1. #1
    Junior Member

    Join Date
    Dec 2002
    Brooklyn NY

    Talking Architect's Role in Safe Building

    To all Firefighters, Fire Officers, EMS Personel:

    1st - Thank You. Thank You for your helping hands when we need it the most. Without your professionalism, we don't have a community. I wish you to have a happy and safe holiday.

    I'm an architecture student currently taking a course in Life Safety in Building Design. I'm learning that the building code is actually a record of mistakes in building construction and not a design guideline for safe construction. Since I am aware that the code is very slow to change. I would like to take advantage of the network of real life fire/life rescue experiences on this forum, gather the information and share it with my classmates and professors. If you have the time, please take a moment to reply with any information regarding building construction, materials that in your opinion is a good/bad ideas in safe building construction. Or just tell us what architect can do make your job easier and/or less hazardous. We don't get much opportunity to see how buildings gets use and abused, on the other hand, you profession lets you see all the errors we don't see. I believe an exchange between architects and life/fire rescuers will make the future constructions healthier and safer.

    Here's a list of open questions that can start the ball rolling..

    1 - Is there a type of construction material that is prone to fire/ combustion/smoke producers? ex. vinyl, wood, pvc, etc. fatal combination?

    2 - Are there any type of construction material commonly used that causes hazardous smoke making it difficult for rescue?

    3 - Fire rescue are more difficult in residential/commericial buildings? buildings with elevators/fire escapes?

    4 - What is a the best fire suppresion system in your opinion?

    5 - What is a critical component in building design that can assist in fire rescue?

    6 - Do you prefer short stairs with more landings or longer wider stairs? less turns? more turns?

    7 - What is a very unsafe building design?

    8 - What materials do you like to see in building construction ?

    9 - Is there a type of building that are logistically nightmares in life/fire rescues? Any building (famous/local) that you would say I hope I don't get a fire in this building?

    10 - Do you like Architects?

    11 - Feel Free to express ideas not mention

    Your opinions and experience is important to architectural research because it's based on facts. The value of your feedback far exceeds that of a controlled laboratory testing. Please help us improve by becoming aware of the error that you often witness to.

    If you like, please provide your experience and background in life rescue.

    Thank You.

    FYI: this is strictly for educational research and improvement of my understanding in Building Safety.

  2. #2
    MembersZone Subscriber

    Join Date
    Jul 2002
    Lancaster New York (just east of Buffalo)

    Lightbulb Wooden Truss Building

    Welcome rookiearch!

    I'd like to help you with a bit of info that I see as a bad design. We have allowed the industry to put up buildings with with wood truss construction for too long. This type of construction can be a death trap to any firefighter. Too many times do firefighters arrive on a scene to find a house involved, and do what has to be done...vent the building to let the hot gases and smoke out, so they can extinguish a fire. The major problem here is, in doing so, we have to first know what the roof is like condition wise?? If this structure has a truss constructed roof??...we could be in big trouble. Being Captain of the Truck Co. in my dept., this is a major concern to me. When my guys head for the roof, I have to make sure I have experienced firefighters up there that know when the conditions are getting to a point that may mean we have to go another way. I have seen many a roof that is unstable, and in no way would you even think of getting on it.

    The newer homes now are being made cheaper everyday. If you really take a look when they are building them, you can see what goes on a roof for a base. Gone are the good old days when they put plywood on. Nowadays the new roofs are so soft when you walk on them, you wouldn't even think of going on one if there was a fire under it. Until we address this problem, I really have a problem letting my guys "head for the roof", unless they have some experience knowing what is safe???..and what is not???

    One last question....We have a guy in my village that wants to put up a garage at his house. He has submitted the plans to the village for approval, and at this time I think it has been tabled. The garage is 32' long by 16'deep,it's an all wood structure, truss roof design with shingled roofing. The garage is going to be used to store his personal vehicles, lawn equipment, and supplies for said equipment. My question to you is???...If this garage were to catch fire, with all that he has in that garage,(gasoline,oil,fertilizer,rags,and whatever else we store in there), being all wood,how safe would it be if it caught fire?? And how quick do you think it would collapse??
    Sept. 11,2001 shall forever be a day which darkened the horizon, and burdened the hearts of many. But the lives that were lost, shall live forever, and shall never be forgotten. "Stay Low, and Be Well" for you are in our hearts forever Brothers.

  3. #3
    MembersZone Subscriber

    Join Date
    Aug 2001
    Upstate New York


    It took awhile to find time for my response. Good Questions.

    To Rookiearch,

    Thank you for asking, and thank the folks who run your architectural program for having a course in “Life Safety in Building Design”.

    A bit about my background, so that you understand where my points of view come from. I am a former firefighter/EMT and fire officer. I have worked in the property insurance industry, conducting loss prevention inspections. I have worked in the sprinkler, fire alarm, and special hazard protection industries; doing design, installation, inspection and maintenance. My experience goes from heavy industry and power plants to residential installations. In my current position, I am a Fire Protection Engineer for a large municipal fire department, where I am responsible for assuring the fire and life safety requirements of the fire and building codes in the construction of new buildings and facilities, through the construction permit process. I am also involved as a technical consultant to the city inspectors who enforce the fire and building codes in existing facilities; and I am involved in the development of national fire and building codes and standards. In other words, I am familiar with the issues and passionate about the subject.

