Firefighting Operations Within Sealed Buildings

Firefighting is a dangerous undertaking at any time, but if the fire building is a sealed structure then the job becomes inherently more dangerous.


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Photo Courtesy Michael M. Dugan
A child guard window gate. If they are installed properly as this one is the top window cannot come down due to the gate in the window track. A firefighter cannot exit this window without removing the gate. This can be difficult and time consuming.

Firefighting is a dangerous undertaking at any time, but if the fire building is a sealed structure then the job becomes inherently more dangerous. In a sealed structure firefighters will have only a limited number of ways to get out. If they operate without having or creating a second way out of the structure and they become lost, trapped, disorientated or cut off from the way they entered, they might not be able to find their way out of the structure. Sealed buildings are killers of firefighters. For these reasons standard operational guidelines are needed for fires in these types of buildings.

A sealed building is one that is constructed or renovated in a manner that limits access either into the building or into individual parts the building. This in turn limits the ways out for firefighters and occupants in fire situations. Burglar gates placed over windows to prevent intruders from entering a home, a commercial windowless self-storage building, a repossessed home or a vacant building which has been boarded up to prevent vandalism are examples of sealed buildings.

These buildings can range from a large commercial structure to a single-family dwelling. They may be located within any response area and recognizing and determining which buildings are sealed and how they are sealed, will improve firefighter safety. Due to advances within the fire service, new tools and the improvement of personal protective clothing, firefighters are advancing deeper into these structures than ever before. A review of and possibly a revision of our Standard Operating Guidelines (Procedures) may be in order. Tactics and pre-planned strategies to deal with fire in these types of buildings are a must.

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Photo Courtesy Michael M. Dugan
A sealed medical testing facility. Entry may be made through the small gate into the occupancy but it will be a long time before we have complete ventilation of the first floor. Members operating on the second floor have no second way out.

Identifying them is the first task to be undertaken when dealing with sealed buildings. These structures can be anywhere within a response area and can range from a private home, with window gates, to a multiple-story commercial or vacant residential building. The local fire company can find and categorize them through an inspection program. This program may be incorporated into drills or training exercises, building inspections, during routine calls, and EMS runs.

Fire Department personnel should always be on the look out for these buildings any time they are out of the firehouse and should be constantly re-inspecting and re-evaluating these structures they have identified as sealed. These buildings can change significantly in a short period of time and we must be aware of the fact that this change might have a considerable impact our operations and safety.

Once we have located a sealed building in our response district, we then need to verify the address of the building. Once the address is verified, a system to relay that information to responding firefighters and officers will be necessary. This can be as fundamental as having notebooks carried in the apparatus cab and in the chief's vehicle with a copy at the dispatch location including all essential information. It can also be as intricate as a computer generated dispatch systems that recognizes addresses of sealed structures and prints out that data on that building on a response ticket. Regardless of how simple or sophisticated the method, an information system that furnishes responding members, officers, and a chief with information on a specific location is imperative.

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Photo Courtesy Michael M. Dugan
A telephone switching building. This is a hazardous occupancy because of the wire insulation. Notice the doors on the upper floors. New York city requires an exit door for every 100 feet of building frontage.
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