What Is A 3-Alarm Fire

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I did some research for an article recently that was kind of interesting.

The definition of a three-alarm fire, or the definition of a 3-alarm fire, is not set thing across all fire departments.  The term three-alarm fire simply means that 3 different sets of units were requested to handle a particular fire.

In fact, it appears to be one of those terms repeatedly thrown around in the media because it is an official sounding term that carries a lot of “zip” for the average reader, despite having little meaning outside of the actual fire department.

What is a 3-Alarm Fire or Multiple-Alarm Fire Really?

Firefighters, of course, respond to many different kinds of emergency calls ranging from false alarms from a building’s alarm system, to car accidents, and in most cities, as medical support as well.  The purpose for which firefighters are most known is fighting fires, particularly those in buildings.

3 alarm fire three alarm fire

A fire in a building is referred to generically as a structural fire.

Unless there are special factors like being a large or multi-story building, or chemicals, a single unit is typically dispatched to the scene.

How big a unit is, and what kind of trucks and equipment are in it depends upon the fire department and the type of fire.  Bigger fire departments have bigger units.  Fire departments like those in Manhattan have completely different units because almost every fire will be a multi-story fire, and they need to have the proper personnel and equipment.

This first response, however large that is, is termed Initial Full Alarm by the NPFA, or National Fire Protection Association.  The NPFA publishes NFPA 1710 which is a guide for standard fire department organization and deployment.

Once the first unit arrives on scene it begins to assess the fire situation.  If the fire is big enough, or if there are going to be rescue operations, or some other factor makes the situation more dangerous or volatile than a small house fire, the unit will put out a call for more help.  This call is the second alarm and turns that particular fire into a two alarm fire.

Ironically, two-alarm fires are often more rare than three-alarm fires because if help is needed, then you usually need more than just a little help. Thus, multiple-alarm fires are almost always at least 3-alarm fires except in the biggest cities or in rural areas where a third alarm mean getting firefighters from another town.

Hypothetically, if only one extra unit responded to the scene and then more help was needed, that third call would be the third-alarm and would make it a 3-alarm fire.

Additional units responding would be the 4th alarm, and 5th alarm and so on.

An article at Slate recounts a 10-alarm fire in New York.  In New York, a two-alarm fire means that 25 units and 106 firefighters are dispatched, while a three-alarm fire would send 33 units and 138 firefighters. In most other cities, those numbers would be much smaller.

In Broward County, FL, the first-alarm response to a residential fire is three engines, an aerial unit, a rescue unit, and a battalion chief, which works out to about 15 firefighters for the initial response.

Now, you know what a three-alarm fire means and what it doesn’t mean.  If you are really curious about what it means it in your home town, contact your local fire department and ask.  Tell them you are doing research and they’ll be happy to tell you.


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