Establishing Fire Attack Plans for Townhouse Fires

Lt. Michael Daley explains the priorities for engine companies at townhouse fires, including stopping the spread of fire to adjacent structures and saving lives on upper floors.


This month, we will be discussing some strategic considerations for companies when they arrive at a working fire in a townhouse. Previously, we had discussed some of the more common issues with garden apartments, and townhouses have some similar considerations. We will take a look at how these issues affect the operations while at these types of residential units.

As previously stated, engine companies play a key part of the fireground operation and each of these units has specific responsibilities on-scene. Once again we will take each into consideration when dealing with townhouses.

A primary concern of the engine company is not only location of the fire, but also the access route for companies to efficiently reach the seat of the fire (see Photos 1 and 1A). It is important that the engine company members understand and recognize how fire spread may occur, particularly how fire may spread in these occupancies.

Issues For The Initial Company

One of the most critical issues with townhouses is that the living quarters are joined to each other on two sides. Usually, townhouses consist of multiple floors. This also means that the fire load and the victim potential on the upper floors is in the direct path of natural spread, allowing the fire to spread quickly and affect victim egress immediately (see Photo 2). Taking this into consideration, it is vital that control of the stairways and vertical/horizontal arteries in the occupancy are controlled by the first-arriving units. Getting handlines placed to protect the open stairway is a vital task to protect the occupants during their escape, and control most vertical fire spread. Many times, stairwells are open, as found in residential dwellings, and this allows for smoke and heated gases to spread to upper floors, and cuts off any escape paths that the victims may have.

Initial companies should also anticipate fire spread via pipe chases, void spaces and party walls, located throughout the structure. A party wall is a load-bearing wall that serves as a dividing partition between living units. This wall contains pocketing for floor joists from both residences. These open spaces will allow smoke and heat to travel horizontally, resulting in fire spread and possible smoke explosions in adjoining occupancies. It is imperative for companies to access these exposure units to check for extension.

Construction techniques result in voids for utilities and pipes throughout the dwelling, and can serve as an artery for flame spread. One of the biggest voids in the building will be located behind the bathroom wall, in the vicinity of the toilet. Construction practices will allow utilities for multiple occupancies to run in the same void space, increasing the size of the void and the amount of units exposed by the void. This area can be used for both the drain pipes and the vent pipes for each unit, each going in opposite directions. Open this void space and check it thoroughly whenever this area is potentially exposed to fire spread. Additionally, fire spread can travel in the soffit above the kitchen cabinets, allowing for vertical and horizontal spread (see Photo 3). A word of caution: many times kitchen floors have been the initial floors to collapse from below grade fires. In the event flame spread is discovered in the soffit, be sure to take early collapse into consideration.

Just like any other fireground, choosing the right line can make or break any operation. The initial arriving engine company officer has some critical thinking to do: choosing the right size line (diameter and length), and making sure the line can make the required flow to extinguish the fire. But first, the officer needs to know where the fire is, and what stage the fire is in; therefore, location and extent of the fire is considered the most important size-up concern for most officers. Furthermore, how will the company reach the entrance to the unit? Is the unit at the street or set back (see Photo 4)? Before the first company commits, locate the most efficient route to the fire, and then stretch in with the right attack line for fire flow and BTU consumption!

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