Garden Apartments: What We’ve Learned


Blog by Will Anderson

Platoon Chief with the Euclid Fire Department in Ohio

Garden apartments are found in virtually every community in the United States. Typically, garden apartments are grouped together on a large parcel of property with some being set back far off the main street. If these buildings are not properly pre-planned, a fire or serious emergency will prove difficult for responding fire departments.

This article will cover the characteristics of older garden apartments and how sticking with the basics of firefighting leads to a better operation.

There are many characteristics that make garden apartments unique. The first one we might notice is the entrance into the property. The property is usually served by only one driveway. Add in parking for residents and apparatus placement can be very difficult. If were fortunate, we will have at least one operable hydrant on the property. If not, are your engines capable of long lays to the main street? Also, certain buildings may be set back hundreds of feet off the main drive. Pre-connected hoses may not be an option. Are your apparatus set up with static-hose loads capable of reaching buildings with excessive setbacks? And who will carry the equipment needed to mount an attack on the fire? Your arrival at a working fire in one of these buildings is not the time to figure out who will take what equipment to the front door.

More questions to consider: Is access to the building a problem? Are fences or other barricades in your way? Are there security bars on the windows? In short, pre-planning is essential to success.

Garden apartments usually house up to 12 apartments and are around three stories in height; although some may be taller. Most apartments are served by a common entrance with an open interior stairwell serving each floor of the building. These buildings represent an extremely serious life hazard, regardless of the time of day. Also, these buildings attics are most likely an open and unobstructed lumberyard of dry wood underneath the roof surface. While roofs may be peaked or flat, newer roofs will likely be supported by trusses. Older garden apartments will not utilize truss construction. My experience is that garden apartments are not protected by sprinklers or standpipes.

As we enter an apartment from the stairwell hallway, the first room we usually enter is the kitchen. This is followed by the living room, which is connected to a short hallway where we encounter a bathroom and one or more bedrooms. Most living rooms will have a large opening for horizontal ventilation if there is a balcony with sliding doors, or large picture window, as seen in the picture above. Remember, apartments are stacked in a multi-story building. This means routes for fire extension exist in kitchens and bathrooms where plumbing voids run the vertical length of the building. If the fire has reached flashover, the fire may extend via auto-exposure up to the floor above, and possibly even the attic space. This could result in a fast-moving fire as seen in the picture below.

At this particular fire, the fire originated on the second floor (Division 2) in a bedroom of a three-story garden apartment. There was a delay notifying the fire department. At this incident (pictured above), the door to the apartment on fire held. Conditions in the stairwell were clear as the first line was being stretched. Had the door failed prior to the arrival of the fire department, any civilians evacuating would have been overcome by intense heat and deadly smoke making a bad situation even worse.

Crews at this scene were met by a fast-moving fire that had possession of two apartments with extension into a third apartment and the attic space. Life safety must be given the highest priority. Remember, most lives are protected and saved by strategically placing the first hoseline between the fire and any trapped occupants. Before additional hoselines are put into operation, make sure the first line is up and running. Water kills fire. If we darken down the fire and put it out, everything else usually gets better. Searches are less punishing, overhaul is easier, and property and lives are saved.

Part of a successful incident is the prior knowledge we have of the buildings in our first-due area. Make it a point to get out and learn what types of buildings youre up against. A quick walk around the exterior can make you aware of hydrant locations, overhead obstructions (wires, overhangs, etc.), grade/terrain changes, parking issues, and exposure concerns. Once inside the building, make it a point to locate the utility shut-offs, attic access or roof hatches, and learn the layouts of a typical apartment.

EMS incidents are an excellent opportunity to do this. Identifying these building features will take no more than 10 minutes. Its time well spent. You owe it to yourself, your crew, and your family to make sure everyone goes home at the end of the shift. Thanks for reading and be safe!

About the Author

Will Anderson is a Platoon Chief with the Euclid Fire Department in Ohio. He’s in his 18th year in the fire service and is certified as a State of Ohio Firefighter 2, Fire Instructor, and Paramedic. He recently completed his Fire Officer 1, 2, and 3 training in addition to his Blue Card certification. He has an Associate’s degree in Fire Science, another in Emergency Medical Services, and is nearing completion of his Bachelor’s Degree in Fire Science Administration.

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