Private-Dwelling Fire Challenges

By George Healy

Private-dwelling fires are a standard response for many fire departments. These incidents, however, are challenging and dangerous operations. The combustible nature of private dwellings coupled with a lack of inherent fire protection leads to rapid and advanced fire conditions on arrival.

Many areas around the country have seen a proliferation of the conversion of private dwellings into multiple dwellings. Homes that were designed and constructed to house a single family routinely can be found to be occupied by as many as four families. This overoccupancy increases the potential frequency of fire incidents as well as greatly increases the life hazard. Most departments arriving a fire in a private dwelling will be challenged to control the fire and rapidly search for and removed trapped occupants.

Operations will require tight coordination between units conducting searches and line advance. The truck company must rapidly force entry into the structure and facilitate line advancement and extinguishment of the fire. The truck company must conduct a rapid size-up of the fire building including the ventilation profile and determine the most appropriate door to provide the best access to the fire area. Both the truck and engine company must commence their operations and fire attack through the same door to the structure.

Because of the frequency of renovations in private dwellings, you should take the time to ensure the correct door is forced that will ensure access to the fire area. With the conversion of a private dwelling into a multiple dwelling, often doors are added to the structure, and the correct door must be used to access the fire area. The truck company should ensure that line advance is extinguishing the fire prior to tactically venting the structure.

A determined search of the structure is a high priority, ensuring all levels of the home are searched. Experience shows that attic and cellar spaces that were designed for storage and utilities are now commonly found to be inhabited and require search. Multiple search teams should be deployed early in the operation. Interior search crews and exterior search crews should coordinate their operations, ensuring primary searches are rapidly completed and avoiding duplication of their efforts until the primaries are completed. Exterior search crews should vent-enter-isolate-search to improve victim survivability as well as their safety.

The first-arriving engine company should try to enter the block ahead of the ladder apparatus, momentarily stopping just past the front entrance of the home to drop two hoselines in the street, then repositioning at the hydrant, leaving the front of the home for ladder positioning. Rapid water and line advance are vital for a successful operation. Booster water should be called for by the engine officer as soon as the line is ready to enter the immediately dangerous to life or health environment. The hoseline must be charged prior to entering the structure. Booster water will allow line advance and extinguishment as hydrant hookup is being accomplished.

The engine company officer must remain aware of the line advance and how far the crew advances prior to a positive water supply being established. Extinguishment will facilitate search operations and removal of any trapped occupants. As the first line is advanced to extinguish the fire, it is vitally important to charge and position the second line. The second line will back up the first line and can be used to extinguish fire extension. As a minimum, two lines should be stretched and charged for a fire in a private dwelling. If the second line is put into operation, the incident commander (IC) must ensure a third line is stretched and charged, ready for immediate deployment.

Incident command must be established. These structures lend themselves to the IC completing a rapid 360° survey of the structure to increase situational awareness. The IC should note the ventilation profile, topography, and height of the structure; available access into the fire building; ongoing operations and status of line advance and searches; water source; and need for additional resources. The IC should establish from neighbors and onlookers if there are credible reports of persons trapped and ensure the units on the scene are made aware of those reports. To increase situational awareness, the IC should contact operating units to establish the status of the searches, tactics employed, unit location in the building, fire location, and fire extension.

Because of their construction and typical fuel load, private-dwelling fires will develop and spread rapidly. The immediate stretching and operating of a hoseline will protect many lives as well as property; quick water is the best water. Coordinated search and removal of distressed or trapped occupants must occur with line advance and fire extinguishment.

Although for many departments these are standard responses, there are many hazards for the civilians as well as operating units. ICs must ensure good fireground communications and the coordination of operations, adjusting tactics to address the life hazards and changing conditions to ensure a successful operation.

George Healy, a 30-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York, is deputy chief of development. His assignments have included 13th Division, a firefighter on Ladder 3 and Rescue 1, a lieutenant on Ladder 174, a captain of Division 14, and Special Operations Command. He was the chief at the Governor’s Island burn testing. He is a fire service instructor I and an instructor of the Battalion Chief Command course.

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