The Anatomy of Building Construction, Structural Fire Engagement and Firefighter Safety

The built-environments that form and shape our respective response districts and communities pose unique challenges to the day-to-day responses of fire departments and in their subsequent operations at structural alarms. With the variety of occupancies and building characteristics present, there are definable degrees of risk potential with recognizable strategic and tactical measures that must be taken.

Although each occupancy type presents variables that dictate how a particular incident is handled, most company operations evolve from basic strategic and tactical principles rooted in past performance and operations at similar structures.

The fire and emergency services have consistently exhibited its unique ability to overcome adversity and meet headlong the challenges imposed in satisfying the demands of society and the built environment in which we operate. These demands translate into the methodology and manner in which emergency services are delivered and the strategic and tactical disciplines that we adopt and assimilate.

The primary tenet which the fire and emergency service profession has traditionally focused upon is the protection of life and property. This is the basis from which we provide services to our communities and jurisdictions. Of the many functions these emergency services have evolved into, structural fire suppression and rescue forms the major component within this multi-faceted delivery system.

Combat fire suppression and rescue is typically considered a primary response priority of fire and emergency service agencies. We plan, prepare, train, outfit and anticipate the call for fire suppression services - that alarm dispatch that communicates a possible or actual report of fire in a structure and occupancy and the need to dispatch, deploy and orchestrate the equipment, resources, manpower and expertise necessary to safely handle the fire and incident.

Combat fire suppression and interior rescue and support operations, incident severity, magnitude and frequency can vary widely in their application and potential as an incident response factor. There is one element that is a constant in deployment, response and operations during combat structural fire operations; and that is the interface and interaction with the structure, the occupancy and it's inherent features, hazards, risks and performance characteristics.

Every year, 100 or more firefighters die in the line of duty in the United States - on average, about one every 80 hours. Every six hours, a firefighter is seriously or critically injured on the job. Most of these fatalities and injuries could be prevented if firefighter safety was a primary concern of every firefirefighter, fire department and fire service organization. Recognizing that much can be done to prevent these deaths and injuries, the Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives Program was created to unite the fire service to address the problem, and more importantly, find and apply solutions.

Strong Efforts to Reduce LODDs
Following the goals of the United States Fire Administration to reduce line-of-duty firefighter fatalities by 50 percent by the year 2014, the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF), partnering with fire organizations and fire service leaders from around the United States, created pathways and programs by which to prevent line-of duty firefighter deaths and, by extension, serious injuries.

These are the Everyone Goes Home Program and the 16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives, created from the first National Firefighter Life Safety Summit in 2004, and six subsequent mini summits held between 2004 and 2007.

16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives

  1. Define and advocate the need for a cultural change within the fire service relating to safety; incorporating leadership
  2. Enhance the personal and organizational accountability for health and safety throughout the fire service.
  3. Focus greater attention on the integration of risk management with incident management at all levels, including strategic, tactical, and planning responsibilities.
  4. All firefighters must be empowered to stop unsafe practices.
  5. Develop and implement national standards for training, qualifications, and certification (including regular recertification) that are equally applicable to all firefighters based on the duties they are expected to perform.
  6. Develop and implement national medical and physical fitness standards that are equally applicable to all firefighters, based on the duties they are expected to perform.
  7. Create a national research agenda and data collection system that relates to the initiatives.
  8. Utilize available technology wherever it can produce higher levels of health and safety.
  9. Thoroughly investigate all firefighter fatalities, injuries, and near misses.
  10. Grant programs should support the implementation of safe practices and/or mandate safe practices as an eligibility requirement.
  11. National standards for emergency response policies and procedures should be developed and championed.
  12. National protocols for response to violent incidents should be developed and championed.
  13. Firefighters and their families must have access to counseling and psychological support.
  14. Public education must receive more resources and be championed as a critical fire and life safety program.
  15. Advocacy must be strengthened for the enforcement of codes and the installation of home fire sprinklers.
  16. Safety must be a primary consideration in the design of apparatus and equipment.

