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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After the fire extension under the porch roofs is addressed, hoselines can be stretched into the exposed structures and original fire building, and the fire can be brought under control. The overhauling required can be quite involved. Each property must be checked for fire extension. There can be interconnection between the porch roof and void spaces within the building. Fire can easily travel into the walls of the upper floors, necessitating that firefighters check these areas for fire spread.

Front cornices can be constructed of sheet metal. They are often non-fire-stopped and may interconnect from one property to the next. On arrival at a working fire, it is not unusual to have smoke pushing from the cornices of many properties. The immediate need for ventilation is indicated, and a close watch must be maintained to see if the smoke subsides after ventilation has been performed or continues to be produced. If it continues, it could indicate a common cockloft or that the fire has entered the adjacent properties.

Many rowhouses of ordinary construction have combustible frame rears attached. This leads to fire originating in one property spreading to properties alongside and the possibility of jumping across rear yards and extending to the rear of the exposed properties on the opposing street. A fast-moving fire involving many properties needs to be addressed with a minimum of 2½-inch hoselines working from each side to contain and knock down the fire, preventing further escalation.

Another problem with extension confronting firefighters in a building heavily involved in fire is that joists laid in the common party wall may abut the joists in the adjoining buildings. This allows conduction of fire from one building to the next. Overhauling must ascertain that fire has not extended to another building. This can be checked in the overhauling stages through the use of a thermal imaging camera or by pulling ceilings in the fire building and if fire is found playing a stream into the affected areas. It may necessitate opening walls and ceilings in exposed buildings.

Truck Company Operations

Due to narrow streets restricting aerial apparatus and limited rear-yard access, portable ladders are the mainstay of rowhouse and townhouse firefighting operations. When the upper floors are set back from the rear, shorter ladders can be used. It is a common practice to place one ladder that will reach the roof and top-floor windows from the ground in the open light and air shafts, along with two 16-foot portable ladders to cover the rear. With multiple roofs, the 16-foot ladders can be placed for each roof, or they can be pulled up as each level is reached to gain access to the next roof level. Full-depth properties require portable ladders that allow access from the ground level to the roof and upper-floor windows.

Attics and Cocklofts

If adjacent buildings are the same height, roof access can be gained from another building and firefighters can walk down roofs to the fire building. Adjoining roofs allow firefighters a secondary means of egress when performing roof operations. If driveways exist in the rear of the properties, aerial ladder use may be possible.

If attic or cockloft areas are heavily involved in fire and no fire walls exist between the houses, then the roof should be immediately opened to prevent the mushrooming of the fire under the roof and prevent the spread of fire to the adjoining properties. If the fire has already spread to the other properties additional roof openings may be needed.

Light and air shafts present a danger to firefighters operating on roofs. During nighttime or smoky operations, firefighters accidentally stepping into these shafts can fall a number of stories to the ground. These same shafts can provide a means of exterior ventilation on flat-roofed buildings. Ventilation can be achieved from the roof by firefighters utilizing tools and reaching down to break windows on the upper floors of the fire building. Realize that fire may extend via these windows to the next building.

Electrical service supplied from overhead wiring can enter the property from the front or the rear. The electric wiring may be attached to the rear of the properties and extend the length of the block.

Fire lapping out of windows can cause a problem with the electrical service lines as they enter or are attached to the property. This will require a quick response from the local electric company to alleviate the potential of electric shock from downed wires or electrified portions of the building, allowing firefighters to ladder the building, ventilate, make rescues and extinguish the fire.