Apartment fires that originate on exterior wooden balconies or walkways, and subsequently advance rapidly up exterior walls into the soffit and into the attic are becoming more commonplace. The Omaha (Neb.) Fire Department experienced eight such fires between October 2011 and June 2012.
Post-incident analyses for these fires showed that in each case the fire was well-advanced before the first fire unit arrived. Those reports went on to document that the traditional firefighting tactics employed failed to suppress these fires.
Although initial fire officer size-ups reported that the fires appeared to be interior fires that had burned outward and upward, an investigation later determined they were exterior fires from the beginning.
Exterior fires involving structures built using lightweight building construction techniques and materials — apartment and condominium complexes — tend to burn rapidly, exposing the upper floors, siding and soffits and quickly enter the roof truss space.
And that rapid fire growth causes real problems for firefighters when there are known victims trapped who must be rescued from both the building’s exterior and interior.
Each of the Omaha fires involved three-story lightweight constructed apartment buildings and ignited on areas of the building that were covered with vinyl siding. Vinyl siding quickly melts under fire conditions, exposing preheated, flammable synthetic underlayment material.
In several of the cases, the apartment balconies were inset, in effect creating a three-sided chimney in which balconies were stacked one above the other. The fires thus had an unlimited supply of air and, in several cases, became wind-driven fires.
Indoor smoking is quickly becoming a thing of the past — because of codes and increased health awareness about the hazards of second-hand smoke — especially in newer apartment buildings. All eight of the Omaha fires were found to be caused by improperly discarded smoking materials on the balconies.
Garden-style apartment basics
The fire service definition for garden-style apartments has broadened greatly over the past several decades. Like today’s motels and hotels, garden-style apartment residents can have exterior access for their unit (usually via an exterior wooden walkway) or through common interior corridors.
Typically, they are constructed with lightweight wood components and older occupancies may not have fire sprinklers or firefighting standpipes. Newer garden-style apartments will have fire sprinklers inside the apartments, but may not have sprinkler protection for those exterior wooden walkways.
The lack of smoke alarms or fire sprinklers on these exterior areas of apartment buildings is a major factor in exterior fires gaining such an advantage over firefighters.
The following are six challenges that firefighters face when responding to an apartment complex fire with trapped victims, along with how to overcome them.
1. Access limitations
In suburban settings, these occupancies are often designed to complement the natural surroundings of the environment for aesthetic appeal. Firefighters may encounter substantial grade differences between sides of the structure, narrow access points or long setbacks from the primary entrance road.
Firefighters and officers should conduct pre-fire planning for these types of apartments with attention to access points for pumping apparatus as well as areas that may be inaccessible to aerial devices. It is also important to make careful notes on the laddering challenges the topography or building may present and on any forced-entry obsticles, such as security devices.
Likewise, include past inspection records in the pre-incident plan. In 2015, Cincinnati firefighter Daryl Gordon fell as much as 33 feet down an unsecured elevator shaft and died during a search and rescue operation at a five-story apartment building. That elevator had been cited many times for violations.
2. Fire stream management
Fire-behavior studies by the UL, the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the U.S. Fire Administration have shown that properly applied exterior streams will not push a fire into unburned areas. Fire officers must use this information to aggressively deploy exterior fire streams at lightweight apartment buildings where fire is advancing on the building’s exterior.
This is of paramount importance for a fire that’s threatening to extend into the attic space; once the fire reaches the attic, the risk for structural collapse of the roof support system increases dramatically as the fire impinges on roof trusses and connectors.
Fire officers should look first for the opportunity to employ this tactic before committing time and personnel to making long hose stretches up stairways and down hallways. This is particularly pertinent if fire is showing from accessible windows or doors; in those cases, a transitional fire attack should be promptly initiated.
These tactics can have a significant positive impact on increasing occupant survivability until they can safely self-evacuate or be rescued by firefighters.
3. Multiple occupants endangered
One of a firefighter’s worst nightmares is rolling up on an apartment fire to find multiple victims calling for help from the windows or balconies of upper floors.
