How to approach garden apartment fires

The objectives when operating at a garden apartment fire are the same as for each type of incident you run — life safety, incident stabilization and property conservation, in that order

Garden apartments are multi-family dwellings, typically between two and four stories in height. The defining characteristic is that the primary entry door of each dwelling unit opens into the common stairwell. Beyond that basic definition, there are some things that are common to garden apartments:

  • They are designed to fit in the landscape, meaning that in many case the building is higher at the rear than it is at the front.
  • Construction methods are varied. What you get really depends on the age of the structure and prevailing construction methods where it was built.
  • There are usually between two and four units per floor.
  • There is usually at least one terrace level, meaning the main entry door is below grade. Terrace level apartments have a sliding glass door that opens directly to the outside. 
  • Each apartment has a balcony. They may be either recessed or cantilevered.
  • Units are stacked, one on top of the other with common utility shafts.
  •  In older structures, multiple buildings may exist under a common roof without fire stopping. 
  • The primary pathway of fire travel is via interior void spaces.
  • Buildings are connected to similar buildings on at least one side.
  • Multiple groups of connected buildings form complexes.
  • Access is difficult, especially at night due to limited parking.

Fires in garden apartments are predictable. They will travel vertically until meeting some sort of intentional or unintentional fire stopping, and will then head horizontally until running out of fuel, heat or oxygen. 

The fire department obviously has to intervene at some point, but in order to be successful that intervention must be based on stated objectives.

These buildings have been around for many years and show no sign of going away. Their peculiar construction features and position of being set back from the street means the location and capability of available water supplies should not be left to chance. Good pre-planning will go a long way toward preventing the next big one from ever happening.

A successful outcome will require quick establishment of an adequate water supply, a quick call for additional help if there is a working fire and the coordinated actions of fire crews operating with a shared understanding of the incident objectives.

General objectives
The objectives when operating at a garden apartment fire are the same as for each type of incident you run — life safety, incident stabilization and property conservation, in that order. Understanding those objectives will allow you, even with limited manpower, to prioritize the actions you take.

For example, we know that these buildings are rarely if ever completely vacant; someone is nearly always at home. This means that the heavy fire you see venting from the roof and spreading to an adjacent building is still important, but not as important as protecting and completing a primary search.

Some questions you have to ask yourself are: If I save the next building but miss the lady in the second floor bedroom, was I successful? On the other hand, if I save three people with good laddering and searching, but burn down the whole row, was I successful?

Basic strategies
Strategies are developed and used to support objectives. Starting with the life safety objective, it becomes clear what strategic approach will best support this objective. By protecting the primary means of ingress and egress; i.e., ensuring that the fire does not enter the common stairway, you best position yourself to both protect the search and confine the fire to the apartment of origin.

The first line should go to the fire apartment, via the interior stairwell to ensure that the stairwell is protected first, to confine the fire second, and finally, if able, to put the fire out. This operation must happen quickly, reflexively and should be practiced. It is important to pre-plan both complexes and buildings so that water supply decisions, hand line selection and ladder selection are automated.

When we commit a hand line to a fire we should always provide, as soon as possible, a back-up line to support that position. The back-up line primarily secures the egress of the first line, making sure that the fire cannot get behind or around the first line. Once the egress is protected, the back-up line creates added firepower in the form of additional flow, ready to move up and support the attack of the first engine.

Given what is known about how fires spread in general, and specifically how they spread in these buildings, it is important to quickly place a third line to prevent vertical extension. The vast majority of extension will be vertical, and this base must be covered as soon as possible.

Remember though, that the more lines that are stretched through the primary entryway, the more crowded that entryway becomes and the more difficult it will be to identify and advance individual lines. Typically no more than two lines should enter through the same opening.

If the extension line decides to stretch over a ladder through a window, a solid grasp of the objectives will assist them in deciding how to deploy that line. Again, life safety comes first and we support that by protecting the primary route of egress.

Lines stretched above the fire from windows must be stretched from the opposite end of the main fire apartment, into the common stairwell to the apartment above. Conducting the stretch in this manner will take longer than usual, but will ensure the protection of the stairway, avoid opposing hand lines and prevent a hose logjam at the front door.

