Rowhouse and Townhouse Fires: Characteristics and Considerations

Aug. 11, 2009
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 roof. The fire then mushroomed laterally to involve the undersides of the roofs of six properties. Window glass was breaking on the exposures and fire was starting to enter those properties.

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 roof. The fire then mushroomed laterally to involve the undersides of the roofs of six properties. Window glass was breaking on the exposures and fire was starting to enter those properties. The captain of Engine 45 immediately struck a second alarm and ordered 2½-inch hoselines to be positioned on each side to stop any further spread of fire. Before the first two hoselines were operating, the fire had extended to four additional properties.

Once the water from the 2½-inch hoselines were flowing, they darkened down the exterior fire. One of the 2½-inch lines was then stretched into the original fire building to control the fire and search for the reported occupants. The fire had started near the first-floor front window and, as the windows broke, the additional supply of air allowed it to extend vertically via the open interior stairs to heavily involve all three floors. As the 2½-inch line knocked down the first-floor fire, 1¾-inch hoselines were stretched to the upper floors.

The only access to the rear of the rowhouses was through a narrow alley. Portable ladders were carried from the end of the blocks to place them for rescue, roof access and ventilation. Hoselines were stretched to the rear to control any extension of fire. These rear ladder placements and hoseline stretches were time consuming and took their toll on the firefighters.

With the fire knocked down on the exterior, the problem now became the spread of fire to the interior of the exposed dwellings. The firefighters knew that the underside of the porch roofs often interconnected with the second-floor wall partitions allowing fire to spread to those common areas. As companies were opening the porch roofs to expose hidden fire, thermal imaging cameras were used to check interior walls and ceilings. Fortunately, there were eight-inch masonry walls separating the dwellings and those walls created a parapet through the roof that acted as a barrier against fire spread in the cocklofts. The search for occupants proved negative.


There are many cities and towns in the United States with block after block of rowhouse or townhouse dwellings. They were built to meet the demand for economical housing. Because they share common party walls, they were inexpensive to build. A block containing over 60 contiguous dwellings is commonplace. The buildings can be either ordinary or frame construction.

Rowhouses and townhouses vary in size. They can be up to four stories high and range from 13 to 20 feet wide by 30 to 65 feet deep, though depths of over 100 feet are not uncommon. The average rowhouse is 14 feet wide by 40 feet deep and two to three stories high; townhouses are typically somewhat larger and average 18 feet wide and 40 to 50 feet deep. Townhouses are not typically set in the same contiguous style as rowhouses. Though long blocks can be found, more often they are in smaller groupings with some open space between sets of townhouses.

The upper floors can be the same depth as the first floor, or they may be set back from the rear of the property. This means that if the first floor is 65 feet deep, the second floor can be set back from the rear one room, or 50 feet deep, and the third floor can be set back from the rear by another room, or 35 feet deep.

Townhouses may be large complexes of buildings. Though commonly built as single-family occupancies, some locales will find multi-family units. They may be built as rental units or condominiums with each floor containing a separate living space. Rowhouses and townhouses can contain flat or peaked roofs. The flat roof has a cockloft formed between the roof and the ceiling of the top floor. The cockloft in the front of the structure is normally higher and the roof pitches to the rear where the roof rafters meet the ceiling joist. This angle or pitch allows rainwater to drain to the rear of the property. The peaked roof may be attic space or contain living quarters. Townhouses may have very large attic or cockloft areas constructed of lightweight construction. These areas will supply ample fuel to a fire that extends to that location.

Buildings of ordinary construction have a common party, or bearing-wall that contains a double (eight-inch) wythe of brick or eight-inch concrete or composition block that is shared with the adjoining property. The front and rear walls are normally nonbearing walls. The townhouse may contain fire-rated drywall in lieu of the masonry party wall.

Old Vs. New

The older rowhouses were built with full-sized lumber used for floor joists, roof rafters, flooring and roof planks. The floor joists and roof rafters range from full two-by-10-inch to three-by-10-inch wooden beams. Flooring is full-sized one-by-four-inch tongue-and-groove boards, and the roof planks are an inch thick.

Newer rowhouses and townhouses mimic typical ordinary construction, but include the use of lightweight components. Townhouses are often of frame construction. They may contain brick veneer, which could give the appearance of ordinary construction. There is usually a light and air shaft between the buildings. This allows windows to open onto the shaft in rooms that ordinarily would not have outside light. There are different types of light and air shafts. In large buildings, the windows open onto an enclosed shaft that is open at the top. Shafts can also be formed by having the width of the building at the rear of the structure narrower on one side, leaving the shaft open on the rear.

The rear of the row of houses on one street backs up to the rear of those on the opposing street. There may be narrow alleyways between the rears of the rowhouses and townhouses. In some areas, the small rear yards are lined with fences that abut the rear fence of the yard on the opposing street, limiting access to the rear yard. This may necessitate that units attempting to gain access to the rear go through an adjoining property or climb over many fences with ladders and tools to reach the rear, a time-consuming and sometimes dangerous chore.

Firefighters can be faced with a variety of fences. They can be wood, masonry or metal fabric. They are often to a height in excess of five feet for privacy and may be topped with barbed wire or glass embedded in the tops of walls to deter the criminal element. The presence of attack dogs is another potential concern. Newer townhouses may have ample backyards which are located a distance from the rear of those on the opposing street. A problem will exist if these structures are situated on a waterfront where there is access to only one side of the structure limiting the fire department's approach.

Some newer rowhouses and typically all townhouses have garages at the basement or first-floor level. Garages in the rear have driveways that access the rear of the properties, facilitating the approach for apparatus and firefighters. It is common to find the first floor at the ground level in the front and the basement and garage at ground level in the rear.

Because the basement is at ground level in the rear, it raises the level of the living quarters another story above grade, requiring longer ladders and causing severe injuries if occupants jump from these upper-floor windows to escape a fire prior to arrival of the fire department. These multiple levels can deceive responders and require a 360-degree walk-around to ensure a proper size-up. The garage can also be found in the front of the house on the first-floor level and the rear of the property is situated at the same level.

In many older rowhouses, the bearing walls constructed of brick have wooden wall studs attached to them with the floor butted up against the studs. This creates continuous voids from the basement or cellar to the cockloft or attic, similar to balloon-frame construction. A fire occurring in a cellar or basement with voids leading to the attic or cockloft area demands that firefighters check the void areas above for fire extension. Fire in concealed spaces can burn unnoticed by firefighters. If discoloration of the plaster is seen or if any doubt exists as to whether fire has entered these voids, the area should be inspected with a thermal imaging camera. If any doubt exists, a tool should be used to open the suspected areas to check for spread of fire.

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.

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.

JAMES P. SMITH, a Firehouse® contributing editor, recently retired as a deputy chief of the Philadelphia Fire Department. He is an adjunct instructor at the National Fire Academy and the author of the book Strategic and Tactical Considerations on the Fireground, second edition, published by Brady/Prentice Hall, and the accompanying Strategic and Tactical Considerations on the Fireground Study Guide, second edition, published by Trafford Press. He may be contacted at [email protected].

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