Lack of recognition of key aspects related to building construction is one of the top five common threads when analyzing firefighter fatality case studies. A good number of times, this lack of recognition can be attributed to a hidden danger that is not readily observable. Buildings that contain any type of truss construction are susceptible to collapse from fire exposure in a very short amount of time. One of the most easily identifiable (when able to be visualized) roof trusses is the bowstring truss. Unfortunately, it has also been the culprit in numerous firefighter fatalities over the years due to the dangers that are presented.
Some of the most notable fires that have affected the fire service have involved bowstring truss construction. On August 2, 1978, six New York City firefighters were killed and 34 were injured fighting a fire in a supermarket when the roof collapsed. On July 1, 1988, five Hackensack, NJ, firefighters were killed while operating under a bowstring truss roof fighting a fire in an auto dealership. On February 11, 1998 two Chicago firefighters were killed and three were injured while fighting a fire in a automotive tire service center. Twenty years of time passed between these three incidents listed, yet we as a fire service even until today in 2007, some 29 years later, are still making some of the same mistakes that are putting our personnel in danger.
The first step in dealing with any type of truss construction is recognizing its presence. The bowstring truss as stated is one of the most easily identifiable when it is able to be seen. Prior to 1960, it was one of the most common designs for large commercial and industrial occupancies. It is most easily recognized by the characteristic round "half-circle" or arched shape that it gives the roof of a structure.
The principles of truss construction are the same with a bowstring as other truss construction - web members form triangles which transfer tension from the bottom chord and compression from the top chord of the truss onto load bearing walls. One big difference however is that due to the arch shape, compression is also forcing the load bearing walls outward as well as downward. From the interior, a bowstring truss building can be recognized by large open areas with few columns present for support. Occupancies that it is most commonly found in include: industrial complexes, automobile repair centers and dealerships, bowling alleys, supermarkets and banquet facilities.
Often times, the characteristic arched roof of the bowstring truss building cannot be readily visualized by responding fire companies. Buildings spaced very close together or parapet walls designed for aesthetics to hide the unsightliness of the roof area on the businesses often impede the view of the roof area. This is yet another reason to ensure that a view of all sides of the structure as well as a view from above are taken in one way or another when an incident commander is performing a risk versus benefit analysis on the fireground. As an officer, if you can not access the rear of the building, assign a company to come in from another direction to get there. The same goes for the roof, if you can't see it, get someone in a safe position to let you know the information that you need.
Some jurisdictions such as the State of New Jersey, have passed ordinances or laws requiring buildings containing truss construction to have warning placards placed on them to alert firefighters. The placards (a white triangle with red lettering) are meant to function as a reminder to firefighters and incident commanders to constantly reevaluate the conditions as well as progress when operating in these types of buildings.
Another reminder may be to have a critical information dispatch system in place where information such as this is stored in a computer file until a call at the address takes place. Fire department dispatchers can relay this information to fire companies as they respond.