Warning Signs of Structural Collapse

As budgets continue to decline and layoffs, attrition, "brown-outs" and other "solutions" prevail, one thing is for certain — fewer firefighters are available and this trend does not appear as if it will improve soon. While there may not be much...


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  • Evaluate structural integrity — Firefighters must remember to continuously evaluate all parts of the structure as they move through with a thermal imager. Continually check the ceiling for sagging, partial collapse, heat or fire conditions. Pay equal attention to the floors. A thermal imager does not relieve you of the responsibility of sounding the floor and other basic skills, but it can help confirm what the basic skills implied.
  • Identify additional features — Firefighters equipped with thermal imagers can identify additional building construction features. These features may be hazardous, they may serve to conceal or spread a fire condition, or they may be helpful in terms of locating things like skylights (potential vent points) and windows (potential means of secondary egress).
  • Identify potential structural failures — While every effort should be made to identify and monitor critical structural components from the exterior, interior crews must do their best to monitor them as well. Sagging or other deformation of a roof support is never a good thing and your thermal imager can reveal these.

    • Never forget about the basics. When possible, verify the information being provided by the thermal imager. Thermal imaging should support the basics, not replace them.
    • Whether through pre-plan information or visual observations, make every effort to learn as much about the building construction as possible. Using this as a baseline, check to see whether the information provided by the thermal imager is consistent.

Conclusions

The fireground is no place to practice. The assessment of building construction is a critical skill that must be developed through knowledge and practice on the training ground. The good part about this particular skill is that it can be practiced every day.

You can use your thermal imager to assess building construction during pre-plan or inspection activities. You can even use it to look at buildings as you drive past them, keeping in mind you will need to roll your window down first (if you have to ask why the window must be rolled down, you need to read this column more often). If you see a feature of a building that you cannot explain, stop the vehicle and try to understand it. You can start at your fire station right now.

As manpower shortages become an increasing concern in the fire service, it becomes even more critical that we take the extra steps necessary to function as safely as possible. The identification of building construction type and features can be critical to understanding exactly what you are dealing with and can provide crucial decision-making information.

Dozens of firefighters are alive today because of a pending roof collapse identified with a thermal imager. If it saves even one more life, your efforts will be worth it.

BRAD HARVEY is the Thermal Imaging Product Manager at Bullard. He is a veteran of public safety as a firefighter, police officer and paramedic and is certified through the Law Enforcement Thermographers' Association (LETA) as a thermal imaging instructor. Harvey has worked as a high-angle rescue instructor and is a certified rescue technician and fire instructor. If you have questions about thermal imaging, you may e-mail him at brad_harvey@bullard.com.