Two-Alarm Condominium Fire Challenges Virginia Beach (VA) Firefighters

By Michael J. Barakey


On December 31, 2017, the Virginia Beach (VA) Fire Department (VBFD) responded to a fast-moving multifamily structural fire that challenged first-arriving officers and crews. The incident occurred in the Willow Lake Apartments on a cold and windy holiday morning while unsuspecting occupants were asleep.

The exterior of the Type V wood-frame building was vinyl siding (exposed exterior combustible material that aided in fire growth and rapid fire spread). The building was lightweight wood truss construction. There were no masonry fire walls between the condos and a common attic space with no fire walls. The type of construction, coupled with the wind and limited means of egress for occupants, was the recipe for a quick-moving and rapidly advancing fire, which trapped occupants trying to flee the fire.

(1) The C/D corner of the apartment building. [Photo by author; all other photos by Rayford Smith, Virginia Beach (VA) Fire Department Multimedia Specialist.]

(1) The C/D corner of the apartment building. [Photo by author; all other photos by Rayford Smith, Virginia Beach (VA) Fire Department Multimedia Specialist.]

The apartment complex, built in 1984, consisted of 152 units in 19 buildings and a clubhouse. Each building consisted of eight individual apartments: four single-story units on the first floor and four single-story units on the second floor. The units inside the 19 buildings are between 800 and 1,200 square feet. The second-floor units are accessible only by exterior wood staircases, and each building shares a common attic space. There are no common alarm systems or fire protection systems (sprinkler system) in the apartment buildings. The fire building was 100 × 60 feet (12,000 square feet per building). There were two exposures, the B/C exposure and the A/D exposure. Both were 45 feet from the fire building.

(2) The A/D corner and the balcony where the rescues occurred.

(2) The A/D corner and the balcony where the rescues occurred.

The Response

07:02:19: The Virginia Beach 911 dispatcher alerted Battalion (B) 3; Engines (E) 16, 3, 7, and 9; Ladders (L) 16 and 7; and Rescue (R) 1 that an apartment building was on fire at 700 Willow Lake Circle. The dispatcher reported: “One caller reported flames over the rooftops.” Another caller reported, “Exit stairs on fire.” Another caller advised, “The outside part of the building, stairs, and room are on fire, and it is unknown if anyone is inside.”

(3) A ladder pipe was used during defensive operations to knock down the bulk of the fire that ran the attic.

(3) A ladder pipe was used during defensive operations to knock down the bulk of the fire that ran the attic.

07:05:13: E-18 cleared a medical case near the fire location. The officer on E-18 heard the structure fire dispatch and observed a large column of smoke from a mile away. He ordered his crew to dress out and then notified B-3 that he was en route to the fire.

07:06:52: E-18 arrived on the scene, just ahead of E-16. E-18’s officer provided B-3 with a size-up. The captain reported heavy smoke and fire showing from the A/D corner and transmitted a “working fire” and established command. E-18’s officer knew the capability of his crew and ordered a 2½-inch hoseline into service to blitz the rapidly advancing fire that was working its way into the attic and was being aided by a strong north wind that was pushing the fire to the remainder of the building (photo 1).

07:08:24: As E-18’s officer (command) performed a walk-around of the fire building, two police officers pointed to the balcony, where they said occupants were trapped. One of the police officers was hacking and coughing and having difficulty breathing. Command could hear the screams coming from the balcony located feet from the well-advanced fire. Heavy smoke obscured the visibility of the balcony, yet E-18’s officer was able to make out a hand sticking out of the latticework on the balcony of the fire apartment. Command ordered his other jump-seat firefighter to pull off and throw an extension ladder from E-18 to the second-story balcony. With heavy smoke and fire just feet from two trapped occupants, command directed the hose stream to keep the fire off the occupants and firefighters ascending the ladder. This allowed E-18’s crew to rescue one of the two occupants. E-16’s crew observed E-18’s crew rescuing an occupant as they approached the front of the fire apartment. Once E-18’s crew got the first occupant to the ground, E-16 ascended the ground ladder and completed the second rescue (photo 2).

07:09:00: B-5, Car 10 (duty shift commander), and an ambulance arrived on the scene. B-3 assumed command from E-18’s officer. Both civilian rescues were completed, yet evacuations were necessary as the fire was now walking the common roof and occupants still were not aware of the rapidly advancing fire. L-16 positioned next to E-18. E-16’s operator established a water supply to E-18. L-16’s officer recognized the need to place the tower ladder in service quickly to limit fire spread and to save as much property as possible. As L-16’s officer and jump-seat firefighter went to the tower to prepare the guns to flow, L-16’s operator set up the aerial. E-18 and E-16’s operator worked to supply the rear of E-16. With two rescues competed, E-18, Car 10, and the police officers evacuated occupants from the seven remaining apartment units. The two police officers and Car 10 removed two elderly occupants from the second-story apartment on the C side of the fire unit. With heavy smoke conditions, the two police officers carried down an elderly occupant in a wheelchair while Car 10 searched the apartment.

