The Captain Yelled "Run," A Firefighter Yelled "Collapse!" - Part 2

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Last month, we began a report on a close call that involved 10 firefighters at a burning commercial structure in Sacramento, CA, on June 5, 2008. As we reported, nine minutes after arrival of the first-in units, a total catastrophic failure of the open-web truss system occurred while crews operated above and below the fire. No firefighters were injured, and the collapse was classified as a close call/near miss.

We have highlighted several areas in this close call to emphasize the issue and importance for the reader to understand conditions encountered. As you will read, this close call reiterates several critical factors, including:

  • Command and control
  • Size-up and continued size-up
  • Company officers leading and being accountable for their specific crews
  • Communicating (everyone on the fireground understanding the big picture throughout the incident)
  • Communication (making sure everyone on the fireground is capable of understanding the big picture and related conditions)
  • The importance of mutual aid coordination to ensure that if you run with mutual aid companies, all responding companies should have common polices, procedures and training so that when on the scene, they genuinely operate off of "one sheet of music."

As learned in most close calls, the operational basics - including standard operating procedures (SOPs) - must be known and followed and, when in doubt, think hard before risking firefighters when there are clear indications that there are no rescues or life hazard. For those reading this who have the potential to be in "command," never forget that your first responsibility is the safety and survival of your members. While, at times, you may very well have to place your members in extreme risk, your initial and ongoing size-up and risk assessment is critical to the most successful outcome possible. Clearly, not "everyone" goes home, but much can be done to make sure we command the incident to the best of our abilities based on conditions and life hazard.

In this incident, you will note some "repeat warnings" seen at many other close calls and in many line-of-duty deaths that we can, again, all learn from. Be it in this fire or any others involving a commercial building, we must continue to study and understand that we cannot use a single-family-dwelling mindset and tactics when operating. And while the firefighters on this run had the best of intentions, this could have ended in a horrifically tragic outcome, where the discussion might have then been the all-too-common question: What did they die for?

Naturally, we all want to do our best to save life and property - but always remember that there is a huge, huge difference in the two and specifically what we are and should ever be willing to die for. We should not be willing to die to for "stuff" in a building, while we are willing to die for potentially savable victims. Remember the difference.

Investigative Summary

At approximately 5 P.M. the same day, Chief Walter White of the Sacramento Metro Fire District Training/Safety Division contacted the on-duty safety officer and requested that a formal investigation be conducted into the incident. The on-duty safety officer, Captain Scott Clough, organized an investigation team consisting of Captain Mike Teague, investigation coordinator; Clough as lead investigator, and Battalion Chief Kyle Johnson, assistant investigator. The incident scene was photographed by Clough. Metro Fire investigators excavated the site and recovered the tools used by Truck 10. Diagrams and inspection records were gathered from Metro Fire's Fire Prevention Bureau.

Interviews were conducted with Battalion Chiefs 4 and 2 and all members of Truck 10 that evening. An interview was conducted with the first-arriving company officer the following morning. Interviews were conducted with the remaining crews of the first-alarm assignment over the next four shifts. Fifteen crew members were interviewed. Some members were not available for interviews as they were deployed on other assignments out of the county. The interviews consisted of a standard set of questions. Responses were recorded by handwritten notes.

Structure Information

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) identifies this building as type III construction. Type III construction typically consists of exterior walls of masonry construction or material that meets the fire rating. Interior structural members, including walls, columns, beams, floors and roofs, are permitted to be partially or wholly combustible. The building was constructed in 1973 and measured 80 by 100 feet (8,000 square feet). It was not protected by fire sprinklers nor were the open-web trusses protected by any resistive coating. The walls were constructed of masonry blocks and had a four-hour fire rating. The main roof was supported by unprotected pitched open-web trusses consisting of a 2x4 wooden top cord, a 2x4 wooden bottom cord and one-inch tubular steel members that provided the structural support. The trusses were spaced two feet on center and were covered by half-inch plywood with composition roll roofing on top. These trusses are often referred to as TJL, JLX and TJW trusses.

The interior of the building had a single laminated beam running from the B side to the D supported by six-inch steel posts. The beam was positioned 19 feet from the C wall. This area to the rear had an independent truss assembly to support the rear of the roof, while the main truss assembly ran from the inside laminated beam to the header at the front of the store. Extending past the glass front windows was a mansard supported from the front header to a smaller header that was supported by two walls extending past the front of the building.

Atop the roof sat four commercial air conditioning units with an estimated weight of 1,100 pounds each. (Note: The reported weight of the units was provided by Buetler Heating and Air-Conditioning Sacramento. Company engineers estimated the weight based on photographic documentation and the age of the building. It is undetermined whether these units were supported in any way from below.) The business was operating as a supplier and manufacturer of products for the cosmetic nail industry. The business was permitted to have no more than 1,600 gallons of flammable liquids on site. The business owner told arson investigators that he had in excess of 1,000 gallons of flammable liquids consisting of acetone, polish remover, liquid monomer and 70% alcohol on site at the time of the fire.

Conclusions

The structural collapse occurred 14 minutes, 44 seconds after the initial 911 call was received, and nine minutes, 44 seconds after the first unit arrived on scene. The collapse was the result of direct and intense flame impingement on the unprotected open-web trusses supporting the roof. The fire was accelerated by the storage of flammable liquids, primarily acetone, which was estimated at more than 1,000 gallons. The cause of the fire is undetermined at this time.

