By Greg Jakubowski
“House Fire.” This is a common dispatch for fire services around the world. Most fire services when they hear that call may think of a row home fire, a duplex fire, or a dwelling fire that may meet the basic definitions of National Fire Protection Association documents of a “low-hazard occupancy” such as a 2,000-square-foot, two-story, single-family home without basement and exposures. That is often our paradigm and how we set up our apparatus, tactics, and number of response resources dispatched to those calls. It is fair to say that this type of occupancy is one that we expect most fire departments to be able to handle without a lot of difficulty. However, when faced with a fire in a home that is four, five, or 10 times the size of that “low hazard occupancy,” tactical changes need to be made and response assignments altered to account for the fire loads that these properties present. Recent fires in large homes have occurred in Maryland (6 fatalities), Maryland (10 firefighter injuries), Connecticut ($10 million loss), Pennsylvania (19 bedrooms, $18 million loss), Ohio (10,000 square feet, $4 million loss), North Carolina ($3 million loss). New Jersey (4 alarms) and California (8 bedrooms, $19 million home) among many others.
Although a “usual” house fire may require a needed fire flow of 500 to 1,000 gallons per minute (gpm), to effectively control a fire in that size building (a mega-mansion) will require greater flows that can easily double that. Can you achieve those kinds of flows with the handlines and larger appliances on your apparatus? A single 2½-inch attack line might just start to put a dent into things, whereas a 1½- or 1¾-inch attack line may give you some mobility, but it will compare to a peashooter when faced with heavy fire conditions in a mega-mansion. Can you supply the water needed for these devices in the neighborhoods in which these homes are located? Do you have enough firefighting and water supply capabilities coming on the initial alarm to these properties? To be successful at a fire in a mega-mansion, you need the water supply, attack lines, and personnel to place the right attack lines into service if you hope to make a successful attack.
Almost all mega-mansions are custom-built. Their construction varies widely, depending on the owners’ tastes and the architects’ imaginations. Many will have at least some lightweight wood-frame construction if they were built within the past two decades, but there can be a great variation of the type of construction, even in the same property. There will be void spaces. Firestopping in residential construction isn’t the same as you might see in commercial and industrial occupancies, and it very likely will deteriorate over time as modifications are made to the property. This means that once the fire escapes the containment of a room and begins to attack the building structure itself, rapid fire spread or collapse can quickly follow. Many of these homes are built with open floor plans, meaning that both open horizontal and vertical areas provide excellent paths for rapid fire spread. This is particularly true when these spaces have a moderate-to-high fire loading of furniture, floor/wall/window coverings, and other combustible contents.
Search and rescue in these properties may be anything but “usual.” Sleeping areas may be anywhere but in traditional areas. Bedrooms may be on the main floor, upstairs, or in basements. There may be in-law suites or separate living spaces for family members that may or may not be directly accessible from the main living spaces–perhaps only accessible from the sides or back of the home. There may be multiple stairs to second and third floors, and they may be open or separate and may not provide access to the entire upper floor. It is likely that these places are so large that occupants may or may not be aware of the occupancy status of others who live there, and there may be multiple cooking and laundry spaces in various sections of the home on various levels. Entertaining areas in basements may be set up to hold dozens of people, with theaters, bowling alleys, swimming pools, and other entertainment features. These challenges all portend the need for lots of resources coming quickly when faced with a fire at a mega-mansion.
Most mega-mansions will have access issues. There is likely a single driveway leading to the house that may or may not be designed to allow large apparatus to traverse it. Some properties have trees lining the driveway that limit the width of the vehicles that can drive up to the home; others may have bridges over streams. Designers were anticipating cars or SUVs, not fire apparatus, using the driveway. Even if apparatus are able to access the home by way of the driveway, it is very likely that access will be only to one side of the dwelling. There is little chance of access to the rest of the home, unless departments are able to “beach” the apparatus; but landscaping, parked cars, and other amenities will likely limit that. On-site sewage disposal systems in suburban and rural areas can create quite an issue if apparatus “beach” on them. When a party is going on, limited access may become almost impassable for large apparatus. It is possible you may be faced with a mass-exodus or mass-casualty situation.
