Multi-family units: How to make a successful first-line attack

Pre-incident plans, proper staffing and practice make all the difference in a multi-family fire attack

We all have in our jurisdiction; multiple-family occupancies are common and abundant. Older buildings and complexes built before codes were adopted will provide many challenges.

The key to stretching the first attack line on these buildings is similar to the tactics covered in recent columns regarding the attack line at residential fires. 

Many of these buildings don't meet code and have characteristics that will make suppression, search and ventilation efforts more challenging. Just the fact that multiple families and units are threatened when one of these buildings has a fire is problem enough. Other factors thrown into the mix require us to be masters of the basics and to have some prior knowledge of the response area.

These buildings can generally be lumped into two categories: those with interior stairs and those with exterior stairs. There are many other characteristics with the different types of buildings that need to be looked at, but the location of the unit doors is important and can dictate how you stretch the initial line.

If the units open up to an exterior balcony, stretching dry line to a unit short of the fire unit is easier. There is no threat of doors closing onto the dry line and we are not in a compartment with increasing heat and gases. We also have the option of dropping a rope and pulling the line to the upper level instead of stretching it up the stairs.

Dealing with doors
A building with interior units and stairs creates more problems for stretching the initial line. These buildings typically have an interior lobby or foyer that connects halls or units with interior stairwells. These halls may be very long or only a few units in each one. Again, depending on when they were built, they may not have standpipes for fire suppression. 

With enclosed units we have to deal with doors. Depending on the design we could face at least two doors before getting to the fire unit.

The lobby area or foyer will have an entrance door — that may or may not need to be forced — that is going to have to be controlled. There is usually another door at the entrance to a hall or wing. This door probably is not locked but will need to be controlled to allow hose line advancement.

Just like with the positions on the attack line for residential fires, we will need adequate personnel to advance the initial line. Plan to have one at each door, one at the top of the stairs, personnel handling corners and at least two on the tip. 

Adequate staffing
That is a lot of manpower and a push that will take training and practice to get right. There has to be coordination from all members on the hose line to advance the line in sync with the tip team. We have to operate by feel and anticipation of the team on the tip is doing.

Depending on the development, these buildings may be set back a far distance from parking areas and roads. This requires companies to figure out access points and distances for hose stretches long before the fire happens. With these long distances pre-connected hose lines may not work. Even the 200-foot variety may come up short.

There are many factors to consider and practice when deploying static lines. It is important to know how much static line is available, to be proficient and fast at deploying the line and to know how to communicate with our operator to make the connection once the team is in place.

It is very important factor that the line is dry until the operator is told to connect and send water. This needs to be considered when advancing the line and flaking it out.

We want to make sure that we are not putting ourselves in a bad place by extending too close to the fire without water. Remember, practice and more practice in deploying these lines helps to estimate how much time and effort is required for stretching these lines.

These are just some very basic considerations for stretching a line for multiple family occupancies, and only scratched the surface of building characteristics and tactics. The old saying that "the fire goes as the first line goes" is true. A delay in deployment because of ineffectiveness or lack of training will undoubtedly lead to other tasks being delayed or ineffective.

Remember to follow your department's guidelines and that to be successful you must get to these complexes and buildings before the fire ever happens. Train, train and train some more.

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