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11 McMansion challenges for firefighters

They are often the size of small commercial buildings without the same sprinkler and fire-stop requirements, which can spell disaster for firefighters

The size of the average American home has more than doubled since the 1950s; it now stands at 2,349 square feet. Whether it’s a 5,000- to 10,000-square-foot mega home — or McMansion — in a wealthy neighborhood, or a bigger, cheaper house in the exurbs, the move toward ever-larger homes has been accelerating for years.

The continued growth in large residential structures has created overwhelming challenges for fire departments that are unprepared, untrained, understaffed, and underestimate the operational demands of a rapid developing fire in one of these residential structures.

This single-family mega home was destroyed on March 19, 2011 in Huntington, Md. and resulted in a mayday situation with nine firefighters injured after fire spread rapidly from a basement level chimney void into the 10,000-square-foot attic space.

Large home fires cannot be treated with the same conventional mind-set as a home built decades ago. Fires involving today’s residential structures demand a strategic and tactical approach that is focused on training, pre-incident planning, and well-defined tactics based on current technology.

Plan and plan some more
Pre-incident planning is essential. This is especially true when it comes to access, water supply, and hose lay distances. Large residential structures are not bound by the same code requirements for sprinklers and draft stopping of void spaces as similar sized commercial structures.

Essentially, a fire involving a large wood frame home should be treated like a commercial building fire.

In addition to the lightweight construction concerns, and rapid fire spread potential, here are 11 unique challenges of large home fires.

  • Large open floor plan design.
  • Very large void spaces created.
  • Concealed rooms built within attic voids.
  • Fire scene staffing.
  • Lack of adequate road surface.
  • Water supply issues.
  • Large sections of unsupported brick veneer.
  • Extended hose lay distances.
  • Limited access.
  • Large and complex search areas.
  • Long driveways and gates.

How prepared is your department to adequately and safely respond to this unique and growing challenge?

Gary Bowker is a retired fire chief with the U.S. Air Force and retired fire marshal with the City of Winfield, Kansas, now serving as an associate instructor with the Kansas Fire & Rescue Training Institute. He previously served as fire chief with the Sumner County (Kansas) Rural Fire District #10 and has over 40 years in fire service. He has taught at the National Fire Academy, U.S. Department of Defense, and the Butler County Community College. He is nationally certified as a Fire Officer II, Instructor II, Inspector II, Certified Fire & Explosion Investigator. Bowker holds a bachelor’s degree in fire science administration. Connect with Chief Bowker on LinkedIn or via email.