By Greg Jakubowski
Published Thursday, May 17, 2012
| From the July 2012 Issue of FireRescue
Over the past 15–20 years, the majority of new homes built in the United States have been constructed with lightweight wood, vinyl siding and asphalt shingle roofs. A number of articles have been written about the challenges that these homes present to firefighters when making an interior attack. In just the past year, a number of incidents have occurred that clearly demonstrate the heavy fire conditions that firefighters may observe on arrival. Add to that the proximity of exposures in newly constructed neighborhoods, and first-due units could face multiple dwellings that are either involved or exposed upon arrival.
Often referred to as “cluster homes,” these types of homes are designed to be lived in comfortably, but they will also burn fiercely due to their highly combustible construction and their open floor plans, which provide little impediment to rapid fire spread. As a result, these homes present a higher potential for significant collapse than more traditional types of residential dwellings.
Note: A simple video search [of www.statter911.com] for videos of recent house fires in Maryland, Virginia, Alabama and elsewhere shows how quickly this type of construction burns, or “disappears,” as some firefighters have put it.
In this article, I’ll provide tactical suggestions to firefighters when presented with fires in dwellings made of these highly combustible construction materials.
As stated, a common feature among many modern housing developments is the close proximity of the homes, which is done to promote interaction between residents and to create common open space within the development.
These homes can be one, two or three stories, but fires in these neighborhoods can provide some of the same fire spread challenges as garden-style apartment buildings, or “triple-deckers,” which are often seen in the New England area, and wood-frame homes built close together in beachfront communities.
I’ve been to my share of garden apartment fires and witnessed first-hand the speed at which fire can travel laterally in these buildings, particularly on dry, windy days. The same potential for lateral fire spread presents itself in newer developments, because they are sometimes separated by a mere 10 feet, with no fire walls facing the exposure. Gypsum board will be on the inside of the exterior wall, but there will be plenty of combustible material on the outside of the wall, which facilitates spread from the fire building.
Windows are likely to be present on the facing walls, and due to the commonality of designs, this can further exacerbate the potential for fire spread from dwelling to dwelling.
For these reasons, incident commanders (ICs) must ensure that extra resources are either en route or on scene that they can deploy quickly into each exposure building to check for extension.
Be ready—you’ll need a lot of water to get an effective knockdown on a well-involved fire in a cluster structure. Forget the small preconnects on the apparatus on these jobs; you’ll need some heavy firepower, such as 2½" or 3" handlines, or portable or fixed master streams on your apparatus, if you need to darken down these types of fires very rapidly.
Important: Consider your resources before the tones go off: Is your apparatus set up to flow a lot of water quickly with the staffing level that you normally have early on at an incident? Can you put one master stream on the fire building, and perhaps a large handline or portable master stream on an exposure building at the same time?
Anticipate putting into service at least two or more large-diameter handlines (LDH) or master stream devices that flow a total of 2,000 gpm. Plan on “dropping in” from at least two different directions, typically each end of the street. Lay an LDH, or dual smaller lines if that’s all you have, but make sure you have engines that can pick up those supply lines and pump them from the water supply so you have the flow and pressure you need on the fireground.
If you’re lucky, you have a good water supply in the development, but make sure the hydrant system can support the larger flows you need. In my district, we have several newly constructed neighborhoods with hydrant systems that are only capable of supplying a total of 1,000 gpm. If you’re in this situation, consider using at least two tender shuttles as alternatives and positioning them on either end of the street. You might also consider a nursing operation (if you have tenders that can pump at 1,000 gpm or more) through a dual-clappered LDH Siamese, or a dump tank operation.
Tips when using tenders and dump tanks:
- Make sure the dump tanks don’t block the street on which the house is located. Position them elsewhere, perhaps around the corner from the fire building.
- Have enough tenders en route to ensure a continuous water supply.
- Establish locations for the tenders to fill.
- Assign a water supply officer to coordinate the entire operation.
Remember: Narrow streets with parking on both sides will make this type of incident feel a lot like fighting fire in older residential neighborhoods, which are common in many urban settings across the country—except those houses are often made of ordinary construction that doesn’t have the level of combustibility of current homes.
Aerial Apparatus Considerations
The street frontage for cluster homes is often limited, and there’s normally little to no access for apparatus on sides B or D (and perhaps limited on side C), making placement of apparatus critical.
Normally, I’m a big fan of getting an aerial apparatus positioned on side A of the fire building, but in this case, heavy fire conditions may make it impossible to accomplish this without risking damage to the apparatus. A better position might be off the A/B or A/D corner, allowing the aerial master stream to affect a knockdown and protect the exposure building.
Remember: Narrow streets and parked cars may limit your ability to position outriggers. To avoid spatial problems with outriggers, determine which neighborhoods in your response area might cause a problem. Then design any new aerial apparatus with those neighborhoods in mind. Once the apparatus is delivered, take it out into your area to figure out how you would position it and set it up under heavier fire conditions. Once hoselines are laid, it will become harder and harder to get any usable aerial placement near the fire building.
Another area of concern with fires in these dwellings is the involvement of gas and electric meters that are typically located on a front corner or side of a residential dwelling. Heavy fire conditions can preclude the ability to control utilities from alongside the house, and may likely require a shut-off from somewhere on the street. Request assistance from the utility companies as soon as you realize you have an involved fire in these dwellings.
Everyone Must Do Their Part
A bit of planning and training will pay great dividends when faced with a heavily involved, newly constructed residence that sits 10 feet from its neighbor. Practice arriving on scene with limited staffing and rapidly setting up to flow several large-caliber streams. Spend time determining how to set up aerial apparatus on roadways with vehicles parked on either side.
On scene, command needs to 1) ensure enough resources are on the way to initiate a heavy fire attack, 2) check and protect exposure buildings, 3) establish water supply and 4) provide all the other support functions to make the overall operation a success.
At the end of the incident, it’s quite likely that there will be little left of the original fire building; however, if you’re ready to face this type of fire scenario, you may successfully contain the fire to the building of origin—and all things considered, that will be no small feat.
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