Last week, a fire in a mansion claimed the life of a 13-year veteran firefighter in Maryland. The fire was caused by a lightning strike in the early hours of the morning. From what I understand, the family got out of the home safely before the arrival of fire units. Firefighters made an interior attack. I am not sure about the timeline, but a “may day” was declared once a firefighter had fallen through the floor. It sounds like this house had a basement. I will make an educated guess and say that the basement was well involved and had been burning long enough to burn through the floor. Whatever happened, a firefighter lost his life in this fire, a reminder that firefighting is one of the most dangerous jobs on the planet.
I define a mansion as a house that is 7,000 square feet or larger. What is the responsibility of the owner of a very large home? First and foremost, there needs to be an adequate number of properly-operating smoke alarms that will notify family members of a fire. The best system to have is one where all the smoke alarms activate once one smoke alarm goes off, in other words, a system where smoke alarms are connected in series. Once smoke alarms activate, family members need to get out of the home.
A practiced home escape plan allows family members to know the primary and secondary way out of every room.
People who own mega-homes can probably afford the best in fire protection. In this case, sprinkler systems need to protect the attic space as well. Such systems are less expensive if installed during construction, but I would venture to say that a retrofitted sprinkler system can be afforded in these mansions.
Every mansion is likely protected by a monitored alarm system. Ensure that your system is a security and a fire protection system. When I say a monitored system, I am talking about a system that notifies an alarm company, which in turn makes the 911 call. Any delay in making the call brings a fire closer to the point of flashover, which is a dangerous phenomenon that occurs when the contents of a room become heated to the point that the room flashes over. Flashovers that occur when firefighters are inside put their lives in danger. Another situation that occurs when there is a delay in making the call results in extended burn time. In other words, when a fire burns free unchecked, the possibility of weakened structural elements could lead to collapse or a weakened floor that firefighters could fall through.
Firefighters have to look at mansion fires much differently than how they look at a standard single-family dwelling. A battalion chief said that firefighters need to treat a mansion fire like a commercial occupancy. Running assignments for mansion fires may need to carry a commercial assignment, which adds an additional engine or two and an additional truck. The first arriving officer may need help in making his or her lap. This lap is going to require those conducting it to learn as much about the structure as possible, as well as areas that are involved in fire. A workable water supply plan is vital to a decision to do an offensive attack. That usually means an interior attack. A true risk assessment must be done when entering one of these large homes. It is necessary that a rapid intervention crew that expands to a rapid intervention task force is put into place. It is important that firefighters have a good idea of where the fire is before they enter the structure. These statements resonate with me: risk a lot to save a life; risk nothing to save nothing.
A mansion with no one inside is nothing but a large building that is not worth the life of any firefighter. A building can be rebuilt, a lost life cannot. Ventilation may be challenging at best. The more reconnaissance, the better. This is a fire that requires a well-developed attack plan, which means that crews may need to slow up, allowing crews to be more effective in their approach.
Fires are not partial to occurring in a certain sized structure. Fires in very large homes may be infrequent, and should be looked at as low frequency/high risk operations.
If you live in one of these large homes, do everything possible to protect your families and firefighters. Put in a residential sprinkler system! If there is no fire hydrant close by and you have a pond or lake on the property, put in a dry hydrant, which is a drafting connection for fire apparatus. Once you do this, create an access road to this connection.
Do everything necessary to get your family out of the house when a fire occurs, and be sure to inform the first arriving fire unit that everyone is safe and accounted for. Think like this: what will I do when a fire occurs? Get to work!