Operating inside a burning structure is always inherently dangerous, regardless of any specific building construction practices or materials. Firefighters and incident commanders must constantly evaluate, assess and consider the potential risks and benefits of taking an offensive strategy quickly and carefully before committing personnel to interior operations.

IAFC's 10 Rules of Engagement
The International Association of Fire Chief's (IAFC), in 2001, developed and published its "10 Rules of Engagement for Structural Firefighting" that apply to all fires:

Acceptability of Risk

  1. No building or property is worth the life of a firefighter.
  2. All interior fire fighting involves an inherent risk.
  3. Some risk is acceptable, in a measured and controlled manner.
  4. No level of risk is acceptable where there is no potential to save lives or savable property.
  5. Firefighters shall not be committed to interior offensive fire fighting operations in abandoned or derelict buildings.

Risk Assessment

  1. All feasible measures shall be taken to limit or avoid risks through risk assessment by a qualified officer.
  2. It is the responsibility of the Incident Commander to evaluate the level of risk in every situation.
  3. Risk assessment is a continuous process for the entire duration of each incident.
  4. If conditions change, and risk increases, change strategy and tactics.
  5. No building or property is worth the life of a firefighter.

With any structure, regardless of its construction type, materials, occupancy classification, age or size, strategic and tactical decision-making during combat structural fire operations demands a focused and continuing assessment of building structural integrity, fire behavior and construction performance to ensure the safety and integrity of tactical company missions within the incident action plan. It demands an intimate knowledge of construction techniques, engineering principals and performance measures.

The fire and emergency service profession expends a tremendous amount of time and effort in varying disciple areas to develop, expand or enhance knowledge, skills, abilities, proficiencies and capabilities. Yet when asked, "How much do you really know about building construction, performance and structural integrity?", the response is typically far less than we would expect or have. The initial or continuing education process on the subject of building construction, principles, sciences or engineering is at best minimal, marginal or non-existent.

But still, we respond daily to structures, occupancies and buildings; placing personnel inside of these envelopes and enclosures, many times under untenable and hazards conditions, and command incident operations or undertake tactical assignments with little due regard to how the building will perform or with the poise, ignorance or audacity that we'll mange to knock the fire down, make the grab and take in the job, as successfully as we have in the past. You know, nothing has adversely affected your organization in the past like a LODD or serious event or you are conditioned to be fatalistic, that it's all part of the job and accept that "tonight could be the night".

Our world has evolved and changed. There are a variety of technological and sociological demands that create a continuing element of change in the built environment and our infrastructure. These changes influence the way we do business in the street, interface up close and personal with the buildings in your community and equate to the risks and hazards you and personnel will be confronted with.

According to the U.S. Fire Administration's Annual Firefighter Fatalities Report, the most hazardous duty for firefighters in 2006, as in most years, was working on the scene of a fire incident. Thirty-six firefighters died while engaging in activities at the scene of a fire in 2006:

  • Two Alabama firefighters were killed when they were crushed by a collapsing wall at the scene of a commercial structure fire in February
  • Two New York City firefighters were killed when they were caught in the collapse of a building during a fire fight in August

In addition to the multiple firefighter fatality incidents described above, 11 firefighters suffered fatal traumatic injuries at structure fires in 2006:

  • A New Jersey volunteer firefighter died of smoke inhalation at a fire in his home. After discovering the fire, the firefighter evacuated others and fought the fire as other firefighters responded.
  • A Mississippi inmate volunteer firefighter became disoriented in a residential structure fire.
  • A New Jersey volunteer firefighter died during a rescue attempt in a residential structure fire. The firefighter had located a civilian fire victim and was crawling toward the exit when a floor collapse claimed both lives.
  • A Colorado career fire officer became disoriented or trapped in a residential structure fire. He died seven days later.
  • An Indiana volunteer firefighter died after falling into the basement of a residential structure fire when fire-weakened flooring gave way.
  • A Wisconsin firefighter fell through the fire-weakened floor of a residential structure and was trapped in the basement.
  • A New Jersey firefighter was trapped by rapid fire progress in an apartment fire.
  • A Maryland firefighter was trapped within a residential structure as he and other firefighters attempted to exit the building due to rapid fire development.
  • An Indiana firefighter became disoriented in a large residence and died of smoke inhalation and burns.
  • A Georgia firefighter became disoriented during a fire in an abandoned residence. He suffered fatal burns and died six days after the fire.
  • A Texas firefighter was killed as he fought a structural fire in a commercial building. A collapse occurred and buried the firefighter under debris.

