When we think about a structure fire, the most common thing that comes to mind is a residential fire. In my mind, that is a normal size house with two or three bedrooms, either a ranch or a two story with the bedrooms upstairs. It is pretty easy to figure the layout of these buildings before we go in by the style, the windows and the roof vents. Apartments are typically smaller, either one or two bedrooms and usually all on one level.
There are some big differences in the way we handle a fire in an apartment compared to a home. When we arrive at a residential fire, there are a couple things that we look for that come second nature. We look for cars in the driveway to give us an idea of occupants in the building. Empty driveway during the day likely means no one’s home. A mini-van in the driveway, a swing set in the yard, and a couple bikes around tell us there are probably some people in the building including some kids. Pulling up to an apartment we don’t have any of these clues.
Another part of the size up is to walk around the building. When we do this walk around, we look for smoke or fire in windows, building exits, and signs of trapped occupants. Many apartment buildings are too large to walk around and matching a window with an apartment number is pretty tough. We can still do a walk around if the building isn’t too large, or we can have another company check the back side of the building.
Getting a hose line in place at an apartment can be a lot more difficult than up the front sidewalk and in the front door. A second or third floor apartment will take more time and more manpower. Hydrant access will be more difficult in a parking lot full of cars. A lot of apartment complexes will not have access to use your aerial ladder because of courtyards, swimming pools and parked vehicles.
A normal residence is built of wood, but a normal apartment is built of concrete. Concrete slabs on top of concrete walls make it impossible to perform vertical ventilation. Opening patio doors and front doors of apartments is the best way to clear smoke from an apartment. If interior hallways are present make sure you vent the smoke to the outside, and leave the hallway clear for residence leaving the building.
One good thing about an apartment fire is that the concrete construction makes it easier to confine the fire to one unit. The concrete construction will hold in the heat making the interior hotter, but the units above and below are less likely to be affected.
A lot of these issues can be addressed in proper building preplans. Preplanning won’t eliminate the problems, but it will help you be aware of some of these situations. Preplans can’t just be put in a book or computer. Take your company out to the complex and walk through some of the possible scenarios and discuss the options. Apartment fires need a little different approach, if you know what to expect you won’t be surprised.
By John Morse