    First of all, I disagree that the building codes are a record of mistakes that have been made in building construction. Yes, historically, much of what is in the building and fire codes is the result of disasters, and prescriptive solutions were developed, and then mandated by the codes. More recently the code development process has striven to anticipate the potential problems created by a design, before the disaster happens; this has been the result of our building more buildings that don’t easily fit into the prescriptive requirements of the code, and our advancement in the areas of knowledge involving the things that are important for designing a safe building, such as, fire behavior and human behavior in emergencies. These are the “performance based” provisions and the “alternate means and methods” referred to in the code. When given the opportunity, I prefer to look at the codes as a book of possible solutions to the life safety challenges presented by the design of buildings and facilities.

    Now, I will attempt to answer your questions, starting with No. 10.

    10) Do you like architects? Yes, but that doesn’t mean I always agree with them. The fire service, in general, has historically had a problem with the building codes not taking the needs of the fire service in order to fight a fire in a building and the safety of fire fighters when fighting a fire. The attitude of the Building Officials, again historically, was that the building only had to last long enough to get the occupants out safely. The attitude of the fire service, historically, was that we’ll fight any fire, no matter how big or dangerous, even if it kills us. In those days and still today, much of the fire safety features designed to protect property (as opposed to life safety) are the result of insurance requirements and the fire codes, not the building codes. Those attitudes are changing. In order to keep our firefighters safe, most departments are adopting a risk based philosophy in fighting fires. “We will risk a lot to protect savable lives. We will risk a little to protect savable property. We will not risk anything to protect lives and property that are already lost.” You can see that how a building is designed and constructed becomes important in making the decisions on how to fight a fire.

    1) Is there a type of construction material that is prone to fire/ combustion/smoke producers? ex. vinyl, wood, pvc, etc. fatal combination? Wood burns. Plastics burn, unless you add retardants. Plastics tend to release about 50% more energy per pound than wood and ordinary combustibles. The rate at which plastics burn tends to be significantly faster than ordinary combustibles (wood, paper, natural fibers), meaning plastics are doubly bad. Fires involving plastics get big, fast. Also, thin materials tend to ignite easier and burn faster than thicker materials; so you have to consider how the finishes on any construction material changes its burning characteristics.

    2) Are there any type of construction material commonly used that causes hazardous smoke making it difficult for rescue? All materials produce smoke when burned in a structure fire. Smoke consists of toxic gases and incompletely burned particles. To make materials burn slower, especially plastics, they add fire retardants, which slows the burning but causes them to produce more toxic smoke (more incompletely burned particles). It's a balancing act between burn rate and smoke production rates when they do this.

    3) Fire rescue are more difficult in residential/commercial buildings? buildings with elevators/fire escapes? Rescues have to be performed when the fire grows faster than the building occupants can be notified of the problem, make their decision to leave, and then get out of the building. Residential occupancies tend to require the most rescue services because its is where the people are when they are sleeping. Elevators are not supposed to be used for evacuation during a fire, because their controls are not designed to tolerate the fire (or water used to suppress the fire), which can cause them to behave erratically. Elevator recall systems, activated by smoke detectors in the elevator lobbies and machine rooms, where added to the elevator code to take them out of service during a fire, so that modern elevators cannot be used for evacuation during a fire. The risk is too great. The higher the building, the more time it takes to get the people out. Building codes currently only require the exit stairs to be designed for partial evacuation of taller buildings.

    4) What is a the best fire suppression system in your opinion? Without a doubt, in terms of cost and effectiveness, automatic fire sprinklers do the best job when life safety is the objective. Other systems may be better for protection of water sensitive equipment. Smoke alarms and fire alarm systems play a key role in alerting occupants of residential occupancies, so they are important, too.

    5) What is a critical component in building design that can assist in fire rescue? In my opinion, the most critical component in building design, that can assist in fire rescue, is fire department access. Remember that we are working against the clock. If we can’t get to the building quickly, get into the building quickly, get to the location of the fire and the people needing rescue, before the fire gets too big, we’ve lost. This also applies to emergency medical response, as well. When you are having a heart attack, or someone is drowning or not breathing for any reason, you only have four to six minutes. Anything that limits access, such as gates, security bars, building height, or just plain distance is working against us.

    6) Do you prefer short stairs with more landings or longer wider stairs? less turns? more turns? I haven’t had to run up a high-rise in quite awhile. Wider stairs would help significantly, since they are usually designed to the minimum widths to evacuate the occupants, with no considerations that the fire department needs to get manpower and equipment up the stairs at the same time people are leaving. For EMS response, elevators can be used, but they need to be large enough to accommodate the gurney. People are getting bigger, so are the gurneys. Taking people down stairs is not fun, but does need to be done on occasions, such as during a fire when elevators are unsafe. Wider stairs would help here too.

    7) What is a very unsafe building design? Light weight wood trusses are the worst. They burn and they fail under fire conditions. You are lucky if lightweight wood construction lasts for 15 minutes, once exposed to fire. Light weight steel trusses, with fire exposure and without adequate fire resistance, aren’t much better.

    8) What materials do you like to see in building construction ? Concrete and protected steel are the best. Gypsum wallboard on steel studs works well. Gypsum wallboard on wood studs isn’t bad; but, with wood framing, you are relying on the maintenance of the integrity of the rated wallboard separation for the life of the building. Even if constructed properly, this rarely happens, and problems are not found until there is a fire.

    9) Is there a type of building that are logistically nightmares in life/fire rescues? Existing residential buildings of wood frame construction, that have been converted to care homes, without an upgrade in the smoke detectors, fire alarms, and the installation of automatic fire sprinklers. Existing residential high-rises with aging fire alarm systems and no sprinkler protection.

    Any building (famous/local) that you would say I hope I don't get a fire in this building? Yes, but I won’t be specific.
    Last edited by dhavenshome; 01-12-2003 at 09:19 AM.
    An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of suppression! Sometimes even more!

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