SizeUp: How Many Residents?


The fire service is encountering more illegal multiple dwellings throughout its towns and cities than ever before. This increased concern is driven directly by the need or want for money. With the economy in a slump, homeowners are creating new and innovative ways to save money and increase their incomes by structurally modifying their homes to create illegal apartments, singleroom occupancies (SROs), or allowing residents’ additional family members to share their home. As anyone could imagine, the fire service’s immediate concerns are significant. From mazelike configurations, partitions or false walls, blocked means of egress, locked doors, and an overwhelming number of occupants in the building at all times of the day, firefighters are not only finding more obstacles and people within these buildings, but they are also becoming disoriented and trapped at an alarming rate.

As our job becomes more and more difficult, how do we prepare for another unknown? The most constructive way to tackle this challenge is to ask the questions: What sizeup cues might tip you off to the presence of a legal or an illegal multiple, and what actions will you take once your suspicions are confirmed?


  • Multiple doorbells on front and sideentrance doorways.
  • Multiple electric and gas meters.
  • Multiple mailboxes (probably the most common visual clue).
  • Multiple satellite dishes accessing numerous windows (photo 1).
  • Cable TV wires accessing numerous windows.
  • Oversized/egress windows in attic.
  • Air–conditioners in the basement/attic.
  • Skylights serving the attic.
  • Dormered attic areas.
  • Interior doors with individual locks. This is an immediate tip to the presence of SROs.
  • Numerous partition walls within a normally common/openfloor space.
  • Fire escapes or exterior staircases to upperfloor areas.
  • The number of shoes outside the main entranceway to the home. There are certain ethnic groups whose custom requires them to place their shoes outside the home. This might not be an illegal multiple dwelling, but if there are numerous shoes outside the front door, anticipate a lot of barefoot people on the inside.
  • Radio reports and visual observations indicating difficulty with roomtoroom movement/access, fire extinguishment, and room/floor ventilation.
(1) Photo by author.

Author’s note: Illegal basement apartments are the most common concern but often the most difficult to detect from the exterior.


  • Question occupants as they are removed or leaving the fire building.
  • Immediately inform all members of the concerns.
  • Ensure members don’t overcommit themselves until additional resources are in place.
  • Call for help/transmit an additional alarm.
  • Prepare/advise EMS of a potential masscasualty incident.
  • Ladder all sides.
  • Force and search every room/floor, which includes basements, cellars, attics, behind attic knee walls, as well as attached garages and sheds.
  • Ensure hoselines are stretched and supplied on each floor of the building.
  • Have an incident management plan that reflects the added areas and resources.
  • Monitor the radio for additional difficulties.
  • Seek frequent progress reports.
  • Conduct periodic personnel accountability roll calls.
  • Once the incident is under control, do a thorough secondary search of all areas.
  • Conduct a postincident analysis of the incident with all members.
  • Follow your department’s procedures regarding any illegal conversions found and the legal actions necessary to correct them.
  • Fires in buildings that were not designed to house a large number of people or in buildings that have been illegally modified or altered to accommodate the same have injured and killed not only civilians but many firefighters as well. Being alert/anticipating the concerns is your first weapon in combating this enemy. The second is immediately acting to prevent a disaster.

MICHAEL TERPAK, a 35year fire service veteran, has spent the past 31 years as a deputy chief and a citywide tour commander with the Jersey City (NJ) Fire Department. He is the founder of Promotional Prep, a consulting firm to prepare firefighters and fire officers studying for promotional exams. He has a B.S. degree in fire safety administration from New Jersey City University and is the author of Fireground SizeUp, Assessment Center Strategy and Tactics, and Fireground Operational Guides (Fire Engineering).

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