Entering Through the Door, Falling Through the Floor

The Underwriters Laboratories recently conducted a series of six tests where mannequins were positioned on floors and roof assemblies with fire burning below them and the collapse conditions were not what was expected.

The concern about the poor performance of the engineered lightweight wood construction under fire conditions is nothing new. We have known about it for more than a couple of decades. Obviously, the very first name that comes to mind when talking about this subject is the legendary Francis Brannigan, and his famous Building Construction for the Fire Service book.

There are many great reports, but just a handful of them are mentioned here. Back in 1992, United States Fire Administration (USFA) did a report, titled "Wood Truss Roof Collapse Claims Two Firefighters (December 26, 1992)"; National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) did a report on April 2005 titled "Preventing Injuries and Deaths of Firefighters due to Truss System Failures"; National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) did a report in January 2007 titled "A Study of Metal Truss Plate Connectors When Exposed to Fire".

Through his writings and all his presentations, Brannigan tried for years, to teach us about the importance of having a good working knowledge of building construction and repeatedly advised us to "know your enemy". We in the fire service though, have not fully grasped the concept yet; at least not as well as we should. This year, it seems that there wasn't a month passing by, that we did not hear about firefighter fatalities and injuries resulting from catastrophic structural failures under the fire conditions.

On April 4, 2008,veteran Colerain Township, OH, Fire Capitan Robin Broxterman, and Firefighter Brian Schira were killed in the line of duty when they fell through the first floor of a working house fire. The fire was in the basement of a two-story, four bedroom house built in 1991. Reports indicate that the alarm came in shortly after 6:00 a.m.

Captain Broxterman and firefighters Kenny Vadnais and Brian Schira went into the burning building. Three went in, but only one came out. Firefighter Kenny Vadnais believes he is alive today because Robin and Brian helped him escape the fire's death grip. No other injuries were reported. And the two occupants of the house made it out before the firefighters arrived on the scene.

When a firefighter dies in the line of duty, NIOSH will respond and conduct an investigation into the event. NIOSH's intent is not to find fault or lay blame. Their intent is to learn lessons from the mistakes, or events, and to release a report with the results of their investigation. The report is a public document and the fire departments are encouraged to review the report and learn from the events that led to the firefighter's death.

To get a perspective of the real world performance, and its effect on the firefighters' safety, let's look at two relatively recent incidents investigated by NIOSH. Below are the summaries of these two reports and the recommendations published as a result.

Incident 1: "Volunteer Fire Fighter Dies After Falling Through Floor Supported by Engineered Wooden-I Beams at Residential Structure Fire - Tennessee"

On Jan. 26, 2007, a 24-year-old volunteer firefighter died at a residential structure fire after falling through the floor which was supported by the engineered wooden I-beams. The victim's crew had advanced a handline approximately 20 feet into the structure with zero visibility. They requested ventilation and a thermal imaging camera (TIC), in an attempt to locate and extinguish the fire.

The victim exited the structure to retrieve the TIC and when he returned, the floor was spongy as conditions worsened which forced the crew to exit. The victim requested the nozzle and proceeded back into the structure within an arm's distance of one of his crew members who provided back up while he stood in the doorway. Without warning, the floor collapsed sending the victim into the basement. Crews attempted to rescue the victim from the fully involved basement, but a subsequent collapse of the main floor ceased any rescue attempts. The victim was recovered later that morning.

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