Two firefighters died in 2006 when fire-weakened floors gave way and dropped the firefighters into the basement of the structure. Both of these incidents involved the failure of engineered lumber products under fire conditions.

FEMA Director and former USFA Administrator, R. David Paulison provides firefighters with a simple, yet significant message. Chief Paulison states: "What we're trying to do is change the culture of the fire service. It's no longer acceptable to put your life on the line for a piece of property. Yes, we're going to save lives and we're going to put our lives on the line if we have to save somebody else. But stop and think what you're doing before you go into a burning building."

The United States Fire Administration National Fire Data Center reports that "for a ten year period, 1997-2006, 23.5% of on-duty firefighter fatalities occurred at the scene of structure fires."

The building environments that form and shape our respective response districts pose unique challenges to the day-to-day responses of fire departments and their subsequent operations at structural alarms. With the variety of occupancies and building characteristics present, there are definable degrees of risk potential with recognizable measures that must be taken. Although each occupancy type presents variables that dictate how a particular incident is handled, most company operations evolve from basic strategic and tactical principles rooted in past performance and operations at similar structures. With any structure, regardless of its construction type, materials, occupancy classification, age or size, the majority of incidents requiring actual operation time occur when the structure is in use or vacant.

Buildings can be classified within five fundamental construction types:

  • Fire-Resistive
  • Non-Combustible
  • Ordinary (exterior protected)
  • Heavy Timber
  • Wood Frame

These are represented in various forms and sub-classifications within the NFPA 220 Standard on Types of Building Construction, as well as within each of the Model Codes Standardization Council (MCSC) Recommended Types of Construction, and the three Model Building Codes, UBC, BNBC and SBC. Regardless of construction classification, each building type and occupancy can be affected adversely by flame and heat impingement due to fires, weather and environmental conditions, improper or inadequate construction techniques and methods as well as substandard or inappropriate construction materials and system assemblies.

Again, the question begs to be asked, "What do you know about building construction?"

There are varying degrees of perception versus reality related to response and operational demands, technological advancements, impacts from standards and regulations, shifting cultural values, society's sophistication, expectations, emergency services proficiencies and expertise, internal and external forces, increasing response and operational risks and our organization's perception versus reality. There are challenges and demands within the structures and occupancies we operate within, in which uncertainty and risks are always present.

These risks must be managed by cue-based indicators with experience and knowledge, with the clear understanding that errors and omissions may be very unforgiving and can lead to serious injuries, deaths and property loss.

The dynamics of firefighting and interaction within a structure during combat structural fire engagement has a correlating dependency between command and company officers; between risk management, building construction and firefighter survival; relationship on incident mitigation and the recognition primed rapid decision making (RPDM) process. Can the command and company officer truly make a difference in the outcome during structural fire combat? If they can make a difference - what tools are required to succeed? What are the relationships to:

  • Knowledge
  • Experience
  • Technical skills
  • Proficiency
  • Core values
  • Depth and degree of separation
  • Maturity and stability
  • Cue-based mastery
  • Learning curves
  • Variables of liabilities
  • Community-based risks

There are basic sets of parameters that can provide all operating personnel at structural fire operations with effective tools to increase operational effectiveness, safety and enhance incident stability and lead the forward progress towards event mitigation.

This includes the effective integration of BECOME SAFE concepts;

  • Building
  • Evaluation
  • Construction/occupancy
  • Operational hazards
  • Manage time and elements
  • Engagement
  • Situational awareness
  • Assessment and analysis-fluid
  • Fire behavior and effects
  • Evaluate and execute

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