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Video: Crews respond to a multi-structure rowhouse fire

Five considerations for first-arriving crews to prevent the situation from deteriorating

In many urban and suburban neighborhoods, developers maximize land use by building residential structures very close together. While single-family homes may be tight on space in between dwellings, one rowhouse block of units will contain multiple dwellings side by side to form one large building – a challenge for firefighters.

This month’s video showcases that challenge as crews respond to row housing with three units showing full fire involvement from the rear.

5 considerations for responding to a multi-structure fire

Multiple structures can equal multiple dominoes for responding personnel when first arriving on scene.

1. Staffing. Is there adequate staffing to mitigate the situation? The first-arriving units set the stage for how the response unfolds. Will it be a success or will the situation deteriorate due to limited hands available?

2. Heat. Another factor is the high heat release rate (HRR) that is produced by the fuel load of multiple structures on fire. In our video example, it is the rear of the structures that are combusting; the rear of most homes will have porches with barbecue equipment, patio furniture, vinyl cladding on the outside of the building, attached sheds, etc., that are all contributing to the fuel load. The HRR produced will lead to exposures igniting through radiant heat transfer.

3. Surrounding structures. Crews should also consider the exposures located next to the on-fire dwelling. The number of units on fire will depend upon the exposure protection built into the structure, such as fire walls between the units and fire stops in the common attic, as well as the location of the next block of units to the main fire unit. Exposure protection may need to be initiated right away by the first arriving crews to prevent the spread of fire and to contain it just the one block of units or the fire unit itself.

4. Occupant tracking. Multiple dwellings equals multiple occupants. Searching each unit helps ensure there is no life inside that can be rescued. This includes the units on either side of the fire units, as sometimes occupants are not aware of the situation and may still be inside.

5. Water supply. Big water will be needed for multiple structures on fire – getting large amounts of water on the flames quickly will help decrease fire spread. This can be accomplished with a few different tactics, such as dumping all the tank water with the deck gun and hooking up the next-in engine to supply the first engine to continue with deck gun application while a water source is secured.

We’ve only highlighted a few considerations for a multi-structure fire, but if these simple primary factors are not addressed immediately, they will lead to major issues amid a worsening situation.

Training time

After watching this video, take the following training actions:

  1. Preplan your response district based on the number and type of multi-family dwellings.
  2. Discuss how staffing levels might affect your response and create a contingency plan.
  3. Set up a training scenario where large water needs to be applied right away by the first arriving engine or 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.