is highly risky. Work on this type of constructed roof should be attempted only from the protection of a bucket or an aerial ladder. Remember that failure of a truss in a roof or floor design will drop the affected area from load bearing wall to load bearing wall.

The fire’s location will identify occupant searches. Primary areas of concern will be the fire floor, the floor above, and the floors directly below; there should also be an overall concern for the apartment or dwelling’s bedroom areas. As with any residential search, the firefighters should attempt to start the search nearest the fire room and work their way out and away from the immediately threatened areas. Searchers should be protected and coordinated through effective hoseline placement and ventilation movement. Protecting firefighters in these efforts while limiting fire spread are important for an effective and safe outcome.

Life Hazard

Life hazard concerns for the firefighter are in many respects similar to those for private and multiple dwellings. What will stand out as a specific concern in the garden apartment and townhouse is that it is a truss-designed building. Anytime fire extends beyond the contents of the building and starts to attack the structural members, the risk to firefighters increases dramatically. Firefighters and fire officers have to use a calculated approach when a truss-designed area is threatened or involved. Using thermal imaging to assist with identifying the fire’s location and extent becomes critical when assessing the degree of involvement. Knowing where it is and where it is going is necessary to ensure a safe operation.

The following recommendations will enhance risk management in truss-designed garden apartments and townhouses:

  • On arrival, identify the fire’s location and extent.
  • Verify if you are dealing with a contents or a structure fire.
  • Identification aids will include thermal imaging, inspection openings in ceilings and floors, and visual observations.
  • If the truss-involved fire cannot be immediately controlled:

—Notify the Interior Division and/or Command.

—Withdraw all forces from the involved area.

—Complete the primary search without unnecessary risk.

  • Attempt to isolate the fire spread from safe/refuge areas.
  • Focus all operations around the protection of your firefighters.

The fire’s location will identify occupant life hazard concerns. Primary areas of concern will be the fire floor, the floor above, and the floors directly below; there should also be an overall concern for the apartment or dwelling’s bedroom areas. As with any residential search, the firefighters should attempt to start the search nearest the fire room and work their way out and away from the immediately threatened areas. Searches should be protected and coordinated through effective hoseline placement and ventilation movement. Protecting firefighters in these efforts while limiting fire spread is important for an effective and safe outcome.


Terrain concerns focus around buildings that are set back from the street or accessible area and those surrounded by sloped topography. In both situations, challenges will focus around engine and ladder company placement and operations. The challenges—from longer hose stretches to difficulty with ground placement and operations—will have to be viewed and addressed well before the incident occurs.

Water Supply

Water delivery concerns for the garden apartment and townhouse complex can be very different from the routine residential fire. Fire officers must be prepared for specific complexes that require long hose stretches. Orders given to firefighters stretching and operating a hoseline into a curbside occupancy are going to be very different from those given for one set back from the street or an accessible area. Bringing a larger hoseline that can be branched into smaller hoselines to the front door of the building works extremely well for long-hose-stretch occupancies. Be aware that many complexes of these types use private fire hydrants, which typically are not well maintained.

(4) Townhouses appear as individual dwelling units attached to each other, similar to row housing. In some complexes, two or three attached units may share a common roof.


Auxiliary Appliances and Aides

Detection and suppression equipment for the garden apartment and townhouse varies according to a number of factors, such as when the structures were built, local code enforcement, and the square footage of the complex. Generally, both types of buildings have smoke detectors in the living spaces, the public hallways of the garden apartment complex have smoke detectors, and some complexes have sprinkler systems. Taller townhouse complexes have standpipe systems. Aides or people who may be on-site within some of the complexes may include building maintenance, the complex’s security staff, or a property manager. All can assist you with a number of items if you know they are there.

Street Conditions

We know from some of our previous size-up factors that there is no definite and easy geometric pattern to the streets in many of these complexes. Many will be winding and, often, narrow in an attempt to provide aesthetics or to capture views in the neighborhood. Depending on the building’s arrangement within the street layout, one building may actually have two different street names. You may find the reference of Maple Street on one side and Oak Street on the other.

What can add even more confusion is the method used to letter and number the buildings within the complex. In many complexes reviewed, there was no consistent pattern among the different complexes. In one particular townhouse complex, buildings are referenced by letter. Individual living units within this complex, which encompass all four sides, are identified by number (for example, Building B, Unit 10). The building directly across the street may have a different letter reference, with that building’s apartment numbers increasing in order from where they stopped at the previous building. This process would continue until the street ends; a new series of letters and numbers start on another street. Confusing? Even with extensive preplanning, you will still need to look at the map on the way in.


When you review the weather size-up concerns, the categories of wind, temperature, humidity, and precipitation are universal concerns to responding and operating forces. A weather concern that stands out the most when confronted with an incident in a garden apartment or townhouse complex is precipitation. In previous size-up factors, we listed the concerns with apparatus maneuverability and placement on dry streets around the different types of complexes. A significant quantity of snow on the ground or a large accumulation of water after a storm would compound the difficulties.


