The "Anatomy & Physiology" Of the Structural Fireground

What type of construction? You may be surprised. An important feature of a pre-incident plan is the classification of building construction. Classifying the type of building should be simple, quick and strategically relevant. The classification of a...


What type of construction? You may be surprised. An important feature of a pre-incident plan is the classification of building construction. Classifying the type of building should be simple, quick and strategically relevant. The classification of a building should capture important strategic...


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What type of construction? You may be surprised.

An important feature of a pre-incident plan is the classification of building construction. Classifying the type of building should be simple, quick and strategically relevant. The classification of a building should capture important strategic information including a snapshot of characteristics that are germane to each type of construction.

This article will provide the reader with a simple method for quickly identifying and strategically classifying each of the five basic types of building construction:

Type 1 — Fire Resistive

Type II — Non-Combustible

Type III — Ordinary

Type IV — Heavy Timber

Type V — Wood Frame

Command-O-Quiz

You are standing outside the big-box warehouse store similar to the one shown in the photo above. In one hand you hold a pencil, in the other hand a pre-incident plan form. After entering the date, name of the business, address, contact information and hydrant locations, there is a box that asks: Type of Building Construction? In this blank box you would enter "Type _":

  1. I
  2. II
  3. III
  4. IV
  5. V

If you know building construction, you know that there are two possible answers — the big-box warehouse store is either Type II, Non-Combustible, or Type III, Ordinary. It is impossible to answer the Command-O-Quiz until you have stepped inside and viewed the roof.

Before diving into the strategic classification of building construction, let's first do a quick review of the five basic types of building construction according to National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 220, Standard on Types of Building Construction (2006 edition).

NFPA 220 classifies the five basic types of building construction based on "…the combustibility and the fire resistance rating of a building's structural elements. Fire walls, nonbearing exterior walls, nonbearing interior partitions, fire barrier walls, shaft enclosures, and openings in walls, partitions, floors, and roofs are not related to the types of building construction and are regulated by other standards and codes, where appropriate."

The NFPA 220 system designates the five types of construction using Roman numerals (I, II, III, etc.) followed by three Arabic numbers (332, 211, etc.) that indicate the fire-resistance rating requirement for specific structural elements. Each number of the Arabic trio designates the following:

  • First Arabic number — Exterior bearing walls
  • Second Arabic number — Columns, beams, girders, trusses and arches that are supporting bearing walls, columns or loads from more than one floor
  • Third Arabic number — Type of floor construction

Notice that Type II (Non-Combustible) and Type V ("unprotected combustible") each allow a building in your community with three zeros (000) of fire resistance. Fire officers and firefighters should understand (and factor) that there is not a single fire code or building code that specifically provides for firefighter safety and survival. The codes are designed to get people out of the building, to prevent the passage of fire and to prevent collapse of the building. Granted, there are code citations intended to assist the firefighting effort (standpipes, emergency elevator operation, etc.); however, and I repeat with emphasis: There is not a single fire code or building code specifically intended to provide for firefighter safety and survival. That qualifies as an important size-up consideration.

Strategic Classification Of Building Construction

OK, enough with the code stuff. (I'm an operations guy, not a fire marshal.) Although it is important that you possess a fundamental understanding of how buildings are code classified, it is more important to classify buildings strategically during pre-incident planning and when executing a master craftsman size-up at 3 o'clock in the morning. Let's begin the transition to the strategic classification of building construction by linking the NFPA 220 classifications with what the Arabic numbers mean operationally:

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