In fighting fires, the actual battle is against time. Considering that fire grows exponentially with time, the longer it takes for firefighters to be dispatched, arrive at the scene, set up, and finally put water on the fire, the bigger the fire we have to face.
Before putting the wet stuff on the red stuff though, we need to vent the building. Considering narrow street frontage, laddering the front of these cluster homes in itself is challenging even on flat grade. Raising a 28-foot ground ladder to the second-story window on the side of these cluster dwellings might be impossible. And the 35-foot ground ladder would not be adequate to safely get to the roof of a 3-story dwellings.
Of course, that is even more challenging when the exterior wall is only three feet from the property line. Even trying to raise the 35-foot ground ladder from the neighbor‘s house (which is also only three feet away, on the other side of the property line) to reach the roof would result in a very steep and unsafe climbing angle of around 80 degrees.
One way or another we will eventually get it done, but all that takes time. Do we have much time to spare, considering the lightweight truss construction of these clustered dwellings and their collapse potential? The more time we spend on setting up, the less time firefighters have for interior search and rescue and roof ventilation.
Using aerial units is much safer for our rescue and ventilation operations, but trying to get a ladder truck in these narrow streets is itself a challenge. If the engines arrive first and are staged in front of the dwelling, getting the aerial in a usable position would be even more challenging.
Fire station locations and area coverage, apparatus allocations and staffing, future planning, and the new fire station design, are the other important angles that the fire chief should consider in reviewing the challenges associated with these cluster developments. In the west, most aerials were stationed around downtown areas where the majority of the commercial mid-rises or high-rises were constructed. With the urban sprawl of the past decades, the suburban fire stations generally were designed the house a couple of fire engines and a rescue unit. After all, most of those tract developments were far apart and only two stories high.
But with these new 3-story cluster housing developments, aerials are much more essential, and the extensive travel time to get them to the suburbs from the downtown stations is detrimental to operations.
The solution might not be as easy as merely relocating the aerials to suburban fire stations. More than likely, the aerials are too long and won't fit in the bays of the existing fire stations. Unless, of course, parking the aerials outside is an option that you are willing to entertain. Again we might be able to mitigate this situation if these cluster dwellings were protected with fire sprinklers.
Also most fire departments use their cookie-cutter fire station designs for their future stations as they had done in the past, so fitting the aerials into the fire stations might still be an afterthought.
The fire service needs to get actively involved in planning commission meetings and public hearings, especially when such cluster developments are being proposed. Fire station location, apparatus placement, equipment, and staffing requirements are very important and costly factors that the fire chief and the jurisdiction must consider upfront.
Often for the larger master-plan communities, the developers must pay impact fees or are required to provide land or even build a new fire station for their development. Fire chiefs must have a strategic plan and should evaluate such proposals in great detail. Inadequate fire station design will not be the answer, and insufficient staffing, equipment and apparatus only compound the problem.
Elected officials and the top administrators must be fully aware of all these long-term risks and the expenditures. A detailed cost/benefit analysis would prove to them that residential fire sprinkler systems are invaluable in saving lives and the most efficient and cost-effective way to protect our communities.
Economic development and tax-base increases are indeed the absolute necessities for the thriving communities. But then the key is having long-term strategic view for the community‘s development and nourishing sustained smart growth.
These cluster developments are going to be with us for a very long time. We can and must be proactive and provide for the highest level of fire protection and life-safety both for the occupants and for firefighters. Allow for economic growth and high-density design, and yet provide the most efficient and highest level of life-safety and fire protection. Residential fire sprinkler systems are an essential part of the community‘s smart growth.