At this time, Command ordered a defensive operation. L-16 began to flow two aerial guns to suppress the fire (photo 3). The 2½-handline remained in service on the A/D corner, and multiple 1¾-handlines were deployed and placed in operation.

07:13:41: Because the crews were making rescues and evacuating occupants, the fire, aided by the wind, was progressing toward the unburned structure. Command requested a second alarm. B-4, E-19, E-20, L-21, R-2, Command 1, a second ambulance, and an emergency medical services (EMS) chief responded.

Command Structure Expanded

07:17:22: Because of the complexity of the fire, the duty shift commander, Car 10, took command. With the additional crews requested, the span of control would quickly exceed seven units. Command divided the fire into geographic divisions and functional groups (photo 4). B-5 became Division A and operated on Tactical (Tac) channel 3 with the first-alarm units; B-4 became Division C and operated on Tac channel 5 with the second-alarm units; the EMS supervisor became Medical Group supervisor and operated all EMS units on Tac channel 6. Tac channel 4 was used to communicate with responding units so they would not interfere with operations on the fireground. Because of the amount of work that needed to be completed immediately, a staging officer was not assigned, and all units went to work on arrival.

07:22:57: The fire had progressed through the roof on the A/D corner and was rapidly moving toward the B/C side. With second-alarm units arriving and being assigned to Division C, water supply and hose placement were coordinated on Tac 5. Division A was able to place handlines in service in advance of the fire to limit the spread into unburned apartments (photo 5). E-3 and E-7 laid an additional supply line (split lay to a distant hydrant) in anticipation of the need to supply additional master streams. R-1 was systematically performing primary searches of all apartments and reporting to command which apartments were completed and which were consumed by fire. The rapid intervention team (RIT) was assigned to Division A (E-19 par 4), and command advised that any need for the RIT would be assigned to Division A, where the RIT was located.

07:24:54: Two police officers arrived at the command post exhibiting symptoms of smoke inhalation. One of the officers was in visible distress. One of the two ambulances was assigned to treat and transport the police officer to the hospital. The second officer refused transportation but was evaluated by the ambulance crew. An additional ambulance was requested to replace the ambulance that transported the police officer.

07:29:58: Defensive operations transitioned to offensive operations. The master streams from L-16 were turned off, and Divisions A and C worked handlines in the structure to suppress fire that could not be extinguished by master streams and to complete searches of the areas involved with fire and not accessible for searches in the early stages of the fire. Interior crews worked unit to unit, suppressing fire and performing secondary searches. Each unit was searched and cleared while handlines suppressed the fire. Command requested a fire investigator; the fire department’s mass-casualty bus to temporarily hold displaced occupants to keep them out of the cold; and the fire department’s drone to perform aerial observations and record the damage for the fire investigators and command. Command 1, the fire department’s mobile command truck, arrived; command was transitioned from the rear of a suburban to the command truck.

08:24:25: The fire was placed under control. Property management arrived and opened the complex’s clubhouse. This facilitated the complex manager’s compiling a detailed accountability report of the occupants and providing the fire department’s public information officer with a list of occupants. The clubhouse provided temporary housing for the displaced occupants, sheltering them from the 22°F weather.

10:36:54: The fire was declared out, and the investigation was started (photo 6). Fire investigators isolated the origin to the front door of the second-floor apartment on the A/D corner. The fire most likely started from discarded smoking materials that caused the porch area to catch fire and progress into the attic and living space of the building. The two occupants rescued from the balcony were unable to exit their apartment because the fire was consuming their front door and the wooden staircase.

Critical Decision Making

Many environmental and circumstantial elements challenged the first-arriving officers and firefighters. The environmental element was the weather. The fire started on the exterior of the building, and the wind accelerated its growth. The temperature led to freezing water from runoff and slippery conditions for firefighters. The circumstance that led to critical decision making was that the incident occurred at 0700 hours on New Year’s Eve and the narrow streets and all parking spaces were filled with vehicles. E-18 and L-16 were limited in selecting their placement. Additional arriving fire apparatus were forced to park at a distance and walk tools and equipment into the fire scene.

(4) The command post with Battalion 3 and Car 10.

(4) The command post with Battalion 3 and Car 10.

(5) During the defensive operation, handlines were used to limit the spread of fire to the unburned portion of the apartment building.

(5) During the defensive operation, handlines were used to limit the spread of fire to the unburned portion of the apartment building.


Our first-arriving officers are taught and are expected to employ this sequence on arrival on the fireground: Rescue, Exposures, Containment, Extinguish, and Overhaul-Ventilation and Salvage (RECEO-VS). The critical decision-making capability of the fire officers and firefighters was challenged at this incident. Crews were faced with a rapidly advancing fire that was blocking the exit of trapped occupants and the conventional entrance of firefighters, who heard screaming occupants in need of immediate rescue. Also, multiple occupants who were sleeping and unaware of the fire had to be evacuated immediately. Prioritizing tactical objectives is necessary when making decisions at a critical incident. RECEO-VS places preservation of life as the top priority when developing the incident action plan (IAP). Which tactic will preserve life—containing and extinguishing the fire, removing trapped occupants from the path of the fire, or a combination of both?

