Residential Fires: The Most Dangerous Fires You Will Face

Multiple firefighter fatalities at large commercial fires attract the attention and scrutiny they warrant. However, the fire service must also recognize that most line-of-duty injuries and deaths occur in single- and multiple-family dwellings during...


Multiple firefighter fatalities at large commercial fires attract the attention and scrutiny they warrant. However, the fire service must also recognize that most line-of-duty injuries and deaths occur in single- and multiple-family dwellings during routine, "bread-and-butter" fires. A review of...


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  • Use existing awareness literature, multimedia training aids and after-action reports to conduct department-wide awareness and building construction training, using the following resources:

    1. Visit www.ul.com/fireservice to access online fire service training and take the interactive training program "Structural Stability of Engineered Lumber in Fire Conditions." This program explains the UL study in detail, including the motivation, methodology, testing and lessons learned.
    2. Visit www.woodaware.info, the awareness-level informational website directed to the fire service. This program describes both traditional and modern wood products used in residential construction. These publications were developed under a cooperative agreement between the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) and American Forest & Paper Association.
    3. NIOSH publication 2009-114, Preventing Deaths and Injuries of Firefighters Working Above Fire-Damaged Floors.
    4. NIOSH publication 2005-132, NIOSH Alert Preventing Injuries and Deaths of Fire Fighters Due to Truss System Failures (www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/2005-132/).
    5. Review NIOSH fire fatality investigations so your department may benefit from the lessons learned at these incidents (www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/wp-solutions/2009–114/).
  • Develop standard operating guidelines (SOGs) for lightweight construction. Francis Brannigan spent his life teaching the fire service the importance of "knowing your enemy." Residential structures, and particularly "starter castle"-sized single-family homes made from lightweight engineered wood assemblies, are a very different enemy than legacy-constructed 1,500-square-foot homes. SOGs not specifically developed for lightweight construction are inadequate.
  • Collect and refer to standardized pre-fire planning information. Thorough pre-fire planning highlights potential tactical considerations for responding companies approaching an unfamiliar structure. When possible, provide pre-plans on mobile data terminals or via radio transmissions for responding units and incident commanders.
  • Consider fire department and mutual aid resources. Review your department's dispatch protocols to ensure that the assignment and staffing complement are sufficient for not only the occupancy, but for the size and construction of the subject structure itself. Upgrade alarm responses early and often. If you do not have adequate resources to conduct an interior operation while protecting firefighters' lives, consider a defensive operation.
  • Adjust your initial size-up considerations. Assume this is a lightweight-constructed building unless/until you know otherwise. Complete a 360-degree survey of the structure before committing to an overall strategy and tactical assignments. Start laying 2½-inch hoseline for your fire attack. Continually monitor the exterior of the building using a TI, looking for signs of fire in the truss voids between floors. Consider the age of the structure, construction features, occupancy and visual indicators of the fire's progress, behavior and location. Follow Brannigan's dictum and distinguish between a contents fire and a structure fire. Once fire is attacking the structural components of a lightweight constructed building, you're out of time. Get out.
  • Conduct a risk-benefit analysis. Continually assess potential victims' survival profile. Aggressive interior attack should cease if and when the occupants are accounted for. Aggressive interior attack should also cease if and when fire conditions preclude victim survival. This does not mean we must always abandon the building and "surround and drown." It does mean that we should identify when we are the only viable life hazard within the building.
  • When multiple "immediate" tasks must be accomplished sequentially, make fire control your first priority. Rescuing trapped occupants is the first strategic priority, but not necessarily the first tactical priority. More people are saved by a well-placed and advanced hoseline than by any other tactic. Controlling the fire removes the hazard from the victim, which is much more efficient than trying to locate and remove the victim from the hazard. Do not conduct unsupported or unprotected search and rescue operations.
  • Check below your area of operation. Always check below the apparent fire location before committing to interior operations. Do not advance until conditions below the area of operation are verified.
  • Open void spaces upon entry. Lightweight construction is balloon framing with lots of extra holes punched in the joists. Once fire enters the voids, it will travel anywhere and everywhere. Upon entering the fire floor, make an inspection hole in the ceiling above and the floor below. Inspection holes can help verify the conditions of structural framing members and uncover areas of hidden fire within the void spaces.
  • Consider a transitional fire attack. When possible, attempt to operate from protected positions. An interior attack can begin with a stream operated from the exterior. A correctly applied solid stream from the exterior of a fire area with flames visible and venting from one or more openings will slow the fire's growth and buy the time needed to allow for a more considered and deliberate interior operation. Bring the nozzle as close as possible to the exterior opening and play the solid stream off the ceiling and walls. Shut down and reposition as soon as knockdown is achieved. Provide an adequate fire stream for the fire conditions encountered. This tactic works best with an adult-sized (i.e., 2½-inch) hoseline.
  • Upon extinguishment, aggressively ventilate all fire areas. Verify the integrity of the lightweight structural components as soon as possible. To do this, we need to see; to see, we need to ventilate. This is especially true for basement fires. Once the fire is controlled, ventilation and opening of the ceiling voids has to happen now, not later.
  • Vent attic fire areas from the exterior. With truss roofs, ventilate and attempt knockdown of attic fires from the exterior (aerial platforms, fire-protected areas or adjacent buildings) before committing personnel to the floor below the attic. Exterior attacks can also be accomplished from above with a penetrating nozzle or from-the-gable-end attack. Interior extinguishment and search teams should remain below the landing of the stairs leading to the top floor. If a lightweight attic or cockloft area is so charged with smoke or fire that it is truly in need of ventilation, it is already at the point of collapse. No personnel should be allowed to operate on or below this structure.
  • Vent, enter and search (VES). Monitoring crew locations is critical. This search and rescue method has the advantage of always letting you know exactly where the search team is operating. Search team members can also be sure of their means of egress; they brought it with them. VES can also be conducted on the ground floor with the appropriate-sized ladders or in a frame dwelling by making doors out of all the first-floor windows.
  • Maintain operational flexibility. You don't know when the "countdown to collapse" clock started. Conduct a continuous risk assessment and be prepared to revise the operational plan when necessary. Maintain awareness of operational progress and consistently monitor fireground communications. If little or no progress toward fire control is being made, interior occupants have been accounted for, interior occupants are no longer viable and/or primary search and rescue has been completed, consider moving to a defensive operation.
  • Always use an adequately sized rapid intervention team (RIT). Deploy a dedicated handline with the RIT. Many RIT scenarios, especially those dealing with rapid flashover or structural collapse, can benefit greatly from the ability to control fire.

