Claustrophobia

In the name of affordable housing and the American dream to own a home, higher density construction emerged as a means for reducing the price sticker for the new houses.


Before putting the wet stuff on the red stuff though, we need to vent the building. Laddering could be a major concern for the firefighters responding to these cluster dwellings. Considering narrow street frontage, laddering the front of these cluster homes in itself is definitely challenging even on flat grade. Raising a 28-foot ground ladder to the second story window on the side of these cluster dwellings might not even be possible. And the 35-foot ground ladder would not be adequate to safely get to the roof of the three-story dwellings.

Of course, that is even more challenging when the exterior wall is only three feet to the property line. Even trying to raise the 35-foot ladder from the neighbor's house (which is also only three feet away on the other side of the property line) to reach the roof would result in a very steep and unsafe climbing angle of around 80 degrees.

Don't get me wrong, one way or another we will eventually get it done, as we always do. But then all that takes time. And time is not what we have too much of when responding to fires. Think about it, considering the lightweight truss construction of these clustered dwellings, and their collapse potential in fire scenarios, do we really have much time to spare? With these cluster design lightweight construction dwellings, fact of the matter is that the more time we spend on setting up, the less time our firefighters would have for interior search and rescue, and roof ventilation.

Simply, these three story cluster dwellings are out of reach for the safe operation of our ground ladders. Logically, utilization of the aerial units is much safer for our rescue and ventilation operations. But then try to get a ladder truck in these narrow streets is itself a challenge at times. And even then, if the engines get there first and are staged in front of these narrow street frontage dwellings and stretch all their supply lines in these narrow streets, placement of the aerial in a usable position would be even more challenging.

Fire station locations and area coverage, apparatus allocations and staffing, future planning and the new fire station design, are the other important angles that the fire chief should consider in reviewing the challenges associated with these cluster developments.

It probably is a little different back East with all the old high-rises spread throughout the cities; but here out West, historically most of the aerials were stationed around the downtown areas where the majority of the commercial mid-rises or high-rises were constructed. With the urban sprawl of the past decades, the fire stations built to provide coverage for the suburbs, were generally designed for a couple of fire engines and a rescue unit. After all, most of those tract developments were far apart and only two stories high.

But now, with these new three-story cluster housing developments, the aerials are much more essential and their prompt arrival at the fire ground is of even of more importance. Therefore the extensive travel time to get to the suburbs from the downtown stations would be more detrimental to our operations.

The solution though, might not be as easy as merely relocating the aerials to the fire stations in the suburbs. More than likely, the aerials are too long and will not fit in the bays of the existing fire stations. Unless, of course parking the aerials outside is an option that you are willing to entertain. Again we might be able to mitigate this situation if these cluster dwellings were protected with fire sprinklers. There is always more than one solution.

Here is the problem. Many fire departments are not fully cognizant of these new challenges with the cluster home developments. And what they don't know would also prolong the problem well into the future. After all, most fire departments use their cookie-cutter fire station designs for their future stations as they have historically done in the past. Therefore, one can expect that fitting the aerials into the fire stations would still be an afterthought, well into the future.

I believe that we in the fire service need to get actively involved in our planning commission meetings and public hearings, especially when such cluster developments are being proposed. Fire station location, apparatus placement, equipment, and staffing requirements are very important and costly factors that the fire chief and the jurisdictions' political and administrative leadership must consider upfront. After all, these are major decisions and extensive capitol expenditures that deserve in-depth review.