Responding to Fires in Garden Apartments

Have your ever had one of those fires that really challenged you–mentally and physically–and for several days after the event you keep going over it in your head? You consider all the things that went right and all the things that went wrong, and what your department needs to do to make sure that the next time it happens things are going to be a little different.

I had one of those fires over the July 4th holiday. It was a three-story garden apartment condo that presented a number of issues, including extremely limited access due to rock cliffs on one side, a lake on the other and a well-developed fire in the middle on arrival.

As I reviewed the strategies and tactics that we used that evening, it made me think about the things that you need to do right when encountering the garden-apartment fire. The following list isn’t based on strategic or tactical priorities; it’s simply some factors that may help improve your fireground operations. You can drill on each of the following over a couple of weeks, or just pick and choose the ones you think your crew needs.

Note: You’ll notice that I didn’t include the life safety component, because we all know the importance of completing a search due to the high life hazard that garden apartments present. So just because it’s not on this short list doesn’t mean it’s not important. Life safety is always job #1.

Locate, Isolate & Extinguish
This is easy to say but hard to do. If you have a “go-getter” fire company that’s aggressive and likes to take the fight to the fire with go-for-the-throat style, you may find that garden apartments can play some tricks on you.

It’s really critical for you to first find the fire’s exact location and amount of extension. It’s easy for the fire to get past you–either above you in the attic or below you in void spaces like truss floors or service chases–and you don’t realize it until it’s too late. Taking time to pull ceiling and open other void spaces will pay big dividends in the confinement process and prevent the fire from gobbling up more property than necessary.

Take a Lap
It’s hard to find an after-action report of a fire during which things didn’t go exactly right that doesn’t include the failure to do a 360-degree assessment. It’s a skill, just like pulling hose and throwing ladders, that must be taught and reinforced–in training and on the fireground–as part of the size-up process on every incident. But it’s especially important on garden apartment fires, due to the size and features of such buildings.

Example: Garden apartment buildings often differ in elevation from front to rear. The building might be two stories in the front and five in the back due to elevation change, creating very different fire and smoke conditions from front to rear. This is the type of information you’re able to gather when performing a 360-degree walk-around.

Get in the Voids
Earlier I mentioned the importance of getting ahead of the fire and cutting off the extension–horizontal, vertical or both. To get into the void spaces, you must use hand tools such as pike poles, axes and irons. Every riding seat assignment should have a tool assigned to it based on the riding position responsibilities. If you have to send someone back to the truck to get a pike pole to pull ceiling, it may well be too late by the time they get back with the tool. In training, always reinforce the importance of everyone bringing a tool to the party.

Deploy Handlines
If your department is going to be great at controlling well-developed fires in garden apartments, it better be good at deploying long and multiple handlines into the building to cut off extension and knock down the main body of the fire.

In past Quick Drills I’ve covered the importance of being able to extend the shorter preconnects we frequently use at single-family residences, as well as the longer, larger lines that we need less frequently. The garden-apartment fire definitely falls into the latter category.  

Devise a plan to not only get longer lines into the fight, but also multiple lines. This is important because of the need to deploy lines on both sides of the fire, on several different floors and in the attic–pretty much at the same time.

A fire department can just never be too good at deploying handlines. It’s one of those skills you must work on as often as possible, in as many creative ways as you can think of, to keep the troops from rebelling against yet another handline deployment drill.

Ground Ladders
When responding to garden apartments, there’s always a life hazard component that we must address. It could be the occupants of the building or our own firefighters. You must be prepared to quickly deploy ground ladders to areas of concern to remove any trapped occupants and provide a secondary means of egress for companies operating in the building.

Good ground ladder placement will also support other fireground activities, such as stretching handlines into areas that may present access problems–such as balconies in the rear of the building without stairs to the upper floors. Put simply: Your crews must have the basic skills to select and quickly set ground ladders to the second-, third- and fourth-floor apartment balconies and windows.

Building Construction
There’s always something new to see and learn when it comes to building construction. New techniques and materials are constantly changing the way buildings are made and therefore how they react to fire.

The people who build and own garden apartments want them to be constructed as economically as possible; this usually means light and quick. They really don’t understand the downstream affect that lightweight construction and taking shortcuts have when the building is on fire. Among other issues, lightweight construction can create many voids and utility chases that allow the fire to spread quickly through the building.

So it falls to us to train and act according to conditions that we find at these types of incidents. Every member of your department should have a solid understanding of lightweight construction and how it affects fireground operations at garden apartments.

Fire Behavior
Just as important a topic as building construction is fire behavior and how it affects the way the building will react to being torn apart. This is where knowing how to read smoke and make predictions about where the fire will be 10 minutes from now will be critical to fireground success.

A Final Word
This is certainly not an all-inclusive list of things that will guarantee your department success at your next garden-apartment fire, but reinforcing the basics can lead to substantial improvements in fire attack. As you finish reading this, make your own list of points that you think will help us improve our performance at such incidents–and send your list to me at


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