Building Collapse Indicators

The one-story laundry building measured about 300 feet by 125 feet with few windows and doors. Fire had taken possession of one part of the building. Openings were needed for the heavy streams needed to cut off the fast-spreading fire. Rescue company...


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The one-story laundry building measured about 300 feet by 125 feet with few windows and doors. Fire had taken possession of one part of the building. Openings were needed for the heavy streams needed to cut off the fast-spreading fire. Rescue company members were working on an overhead door, trying to open it. Unknown to them, the unprotected steel beams supporting the roof and sitting in the brick wall were being superheated.

4_97_building1.jpg
Photo by Joe Hoffman
The prompt reporting of any collapse indicators to the incident commander will provide him or her with a clearer picture of the building's stability.

The firefighters were unaware of any structural problems as they worked in the darkness by using hand- lights. The expanding steel beams pushed down the wall, burying five firefighters under bricks and building debris. Hoselines were hurriedly stretched to protect the firefighters from the raging fire that was now too close to them. A search and rescue team under the protection of the hoselines were able to extricate the firefighters from beneath the buried bricks. They all required medical attention, from broken bones to a few with serious injuries that required transporting to trauma centers via medic units.

There are many reasons for building collapse during firefighting. Critiques of various collapses have shown that only after a collapse occurred was it realized that seemingly unrelated occurrences (or indicators) contributed to the collapse. The probability of only one indicator or defect causing the collapse was probably remote but combined with other defects or occurrences it caused a devastating problem.

The ability to manage an incident scene will be enhanced when firefighters utilize every piece of information at their disposal. Each scene has indicators which provide varying degrees of information. The prompt reporting of any collapse indicators to the incident commander will allow him or her a clearer picture of the building's stability. The following are some indicators of building collapse.

Fire Conditions

Fire attacking a structure creates constantly changing conditions. A continuous size-up is needed to detect dangerous situations as they occur and act accordingly.

Collapse indicators involving fire conditions:

  • Two or more floors fully involved
  • Continued or heavy fire
  • High heat and heavy smoke conditions coupled with inadequate ventilation

Two or more floors fully involved. A large commercial and industrial building having two or more floors fully involved in fire creates a sustained high heat condition. Commercial and industrial buildings often have exposed structural members. There may be interconnection between floors for an industrial process or a conveyor belt. These construction features allow a fire to quickly communicate from floor to floor.

4_97_building2.jpg
Photo by Bob Gauley
Firefighters found heavy fire moving through the walls and ceilings at a four-alarm fire in Lawrence, MA, on Jan. 14, 1997, involving a large four-family 2 1/2-story frame dwelling with a hip roof with large dormers.

 


4_97_building3.jpg
Photo by Bob Gauley
The fire then spread to the roof area.In these photos, a special-called Salem, NH, Fire Department tower ladder operates its master streams into the roof area. The dormer and a portion of the roof eventually collapsed.

 

Large open areas favor a fast-moving fire that is difficult to control. The sustained fire attacks structural members, leading to their failure. Conversely, two or more floors in a residential structure or small commercial building is often controllable by an interior attack. This is due to these buildings being smaller in size, being compartmentalized and having well protected structural members which permits an aggressive attack to be successful.

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