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Video: Pa. blaze highlights unique challenges posed by row house fires

Firefighters must address three key issues: space to position apparatus, overhead obstructions and building access

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Many communities have row housing, or a version of it, within their boundaries. This is where several homes are grouped together in a row and connected to each other sharing a common wall. Row housing is often located on main streets or in areas of limited space.

The construction of these structures is cost-effective for the builder, and they are usually less expensive than a stand-alone single-family home. There are building codes that apply to these types of homes, such as fire walls between each unit so there is not a common or open attic space above the homes, creating containment within each unit.

Structure fires within row homes can present challenges for the responding fire department.

Our corresponding video, taken at a row house fire in Pennsylvania, highlights some of the challenges that are going to be encountered.

Room to move: One challenge is having enough space for responding fire apparatus to stage and be positioned. The row houses typically don’t have a front yard, more often just a street front with either no grass yard or a very small courtyard. Plus, there are usually parked cars on one or both sides of the street, reducing the amount of asphalt that can be used for apparatus staging and positioning. This requires the responding officers and drivers of each fire apparatus to position their apparatus in a way that will benefit the entire operation. In some instances, only one lane is available for staging.

With limited space, the engine, truck and rescue companies need to be coordinated in how they approach row housing fires, giving priority to the aerial operations for primary staging spots and giving the engine the ends of each staging area. Hoselines can be extended and stretched as needed to reach the acquired building, whereas the aerial device will be limited in its reach.

Overhead obstructions: The second challenge is going to be multiple overhead obstructions, like wires from power lines, telecommunications and other utilities. Such obstructions will limit aerial operations, confining the working box area above and around the row housing. Experienced aerial crews will need to navigate around, and sometimes through, the openings among the obstructions. Some overhead obstructions will be so dense that aerial operations are essentially excluded from the operation.

Building access: The third challenge will be access to the entire building from the sides and/or the rear. Depending upon how the row housing is built in relation to the rest of the buildings on that street, there will be some level of limited access to the sides and rear of the buildings. This will require crews to respond to the rear of the building if there is access to it with a laneway or another street. In some instances, there is no access to the rear of the building.

These three issues are the primary challenges the fire department will face when responding to row house fires. With each challenge comes a domino that can fall due to poor decision-making related to staging trucks and working around the building, both above and around. They will only compound the problem and prolong the incident.

Training time

After watching the video and reading about these challenges with your company, I recommend building a training day around row house fire challenges. Here’s are two options to get you started:

  1. Find a section of row housing in your area, and practice staging two or three fire trucks from different directions. See what best suits your response criteria for the row housing buildings that are present.
  2. Develop a preplan for the row housing in your response district to identify the access points for both foot traffic and responding fire apparatus.

Mark van der Feyst has been in the fire service since 1998, currently serving as a firefighter with the Fort Gratiot Fire Department in Michigan. He is an international instructor teaching in Canada, the United States and India. He graduated from Seneca College of Applied and Technologies as a fire protection engineering technologist, and received his bachelor’s degree in fire and life safety studies from the Justice Institute of British Columbia and his master’s degree in safety, security and emergency management from Eastern Kentucky University. van der Feyst is the lead author of the book “Residential Fire Rescue” and “The Tactical Firefighter.” Connect with van der Feyst via email.