When looking at the garden apartment complex, it generally presents itself as one large multiple dwelling with fire extension focused primarily within the building itself.

When we view the townhouse complex, each townhouse appears as an individual dwelling unit attached to its neighbor, similar to row housing. Depending on when the units were built, the roof space may be common to two or three attached units. In more recently built units, a series of fire separations or fire walls are between the units. Fire walls, when present, are evident by their penetration within the row. In many cases, there are offset designs and variations in the rooflines to identify their location.

Fire separations are less visible. When present, they separate two attached townhouse units up to the underside of the shared roof deck. Depending on the type of construction, the separation may be a masonry wall that separates the units, or it could be a framed wall of double 5/8-inch gypsum board. In either case, its integrity has to be inspected when fire is on either side.


The garden apartment complex will generally follow a floor layout design of two to four apartments per floor, all accessible from a single interior stair. This stair will often be the only means of egress for those apartments. This design in most cases will be the same for all floors served off the interior stair. One stair can serve as many as 16 apartments that vary in size from a studio, one-bedroom, or two-bedroom unit. Fire officers must consider these buildings as the modern apartment building with many of the same fire extension concerns represented in their older ancestors.

Figure 1. The kitchen soffit area. If there is no firestopping in the void space above the cabinets, the fire can quickly spread to wall and ceiling voids and involve adjoining apartments.


Location and Extent of Fire

Our primary concern within this size-up category is back-to-back and stacked kitchens and baths within the garden apartment complex. With the installation of a kitchen and bath come the vertical arteries associated with their electrical and plumbing utilities. These voids may be numerous and of various sizes. The openings created to provide these services run the height of the building; they often originate in the basement area and end at the top floor. It is important to note that in many installations the kitchens and baths are located in the interior or middle of the building complex and have no direct exterior access for ventilation.

One of the earliest and easiest means for fire travel once the kitchen is involved is from the cabinets and their soffit areas. With most fires starting in the kitchen, this small space with ample amounts of combustible and flammable materials can create an intense fire that will quickly deteriorate cabinets and flimsy covered soffits.

The soffit area above the kitchen cabinets is nothing more than boxed out void spaces that, if not properly firestopped, can allow uninterrupted access to wall and ceiling voids of the apartment involved, the adjoining apartment, as well as the apartment above.

The kitchen cabinets themselves are an additional concern. In many cases, the cabinet construction will not prevent fire from ex-tending to void spaces above and behind the kitchen.


The first time-related size-up concern that should come to the fire officer’s mind in all residential structure fires is the time of the day. During the day, the majority of the occupants who live in the complex will be out of their homes and at their places of business. Those at home will be awake and hopefully more able to react when a fire erupts. When the incident takes place late at night or in the early-morning hours, when more occupants are home and asleep, the concerns increase significantly because a greater number of individuals are in the building and their status must be ascertained.


Height ranges for the garden apartment complex average from two to four stories; townhouses average two to three stories. There are exceptions; more stories are possible. However, most heights will fall between the two- to four-story range for both types of buildings. Our biggest concern here is how to attain the height needed in the garden apartment and townhouse complex. With most of these buildings falling within the two- to four-story range, initially it may seem that gaining access to a roof or a balcony will not be much of a problem—and it won’t be in a significant number of incidents. However, when buildings are set back and surrounded by decorative landscaping within sloped terrain, gaining height is more challenging than you might expect.

Special Considerations for Chief Officers

Chief officers should consider the following when the fire is in a garden apartment or townhouse complex.

  • Observe arriving apparatus. Ensure that companies don’t commit themselves to areas around the complex from which they cannot get out quickly. In congested complexes, it is best to have the first-arriving engine and ladder company investigate to determine the fire’s location and the best access while the remainder of the assignment stages outside the immediate area.
  • Depending on the length of the hose stretch, seriously consider teaming up two engine companies to stretch and place the initial hoseline. If the first hoseline is going to have difficulty reaching its objective, why start a second?
  • Obtain reports about the fire’s location and extent as soon as possible. The information must determine whether it is a contents or a structure fire.
  • Prioritize search areas based on the fire’s location.
  • Identify the locations of fire walls or fire separations.
  • Don’t hesitate to call for additional resources. If you don’t need them, you can always send them home.
  • In any truss-designed building, if the truss supporting system is involved and immediate control is not possible, withdraw all members from the involved area.
  • Establish collapse zones. Previous analyses of fires in lightweight truss-supported structures have shown that lightweight trusses can not only fail, but they can also drop their loads and push out walls.

MICHAEL A. TERPAK, a 27-year veteran of the fire service, is chief of the 2nd Battalion of the Jersey City (NJ) Fire Department, where he has been for 23 years. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire safety administration from the New Jersey City University, lectures frequently on fire/rescue service topics, and tutors firefighters and fire officers in preparing for promotional exams. He is the author of Fireground Size-Up (Fire Engineering, 2002).

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