Whenever the news reports of a bigger than normal building fire it is
described as a two alarm, a three alarm and a whopper is a four alarm
fire. I haven't come across a larger one above four alarm yet. What
do these numerical fire alarm ratings refer to?
It's the number of fire companies that are dispatched to put out the fire.
Doug Miller (alphageek at milmac dot com)
How come we choose from just two people to run for president and 50 for Miss
back in 1967 when i was a fireman. it was like this: for a small fire
or first alarm the called it a box( a box was two engines(pumpers), a
ladder truck, a chiefs car... i think thats all...
they had a cabinet(a drawer) and pastboard cards in it about 12 inches
wide by 5 inches high.. on each card was listed the numbers of the chief
car, the engine numbers, the truck(ladder) numbers, etc. and if a rescue
squad or not and a snorkle unit or not.....
it was like this:
striking box( and then the number) this small amount of people would go
out.. when getting there if it was a working fire they would call out
"strike a TWO ELEVEN" then if more help was needed they would
say(probably the chief at this time)-"strike a 3 eleven" and so on...
and i think you are right the highest it was marked up was 4 eleven...
bet now with some chemical plant fires they probably need more units to
fight the fire and they just ask for more assistance..... but remember
that when these units were called out.. that they also have to shift
other fire engines and trucks to other areas to cover for their being
called out and leaving the area where they are from unprotected.......
Here in Plymouth Michigan the house near me burned down over
Christmas. They had at least 10 units of various kinds lined up on the
street. I never saw any more than two units attempt anything.
Basically, after being sure nobody was inside, they let it burn for
hours. So it's not just how many alarms are called out that counts;
it's how many units are used.
i guess you did not see everything Max... kinda funny... man fell from
24 floor of building and landed on the overhead of the first floor..
bones fragments all over the place alot poped on the ground... guy walks
up and we were waiting for the fire dept. to take his body down from
this 30 ft. high covering over the drivewup area.... he was already
DEAD... this guy hears me say to another worker.. gee i wonder what is
taking the fire dept. so long to get here( it was no emergency... the
doctor already climbed teh shakey ladder to check on him and he was DOA
(dead on arrival and he pronounced him dead).. this guy starts getting
nervous and starts screaming, "Whats taking the fire dept. so long to
get here." he had to be restrained.. think he was taken to the nut ward
of the hospital.. he only saw what he thought he saw... when you have a
fire. these guys who go out to figtht it will work their butts off the
save life and property.. and someone like you comes along and says
something stupid like you did... i dont know why i even answered
you...... you got to be kidding, right?????
You are all pretty much correct. The difference these days is that very few
towns still use alarm boxes. The level of alarms does indeed refer to the
number of apparatus that respond. A one alram fire (or other incident) for
my department will get you 2 pumpers, an aerial truck company, and a
district chief. Each additional alarm will get an additional pumper. In
larger cities it may get you another full complement of trucks.
With sophisticated CAD (computer-aided dispatch) systems each truck company
gets their alarms independently from other stations. We don't have such a
luxury. The dispatcher simply tones out another alarm and the next truck in
line rolls. We all know which districts we cover as first, second, or
third-in trucks. We only have 7 stations in a city of 60,000, so when we
have an incident that requires several trucks we have to call in overtime
crews to man reserve trucks at the stations.
If a city has the equipment, there is no limit to how many alarms may be
called. In some of the trade magazines there are accounts of incidents that
required 10 or 11 alarms.
The areas of the community to be protected have been identified by the
fire department. These geographic areas used to be called box areas as
they were associated with the telegraphic fire alarm box that was
located in the center of that area. A some what more modern term is a
fire service demand zone. Each preidentified area has an assignment
table prepared for it based on such factors as the expected fire flow,
construction characteristics, population density, and so forth. These
assignment tables were historically known as box cards.
The first line of the table identifies the units that will respond to
the first report of a fire in that box area or demand zone. These units
are usually called the first alarm assignment. When the first arriving
unit or command officer encounters a fire that is beyond the
capabilities of the first alarm assignment they will call for the second
alarm. The dispatcher will then dispatch the units identified on the
second line of the table as the second alarm assignment. As the fire
continues to exceed or outstrip the capabilities of the units assigned
additional alarms are called for. The assignment tables in a small
community may only have three alarm levals in them. In major cities the
alarm assignments may be preset all the way to the seventh alarm leval.
New york City's assignments go all the way to the ninth alarm.
The types and number of units identified in the table for each alarm
leval will vary with the resources available and the estimates of need
in any given community. Here in Montgomery County, MD for instance the
first alarm for an urban box area (that is one protected by hydranted
water supply piping) is five engines, three special services (such as
ladder companies or heavy rescue squads), and three command officers
(Incident commander, Interior commander, and safety officer). The Second
alarm assignment on such a box would be four engines, two special
services, and two additional command officers. Our tables go up to the
fourth alarm. I hope this answers your question. The terms used vary a
bit from place to place. So it is a good idea to ask local fire forces
how it works in your community.
Firefighter/Rescuer Thomas D. Horne speaking for himself and not the
Takoma Park Volunteer Fire Department a cooperating agency of the
Thanks everyone for your replies. I'll certainly go to the next
firehouse open house and ask the questions.
Its so long ago when I lived in a big city that I have forgotten the
crowds and the building density that comes with it.
I live in a pleasant 800,000 population city, Edmonton and the
buildings are quite well spread out that it is rare to get even a 3
alarm fire. All public access buildings are compliant with the
latest fire codes. I don't know about the older buildings but there
are only a few of them, two to four storeys high, downtown. The dry
air usually means that the stick built houses burn really fast and
firefighting usually means preventing the fire from spreading.
There is not much one can do for the affected house as, if it is not
the fire, water damage will usually be bad enough to require a
Here in the 'burbs, where single family houses are pretty common, the
FD's has a "mutual aid" agreement, such that any non-trivial fire in an
occupiable building is immediately escalated such that the surrounding
villages send in companies, so one sees trucks and crews from multiple
areas working together.
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