A Final Word

Fires in today's "modern" residential buildings pose greater risks than their "legacy" predecessors. These structures are subject to rapid fire spread through areas of unprotected wood construction, the collapse of unprotected dimensional lumber, and the collapse of lightweight engineered wood components. Understanding the testing methods employed and the results of this study, even on a basic level, will assist firefighters in conducting a safer fireground operation the next time the alarm bell sounds. A working knowledge of these results is also a critical step for all members of the fire service who are actively engaged in the growing movement to enhance firefighter safety by modifying the current code requirements for residential construction.

For More Information

For a complete interactive training program that explains the UL study in detail, including the motivation, methodology, testing and lessons learned, visit www.ul.com/fireservice, access online fire service training and take the interactive training program titled, "Structural Stability of Engineered Lumber in Fire Conditions."

For further information, please e-mail Robert.G.Backstrom@us.ul.com, Stephen.Kerber@us.ul.com or James.Dalton@cityofchicago.org. To submit additional information and/or photos on local fire incidents within your area that may inform the issues discussed within this article, please contact James.Dalton@cityofchicago.org.

JAMES DALTON is the coordinator of research and development for the Chicago, IL, Fire Department. PETER VAN DORPE is a battalion chief for the Chicago Fire Department. ROBERT G. BACKSTROM is a senior staff engineer with Underwriters Laboratories. STEVE KERBER is a research engineer with Underwriters Laboratories and has 12 years of firefighting experience.

TEST SERIES DETAILS AND COLLAPSE TIMES
Structural Element — Ceiling Finish Type of Construction Ceiling Materials Floor/Roof Subfloor/Finish Collapse Time (min:sec)
2 x 10 Joist Floor — Without Ceiling Legacy None 1 x 6 and Hardwood 18:45
2 x 10 Joist Floor — With Ceiling Legacy Gypsum Board OSB and Carpet 44:45
2 x 10 Joist Floor — With Ceiling Legacy Lath and Plaster 1 x 6 and Hardwood 79:45
12-inch Wood I-Joist Floor — Without Ceiling Modern Lightweight None OSB and Carpet 6:03
12-inch Wood I-Joist Floor — With Ceiling Modern Lightweight Gypsum Board OSB and Carpet 26:45
14-inch Finger Joint Truss Floor — Without Ceiling Modern Lightweight None OSB and Carpet 13:06
14-inch Finger Joint Truss Floor — With Ceiling Modern Lightweight Gypsum Board OSB and Carpet 26:45
14-inch Metal Gusset Truss Floor with Cord Splices and Framed Stair Opening — Without Ceiling Modern Lightweight None OSB and Carpet 13:20
14-inch Metal Gusset Truss Floor — With Ceiling Modern Lightweight Gypsum Board OSB and Carpet 29:15
14-inch Metal Gusset Truss Floor with Cord Splices, Recessed Lights and Ducts With Ceiling Modern Lightweight Gypsum Board OSB and Carpet 30:08
Metal Gusset Truss Roof — With Ceiling Modern Lightweight Gypsum Board OSB and Shingles 13:06
2 x 6 Joist and Rafter Roof — With Ceiling Legacy Gypsum Board 1 x 6 and Shingles 40:00