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September 16, 2020
NIOSH issues row house firefighting guidance

On September 10, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) issued a fact sheet and poster outlining tactics to ensure the safety of firefighters responding to row house fires. The institute recently completed a firefighter fatality investigation of a career lieutenant killed while fighting a row house fire.

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Row houses are a common housing style in large cities, as well as in many small towns, according to NIOSH. The unique characteristics of row houses pose a challenge to fighting fires.

Row houses typically were built in the late 1800s to early 1900s and often are located on narrow streets. Houses often were built in a row running an entire block that may include 30 to 45 occupancies. Row houses may have brick exterior walls but have wood framing, floor joists, and roof rafters.

During a fire crew’s response to a row house fire, the second floor collapsed into the first floor, and a firefighter became pinned down by the second-floor joists and was unable to escape. Although rescue crews continuously worked for approximately an hour to extricate the lieutenant, he died of asphyxia, with superheated gas and smoke inhalation.

The fire happened on January 6, 2018, in an 1800s-era row house. Snow covered the narrow roadway and on-street parking. Firefighters encountered extreme cold, multiple inoperable fire hydrants, and excessive clutter in the building, as well as a frozen nozzle.

NIOSH investigators found that contributing factors were the extreme cold and six inoperable hydrants, deteriorating building conditions, excessive clutter and structural overloading, and both inherent building characteristics and unique row house variations.

NIOSH recommended that cities and towns consider either upgrading access to narrow roadways in 19th-century neighborhoods or restricting parking to ensure access for modern fire apparatus.

The institute’s recommendations for fire departments included:

  • Consider increasing response capabilities during extreme weather.
  • Consider defensive operations when a dependable, continuous water supply is lost or not available and the building’s primary building materials may have been subject to severe fire conditions.
  • Ensure that firefighters are trained to understand the influence of building age, use, design, modifications, and construction on structural collapse, and consider defensive operations when hoarding/dilapidated conditions are evident or encountered.
  • Perform a thorough risk assessment, including an evaluation of structural conditions, when switching from a defensive strategy back to an offensive strategy.

Approximately 80 to 100 firefighters die in the line of duty each year, according to the institute. Line-of-duty death is defined as a fatality occurring while a firefighter is on duty or within 24 hours after being on duty or responding to an emergency event.

NIOSH’s Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program (FFFIPP) conducts independent investigations of firefighter line-of-duty deaths. The FFFIPP is similar to but separate from the institute’s Fatality Assessment and Control Evaluation (FACE) Program.

“NIOSH, through its Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program, has investigated many line-of-duty deaths associated with row house fires,” NIOSH Director John Howard, MD, said in a statement.

“It is our hope that the valuable information conveyed by these new materials prevents another tragedy by helping every firefighter who responds to a row house fire return home unharmed,” he added.

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