In the Our Lady of the Angels school fire in Chicago on Dec. 1, 1958, firefighters were confronted with a well-involved fire coming from the school’s basement. Many teachers and students presented at second-floor windows in dire need of rescue.
Rather than raising a ground ladder to the second floor, the first-arriving engine company officer ordered his firefighters to get a 2½-inch hose line in operation to protect the school’s only interior stairway.
His prompt actions were later credited with saving many of those teachers and students on the second floor. This tactic saved many more than he and his crew would have saved with one ground ladder.
When presented with a similar fire and rescue situation at a garden-style apartment, arriving fire officers and their firefighters can likely have a similar successful outcome by quickly getting exterior fire steams positioned to stop the upward advance of the fire on the building’s exterior.
Engine company firefighters must be prepared for stretches that go beyond the reach of the average pre-connected handline. A good practice is for engine companies to have a 300-foot hose load of a 1¾-inch line complemented by a static bed of 3-inch hose that can be equipped with a gated wye to reach remote areas in rear courtyards and upper floors.
4. Getting lines in place
Instead of advancing a fire attack line up stairs and down long corridors or walkways, a more effective option is to hoist hose and equipment via ropes through a window or over a balcony railing. This should be practiced during company drills and multi-unit training sessions.
This is where the aforementioned 300-foot hose load or the high-rise packs carried by many fire companies can be useful. It’s far easier to stretch hose down flights of stairs to get to the water supply hose.
It is critical that fire companies can make such hose advancements without a detailed explanation by their officer. And that means pre-fire planning and practice.
In addition, practicing long or complex stretches with many turns will help members become more proficient in estimating the amount of hose required to reach an objective.
5. Searching apartments
Residents may not even be aware of a fire. When knocking on doors and alerting them to the need to evacuate, ensure that they do so immediately and give them clear directions to the safest means of egress.
Firefighters conducting searches for potential victims must have a single-family residence mentality and approach to their work. Don’t think you’re searching an apartment — you’re searching a home.
Even a small, one-bedroom apartment may have a 500- to 800-square-foot floor plan; firefighters have become disoriented and died in single-family dwellings of that size.
Firefighters must be prepared to force doors and breach interior walls as they search for victims as well as opening up ceiling spaces to ensure that fire is not working above them. Suggested tools to carry include:
- Flat-head or pick ax.
- Halligan tool.
- 6-foot pike pole or sheetrock pulling tool.
- Thermal imaging camera.
- A rope, minimum length of 50-feet, for use as a tag-line during searches of individual apartments.
- A blanket or salvage cover for dragging unconscious victims.
Crew integrity is a must, even if the crew consists of only two firefighters. Keep in constant verbal communication with team members. Place one firefighter at the apartment entrance as the anchor point for a tagline (there’s that rope) while the other crew member conducts the search.
If a victim is located, the anchor firefighter ties off the rope, follows the tagline to their partner, and they remove the victim following the tagline back to the entrance.
Firefighters must also closely monitor their air supply and accept when it is time to get a new bottle. Being too far in a building for the remaining air in the tank when the heavy-lifting begins puts everyone in the crew at greater risk, including the victim.
6. Victim removal
Saving a victim’s life doesn’t necessarily have to involve their complete removal from a large apartment structure. It may be possible to move them to an area of safe refuge until the situation becomes stable and they can be removed in a more controlled manner.
Don’t fall into the typical mind trap when your crew locates a victim — the mind trap that we all develop in our training where we find a victim, remove them from the training structure and the mission is accomplished.
When you locate a victim, call for more firefighters. At a minimum, your crew is going to exhaust themselves removing that victim and you’ll need to be replaced for the search to continue. Or if you’ve found multiple victims, you’ll need those additional rescuers.
And ladder rescues are no walk in the park. If victims can climb down the ladder with minimal assistance from firefighters, great. But expect that they’ll be heavier and far less compliant than your Rescue Randy.
A properly executed rescue for even an average-sized conscious person is going to take a minimum of three firefighters.
The Loveland (Colo.) Fire Department has developed a good training guide for developing firefighter skills for the safe, effective and efficient removal of a victim via a ground ladder. It’s also a good refresher document for use during fire company drills.