It is very likely that only one or two pieces of apparatus may normally get near the home, and those apparatus need to be able to supply the handlines, ladders, and other equipment necessary to engage in a serious firefight on these properties. Other incoming units must have personnel bring tools and equipment up to the scene if they stage away from the building so personnel don’t have to trudge back and get something they may need in a hurry. Think saws, hose packs, and even ground ladders (preferably longer ones vs. shorter ones).
The backs of many mega-mansions usually presents their own share of issues. Decks that may be of stone, wood, or a combination of both that may be covered or open and that are likely multiple levels, creating the need for a heavy attack and presenting early collapse nightmares. They may not just be in the back of these homes but may wrap around the sides as well. Entertaining usually equals food, which means cooking equipment in these areas, typically grilles. Grilles will normally be fed by natural gas or propane, which means gas lines will be in these areas and propane tanks will be nearby where propane is used. Fires starting in or on the deck area may likely gain a big head start before they are detected, especially if the home’s occupants are sleeping or have left. There is a good chance there will be a pool or pools, hot tubs, and ponds that may provide a small water supply, but they will likely be difficult to access and be more of a hazard to firefighters, who might fall into them, particularly when operating in the dark. Access to these rear areas may be quite limited to a gate or gates in fencing that can create challenges to hose stretches.
Other unusual features in these homes also present challenges to firefighters. They include roofs with steep slopes, which are not easy to access or work from when attempting to perform vertical ventilation. The specter of lightweight construction paired with a difficult roof to get up on in the first place presents a serious risk. High ceilings means that longer ladders may be needed to reach the second- and third-floor windows–a real problem with the tendency to move to quint apparatus that carry a lesser complement of shorter ground ladders than traditional ladder trucks. These homes may also have “non-traditional” roofs that may include metal or terra cotta that cannot be cut by saws. Roofs may have solar panels, or “solar shingles” may be incorporated in the roof covering. Besides solar, there may be other alternative energy sources such as generators and large battery systems on the property.
Mega-mansions present exceptional challenges for firefighters. If you are not prepared to face those challenges, they can quickly present undue risks to your team. Fire attack with 1¾-inch (or smaller) lines likely will not cut it, and 200-foot preconnected lines are likely not to reach all areas of these homes that have a great deal of floor area on multiple levels. You have to get out and see these places while they are under construction; often, those who occupy these homes will not want their privacy disturbed once they move in. Practice stretching long stretches of heavy fire attack lines, and be sure you understand how to supply water to the locations of those homes. Treat these dwelling fires as you would a “building fire.” They are anything but your “usual” house fire.
Greg Jakubowski, a member of the emergency services since 1978, is a life member of the Bryn Athyn Fire Company in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, and previously served as past deputy fire/EMS chief. He was a chief (six years) of the Lingohocken Fire Co. in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. He is nationally certified as a firefighter, fire officer, and instructor; is a suppression instructor (Emeritus) for the Pennsylvania State Fire Academy; and an instructor for the National Fire Academy. He is a Pennsylvania-certified EMT and vehicle rescue technician. He served five years in the fire service in Maryland. He has a BS degree in fire protection engineering from the University of Maryland and an MS degree in public safety from St. Joseph’s University. He has taught for four Philadelphia-area colleges. He is a licensed professional fire protection engineer in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, a Certified Safety Professional, and a Fellow in the Society of Fire Protection Engineers. He is a principal in the fire protection consulting business Fire Planning Associates, Inc., Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania. He previously worked for Merck & Co., Inc. as a fire protection engineer and global fire protection lead. He has responded to and led firefighting operations at numerous mega-mansions.