Many people think that a three-alarm fire is one to which three different fire stations respond, but this is not quite accurate. Describing a fire as a certain number of alarms indicates the total number of times the original dispatcher announces the need for more help or for different kinds of help to fight the fire.


A three-alarm fire is one for which the central dispatcher announces the need for firefighting personnel and more or different equipment a total of three times, including the original call.

Understanding a Three-Alarm Fire

To firefighters, the word "alarm" means more than the siren you associate with a fire alarm. The idea of the alarm refers to the system that alerts firefighters as well as the centralized dispatch center that handles and makes calls. When the dispatcher wants to alert a specific team from a particular station — or several stations to see which has the available team and apparatus — those locations receive the firehouse alarm, meaning their alarms will sound or lights in a specific room will go on to awaken the needed personnel but not the whole station.

When you call 911 to report a fire, you don't reach a fire station; you reach a central dispatch system. The dispatcher asks about the fire, such as what type of structure has the fire and where the fire is located — for example, is it a kitchen fire or otherwise contained in one room, or is the entire structure affected? Is the roof engulfed, or is fire visible at the windows? Is anyone hurt or trapped in the building?

The dispatcher, with the help of the computerized system most centers now have, determines what equipment and personnel should be sent to fight this particular fire and alerts the station closest to the fire that also has the personnel and the right equipment. If that crew arrives and determines that additional personnel or other apparatus are needed, they contact central dispatch, which handles the second alarm, alerting nearby stations that have the necessary equipment and crew. Should the firefighters need to call dispatch again – if firefighters are needed to replace several who were overcome with smoke and were taken to the hospital, for example – the fire becomes a three-alarm fire regardless of how many different stations were involved.

Preventing Fires at Work

Just as at home, you and your staff need to know how to prevent fires from erupting as well as what to do if a fire does break out.

  • Have fire extinguishers in each work area, test them regularly and make sure everyone knows how to use them. This can help keep small fires from spreading.

  • Clear clutter from offices, work areas, doorways and halls. Clutter makes it easy for a fire to spread and can impede getting out if there is a fire.

  • Store flammable and hazardous materials safely according to their directions and OSHA regulations.

  • Have an escape plan, teach it to all staff and practice it.

Using the "Three-Alarm Fire" Idiom

The three-alarm fire became so universally known that the term has worked its way into a common idiom that means a lot of commotion and/or drama — for example: “Everyone was so upset that it was like a three-alarm fire at the office.”

This doesn't mean there was an actual fire in the office, thank goodness. You can picture, however, the personnel running back and forth, the people yelling to one another and the panic. Hopefully, this is the only three-alarm fire — or any fire — you will experience in your business.