Rowhouse and Townhouse Fires: Characteristics and Considerations

Fire was showing from the middle of the block of identical three-story rowhouses. The block contained over 60 dwellings with contiguous porch front roofs the length of the block. Engine 45 saw heavy fire blowing out of the first-floor front windows and...


Fire was showing from the middle of the block of identical three-story rowhouses. The block contained over 60 dwellings with contiguous porch front roofs the length of the block. Engine 45 saw heavy fire blowing out of the first-floor front windows and attacking the underside of the wooden porch...


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In rowhouses, the stairs are often steep, hallways can be long and both are often narrow. These tight quarters restrict firefighting operations. Transoms still exist in many of these structures. These are operable glass windows above the doorways into rooms. They were installed for air circulation from the hallway. Under fire conditions, fire and smoke can extend from the fire room to adjoining hallways and into other rooms through the transom.

Firefighting Practices

Fires have claimed many lives in these structures. Their small size confines the smoke and heat of a fire and limits the number of firefighters that can operate within these buildings. During initial size-up, it can be difficult to observe conditions in the rear. It is usually not practical, due to time constraints, to physically encircle the full row of dwellings. One way to gain access is through an adjacent property to see what problems exist in the rear.

Fireground strategy must address the many possible areas of fire extension. With long blocks of dwellings and entry to the rear limited, a standard operational guideline can designate specific areas of assignment for each unit on the initial dispatch. One method mandates the first-due engine and the first-due truck to the front of the dwelling. The second-due engine and the second-due truck would respond to the rear. This type of sectoring ensures adequate coverage. Assignments can and must be changed by the incident commander to address incident priorities.

Coordination and communication are essential. Firefighting in these structures is punishing to the firefighters. If possible, the fire should be fought offensively. The life factors involved demand a quick and coordinated attack on the fire while rescues are being made. Information gleaned from the rear can be given to the units responding to that area. They can then bring the necessary hoselines, ladders and tools needed to perform their tasks. Narrow streets restrict entry of apparatus and necessitate the stretching of hoselines by hand from the intersecting streets.

Though these structures may be four stories in height, they are not equipped with standpipes. This necessitates the manual stretching of hoselines to the upper floors. Long stretches mean that pre-connected hoselines may not reach the fire and extra hoseline must be added to the stretch. The hoseline of choice is 1½-inch or 1¾-inch. A good practice is to stretch a 2½-inch or three-inch hose-line and attach a gated-wye to break down to 1½- or 1¾-inch lines.

Interior partition walls separate the floor area into many small rooms and reduce the effective reach of hoselines. Smaller properties require only one length of hoseline per floor. The many partition walls and doorways tend to hang up the hoseline as you attempt to advance, and firefighters must be stationed to assist in feeding the line forward. As the structures get bigger, the problems increase almost in proportion to the building's size. The higher and deeper the property, the more challenging the fire problem.

Interior spread of fire can be difficult to contain. Many older structures initially had hot-air, coal heat in the basement. Heated air was carried via ducts to the upper floors. The duct was often sheet metal lining a wall void with a hot-air register placed in each room. The cold-air return was accomplished by placing open grates in the flooring of the first floor. A fire in the cellar or basement of a building with such a system has a ready avenue to extend quickly to the floors above.

Building Fronts

The fronts of the older rowhouses may have a continuous wooden porch roof extending the length of the block. Fire starting on a porch or lapping out porch front windows can quickly spread to many properties via combustible porches. A coordinated attack must be made on arrival in such a situation. A hoseline must be deployed from each end to stop the lateral spread. This may encompass master streams in a blitz attack or handheld 2½-inch or 1¾-inch hoselines, depending on the amount of fire and the access available. It is not unusual to have 10 or more properties involved. A quick response can knock down the fire and minimize the problem on the adjacent properties.