Factors to consider when developing the IAP include the following: (1) time of day and date of the fire—the initial call to the 911 dispatcher was at 07:01 hours on New Year’s Eve; (2) weather—the temperature was 22°F, and there was a strong north wind [15 miles per hour (mph) with gusts to 32 mph]; (3) location of the fire—the origin of the fire was the second-floor entrance deck and wood stairs, the only exit for the two residents who lived in the apartment; (4) limited ingress and egress for fire apparatus—the apartment complex is built in a circular pattern with a ring road-style perimeter that is cordoned off in both directions; and (5) water supply—hydrant locations for the fire building were at a distance.

(6) The fire investigator digs out the area of origin to determine the cause of the fire.

(6) The fire investigator digs out the area of origin to determine the cause of the fire.

Lessons Learned

The following are the lessons learned from this incident:

  • Apparatus placement. The street and parking infrastructure limited apparatus placement. The first-arriving engine positioned in an area that allowed the aerial access to the front of the building. With an early-morning fire, vehicles were parked in designated parking spaces, which made placement of the first-arriving aerial difficult. The aerial “nosed” into the fire building, which limited the reach of the tower when the fire turned defensive; yet, it was the best option based on the circumstances. Officers and operators have a brief window of time in which to properly place their apparatus. It is everyone’s responsibility to ensure that their apparatus is placed correctly the first time. The complex’s ring road was narrow, congested by numerous parked cars. E-18’s decision to pull forward and allow L-16 to gain the best spot to use the aerial ladder for defensive operations was instrumental in preventing fire extension into the entire apartment building.

  • Water supply. In many apartment complexes, hydrants are few. In this complex, the hydrants were on a loop, which limited flow and pressure. The hydrant that supplied the attack engine was on the same main as the secondary hydrant that was hit when E-3 and E-7 split laid.

  • Apparatus approach. The second ladder and the third engine need to approach the fire building from the opposite direction. Once the second ladder and the third engine committed to the fire in the same direction as the attack engine and the first-arriving ladder, they were stuck in the narrow roadways in the same direction of travel.

  • Call for assistance. Command should recognize the need for additional units early and call for a second alarm sooner. A well-advanced fire involving a multiple-family dwelling in the early-morning hours with active rescues and evacuations ongoing should necessitate the need for a call for the second alarm. There is no shame in turning around units, especially when the second-alarm units are responding from a distance. Two factors should go into the command officer’s decision to call a second alarm: when the amount of work exceeds the initial alarm companies (i.e., rescues and evacuations, resuscitation of fire victims, extended hose stretches) and when the number of apparatus on the initial alarm is insufficient for the work anticipated (i.e., multiple elevated streams, multiple supply lines, and the distance of the hydrants).

  • Assist displaced residents. After the fire is out, have available crews assist displaced residents and occupants in returning to their units to salvage belongings. As residents seek to gather personal belongings, medication, insurance papers, and other necessary items, this influence provides them a safe opportunity to enter their burned-out apartment.

  • Construction. A building’s construction is best identified during preplanning. Officers and firefighters have to recognize distinct building features prior to an incident. Take time to identify the building’s construction type during the on-scene size-up and recognize signs of rapid fire spread. Identifying the type of construction will allow firefighters to estimate burn time. Firefighters need to anticipate ceiling and floor collapse by recognizing lightweight trusses, which will fail within minutes of direct fire impingement. Train and educate firefighters and officers to know and understand building construction and the signs of impending structural collapse.

  • Weather. Cold weather operations add to the complexity of the incident. Displaced, rescued, and evacuated citizens need to be “housed” or placed while operations are ongoing. Carrying ice melt on the fire apparatus allows for “de-icing” of sidewalks and stairs on which the firefighters are working. With closely packed, multifamily building complexes, the wind can change the complexity of the fire. This was a wind-driven event. The amount of resources needed to contain the fire was dramatically higher. When dealing with wind-driven fires, place the apparatus downwind and call early for additional alarms.

  • Train, train, train! Practice setting up aerial trucks with obstacles. Understand the capabilities of the aerial. The operator’s proficiency will lead to a positive outcome, especially when water is needed from the aerial in a timely manner. Obstacles and challenges such as smoke and heat, limited visibility, the time of day, parked cars, and trees will prevent rapid deployment of an aerial.

Michael J. Barakey (EFO, CFO) has been in the fire service since 1993. He is a district chief with the Virginia Beach (VA) Fire Department and is assigned as the C-shift commander and oversees Special Operations. Previously, Barakey was the B-shift commander; the district chief of personnel and development, communications and information technology, finance and budget, resource management, research and analysis, and accreditation; and the chief of training. He is a hazmat specialist, an instructor III, a nationally registered paramedic, and a neonatal/pediatric critical care paramedic for the Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters in Norfolk, Virginia. He is a task force leader for the VA-TF2 US&R team and has had numerous deployments. Barakey is an exercise design/controller for Spec Rescue International. Barakey has a master of public administration degree from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia and is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program (2009); is a peer assessor for the Commission on Fire Accreditation International; and is designated as Chief Fire Officer. He regularly contributes to Fire Engineering and is an FDIC International classroom instructor.

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