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Jan 18, 2005

Close proximity house fires
By Jared B. Goff

A new construction fad on the east coast is a concept called “cluster homes” or homes that are built within arms reach of each other.  The purpose of this is due to a shortage of land and the fact that they have a huge selling rate.  This has proven to be quite a challenge for firefighters which has resulted in large property loss.

The first step in being prepared for these incidents is preplanning.  This is usually accomplished by driving your district and looking at construction sites or talking with the job foreman.  Questions like, what is being built here, what type of construction are you using and are they sprinklered might be good questions to ask.

If the homes are already built, you really can’t miss the cluster home concept.  This picture is a sample of some of the construction features and how they present major exposure problems both vertically and horizontally.  Notice the windows facing the home on the left.  These homes were zoned to be townhouses, yet, they are sold as single family homes.  They are still considered to be town homes because they are actually connected through a wooden breezeway.  These homes are three stories, not sprinklered and are 5 feet apart.


Hopefully, you won’t have to experience the wrath of 4-5 houses fully involved.  But if you do, here are a few critical points gathered from lessons learned:

  • Not establishing a water supply is not an option!  The point of this is to ensure that the first due engine-company knows that the water is coming in order to effect your first blitz.
  • If a house is well involved, the first line(s) must be concentrated on the exposures.  This can be accomplished through one line on each side of the house.  This is one of the most difficult tasks for firefighters.  This is essentially asking firefighters to write of the building.  Keeping in mind our basic priorities “RECEO”, we may determine that no life can be saved.
  • The third “line” can be the deck gun to “darken” down the fire in the house of origin.  Once the house is darkened down, the two lines can take over for a defensive or offensive attack.  This is why the water supply is vital!
  • Additional water supplies need to be established and proper Tower Ladder placement is imperative in case the rest of the row ignites.


  • One very effective tactic that you could use in this instance is a forward blitz attack.  This is where the first due engine stops in front of the house, one firefighter pulls the supply line and the other firefighter pulls the 2 ½ inch hose and disconnects it from the unit.  The engine driver will then drive to the closest hydrant, start water and hook up to a hydrant.  The firefighters, in the mean time, will hook the supply line and the attack line together and call for water.  This gives you a handheld master stream which can be converted to a ground monitor once other companies arrive.  The second due engine should lay out from the hydrant prior to the house, leaving room for the Tower Ladder.
  • Assigning crews to evacuate the exposures must be a priority.  If your staffing allows this, it should be done on the initial arrival of the first due company. 
  • Assign crews to check those same houses for any extension into the exposure house from the house of origin.
  • Be cognizant of collapse!  We have one community where the houses were being built with metal wall studs for a load bearing wall.
  • Assign a RIT or RIC even for exterior operations.
  • If the houses are under construction and there is no life hazard, consider placing large caliber lines in service first to affect the greatest knock-down.
Close proximity structures have haunted our Country for hundreds of years.  Even though they burned, most of them were constructed using brick, concrete and steel.  Homes today are built using lightweight wood, glue, and aluminum which has killed firefighters.  It is important to recognize this growing trend and train for the worse.  Our job as firefighters isn’t getting any easier, knowing how to combat fires in strange buildings such as these can make the difference between being called a hero or a zero.

More information on cluster homes via Powerpoint can be sent to you by emailing me at JGOFF@DCVFD.ORG . 

Jared B. Goff, a firefighter since 1992, serves currently as a career firefighter with a large Fire & Rescue Department in Northern Virginia.   Mr. Goff is a 2003 graduate from the Northern Virginia Community College with an AA in Fire Science Administration and he is currently working on his Bachelors at the University of Maryland. 

In addition to his career job he also serves as a Chief Officer with the Dale City Volunteer Fire Department located just south of Fairfax County.  Jared has been with his volunteer department for just over 10 years where he has served in capacities that include recruitment, special operations manager and the Training Division.  Mr. Goff is a current member of the RIT committee which establishes policy, budget and training efforts. 
Jared has taught locally over the years on topics such as incident command, strategy and tactics, engine and truck operations, technical rescue, communications, rapid intervention and firefighter survival, health and safety, and lower end management techniques.  He spends a lot of time reading and learning from firefighter fatalities and developing new techniques.

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