The fourth line should almost always go to the most threatened exposure. Judgment must be exercised in deciding what the most threatened exposure is. Assume that the fire building is an end unit building and that the fire begins on the terrace level on the free end of the structure i.e., the side not attached to anything.


This arrangement means that in order to get in to the next building, the fire would have to travel across the fire apartment and across the stairway. Given how unlikely this is, the fourth line might best be deployed on the opposite side of the main building, pulling ceilings and checking for fire spread. However, a fire on the top floor of a building with an attached exposure may call for both the third and the fourth lines to be deployed to the exposure building.

Attic fires
Sometimes on these fires, the extension travels across the vertical void spaces, skipping over intermediate floors, and breaking out in the attic space. Given the configuration of standard attic spaces, built-in ventilation and the configuration of fuel in the form of the under assembly of the roof, these fires grow quickly and provide a brilliant spectacle. However, the objectives remain the same — they are simply not modified by the volume of fire that presents.

Given a significant attic fire, the approach is dictated by how the situation presents. There are two primary presentations; the first is heavy fire smoke showing but no visible fire and the roof has not been compromised.  The second is heavy fire venting from the roof from a large hole.

In the first scenario, the quickest and easiest approach is to breach a small hole in the attic space from the top floor just big enough to fit the nozzle through, flowing for 30-90 seconds. By aiming your stream into that hole, you create steam conversion and essentially snuff the fire out. If the attic space is compartmentalized, you have to ensure that you cover all the compartments. This tactic is secondary to the provision and protection of the initial search.

In the second scenario, steam conversion won't work because of the big hole in the roof. The fire will create a convection current that will most likely carry the steam up and out of the hole, rendering the stream useless. The only solution in this case is aggressive opening of the top floor ceilings. To put the fire out, you will have to put water on the burning surfaces and to do that they will need to be exposed.

Hooking the ceilings takes resources and time. If they are in short supply as they are sometimes, we must revert to our objectives.

The second primary objective is incident stabilization. In other words, we must ensure that the fire is confined to its compartment of origin. A good way to accomplish this is by opening the scuttle usually found at the top of the stairs and aiming a stream into this space. You must move this stream violently through the space, which will retard the spread of the fire as subsequent companies move in to extinguish the main body of it

At no time is it a good idea to physically enter the attic space. By opening the scuttle, you have created an additional exhaust port for the fire and your head, perhaps the least protected part of your ensemble, would have to enter first. This does nothing to ensure life safety. A burned firefighter will hamper incident stabilization, and property conservation will suffer as well.

Fire venting from the roof will be impressive, as there will be a good oxygen flow,,a significant amount of fuel configured to burn, and you will find it difficult to ignore. But the roof fire is a self-limiting process. If you place hand lines all around, confining the fire, it will simply have nowhere to go. Once the roof burns away, so will the show and the anxiety that comes with watching it burn.

From a risk benefit point of view, a significant roof fire means that the roof is going to have to be replaced anyway. So why risk serious injury or death for something that is already lost?

The big one
Every so often, there is a delay in calling the fire department and when they finally are notified and arrive, the fire is beyond its ability to quickly control. The natural inclination is to stretch large lines with large nozzles and aim them through the windows in an effort to control the fire. While it is not accurate to say this should never be done, it is accurate to say that large caliber streams aimed through a window of a multi family dwelling can only enhance the survivability of possibly trapped victims in very limited circumstances.

These situations call for a more measured approach that deploys crews, under the protection of charged hand lines, to search areas where people might still be alive. Once that search is complete, the crews are extracted and an exterior attack used until the fire is darkened down. When to use such a dangerous but necessary tactics lies in the domain of good judgment, supported by familiarity with the structure, fire behavior and the abilities of the available crews.

Fires in garden apartments are necessarily resource intensive. When adequate manpower is not present on the initial alarm, crews and commanders are forced to make some tough decisions. However, if close attention is paid to the stated objectives of fire department operations — life safety, incident stabilization and property conservation — the decisions almost make themselves.

Crews must use tactics that support strategies, which in turn support objectives, exercise good judgment and always realize that there is such a thing as people beyond saving.

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