  1. The close-call/near-miss component of the incident was the result of numerous factors both direct and causal that influenced the outcome.
  2. First-arriving company officers failed to recognize key factors that indicated the severity of the fire. Time of day, color and intensity of smoke, the pressure behind the smoke and the volume of fire already present were not fully appreciated.
  3. Firefighters were allowed to initiate operations such as line selection, placement and advancement that should have been better controlled by their company officers.
  4. Company officers initiated operations based on standard operating guidelines (SOGs) or standard operating procedures (SOPs), but did not validate those operations with information on conditions from other crews.
  5. Updates on conditions and progress were not verbalized by crews to command that could have led to changes in the operational strategies of the incident.
  6. Many first-alarm officers and crew members, upon their arrival, felt that the fire was probably a defensive operation, but did not mention these concerns to other members.
  7. The rapid rate of failure and the interaction of some crew members on hoselines may have contributed to the positive outcome, as crews did not have enough time to advance further out on the roof or deeper into the building. However, it was in fact the rapid rate of failure that caused the near miss.

Discussion

From 1998 through 2008, a total of 29 firefighters have been killed in the United States as a result of truss failure. It should be noted that this incident occurred less than one year after the Charleston, SC, incident that resulted in nine firefighter fatalities. The danger is so severe that the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has issued a NIOSH Alert titled "Preventing Injuries and Deaths of Firefighters Due to Truss System Failures." In this alert; NIOSH recommends steps to be taken.

  • Fire departments:

    • Ensure that firefighters are trained to recognize and identify floor and roof truss systems.
    • Conduct pre-incident planning and inspection to identify buildings that contain truss construction.
    • Share information with other departments that provide mutual aid response in the same area.
    • Inspect buildings under construction to identify truss construction.
    • Develop and implement SOPs to combat fires safely in buildings with trusses.
    • Modify existing work practices where necessary to ensure safety when working around trussed buildings.
    • Use defensive strategies where trusses have been exposed to fire or structural integrity cannot be verified.
    • Ensure that the incident commander conducts an initial size-up and risk assessment before beginning interior operations.
    • Consider using a thermal imaging camera as part of the initial size-up to locate fires in concealed spaces.
    • Continuously size-up and analyze risk versus gain during the incident.
    • Pay close attention to conditions outside the structure, monitor the roof and compare to interior operations.
    • Immediately notify a rapid intervention team when truss construction has been identified.
    • Evacuate firefighters from above and below trusses as soon as it is determined that the trusses have been exposed to fire (not according to a time limit).
    • Establish collapse zones, as truss roof collapses can push on walls causing secondary collapse of the exterior walls.
  • Company officers and firefighters:

    • Use extreme caution when working on or around truss systems.
    • Notify command as soon as truss construction has been identified.
    • Communicate interior conditions to the incident commander as soon as possible and provide regular updates.
    • Use a defensive strategy once burning of truss members is identified.
    • Expect imminent collapse once lightweight truss roofs or floors are involved in fire.
    • Avoid roof areas loaded by air conditioning units, air handlers or other heavy objects.
    • Be aware of and plan alternative exit routes at all times when working above or below a truss.
    • Immediately open ceilings and other concealed spaces whenever a fire is suspected in a truss system.
    • Be aware of the nearest exit and of the other firefighters working around you.
    • Have all company officers, chief officers and potential incident commanders familiarize themselves with the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) "Ten Rules of Engagement for Structural Firefighting and the Acceptability of Risk."
  • Train firefighting personnel to recognize the signs of deep-seated, oxygen-starved fire. Turbulent, boiling smoke is indicative of impending flashover. Know when the survivability profile of a victim is zero.
  • Ensure that incident commanders are basing strategic decisions on risk versus gain.
  • Establish and maintain communications between interior and exterior crews and command.
  • Develop and advocate a countywide truss-identification placard system for all commercial buildings. Such a program would require fire prevention personnel and company officers to forward the addresses of all known commercial buildings with truss roofs and floors to Fire Dispatch so a premise history can be entered into the computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system.
  • Have all operations personnel receive additional training related to "reading smoke"; view "The Art of Reading Smoke" (Chief Dave Dodson's video as well as PowerPoint slides and program at www.FireFighterCloseCalls.com; go to the "Safety & Survival Downloads" section).
  • Implement and enforce the countywide rapid intervention team program
  • Require multi-agency command training for all Sacramento County fire agencies.

WILLIAM GOLDFEDER, EFO, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 33-year veteran of the fire service. He is a deputy chief with the Loveland-Symmes Fire Department in Ohio, an ISO Class 2 and CAAS-accredited department. Goldfeder has been a chief officer since 1982, has served on numerous IAFC and NFPA committees, and is a past commissioner with the Commission on Fire Accreditation International. He is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy and is an active writer, speaker and instructor on fire service operational issues. Goldfeder and Gordon Graham host the free and noncommercial firefighter safety and survival website www.FirefighterCloseCalls.com. Goldfeder may be contacted at BillyG@FirefighterCloseCalls.com.

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