Texas, Memphis, Charleston, now Boston.....are we seeing a trend?
I work here in Memphis, and after the Sofa Superstore fire in Charleston the media made several references to the Family Dollar fire here in Memphis. It all got me thinking, so I talked to people and read some NIOSH reports. What I found is a potential trend that is not just disturbing but down right scary.
Houston Texas Feb 2000 two firefighters killed in a restaurant fire following a roof collapse. NIOSH requested a NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) study of the fire. What they found was that the fire progressed rapidly above a tile drop ceiling where it attacked the wood truss system, ran out of oxygen and smoldered for 17 minutes before the first 911 call. Temps in the ceiling were above 1000 deg at the time of FD arrival.
Memphis 2003, two firefighters killed in the Family Dollar fire. The NIOSH report states that the fire rapidly progressed above the tile drop ceiling and attacked the steel truss roof system. When I talked to some of the brothers that were there, they said that the building was clear from front to back when they got there. They said all hell broke loose in seconds. NIOSH reports a possible backdraft out of the ceiling tiles.
Charleston 2007, nine firefighters killed in the Sofa Superstore. According to published media reports the fire was found on the loading dock, but when the Chief entered the building he reported seeing puffs of smoke coming from out of the tile drop ceiling in the back of the store. At this time there is no NIOSH report, but we do know the building had unprotected steel truss roof system and rapid deterioration of conditions inside the store.
Boston 2007, two firefighters killed in a restaurant fire. The news conference by the Chief stated that they believe the fire was burning above a tile ceiling for at least an hour before the 911 call, and they believe there was a backdraft into the structure prior to the collapse.
Doing the math shows that we lost 15 brothers and sisters in 7 years due to strangely similar conditions. Without the NIOSH reports from Charleston and Boston it is hard to reach any conclusions, but I believe we are seeing a trend with fires that are either starting in, or rapidly extending up into drop ceilings, hanging out, then blowing out on our people followed by a roof collapse. The NIST simulation from the Texas fire looked at popping a ceiling tile just inside the door. They concluded that this could allow crews to see the extent of the fire above the drop ceiling.
We all know the dangers of truss roof systems, so there is no point in rehashing that, but the addition of the drop ceiling, the speed of fire advance up and into this space, and the way it is holding the fire and smoke above our heads is something that needs to be discussed. Iím not going to judge my Brothers or the calls they made. I wasnít there. What I do see though is 15 of us dead in 7 years due to hidden fire above our heads attacking a truss roof system
For my crew Iíve instituted an aggressive training and discussion program concerning these fires and the types of buildings we see with this ceiling/roof system. Iíve also instructed my people to lift the first ceiling tile in the door on any commercial building we make for either fire or automatic alarm.
I hope this generates some discussion and some awareness. Please read the NIOSH reports. Study the buildings, and post some comments. Above all STAY SAFE.
Extreme Fire Behavior and Collapse
The traumatic LODD occurring during structural firefighting in 2007 definitely show a definite pattern. Twenty firefighters and fire officers have died as a result of extreme fire behavior (e.g., flashover, backdraft) since 1 January 2007. 14 involved flashover, two involved backdraft, and the remaining four resulted from unspecified extreme fire behavior phenomena. In a substantial number of these cases, structural collapse occurred either subsequent to (most common) or prior to (less common) the extreme fire behavior phenomena.
It is difficult to point to a trend based on the events of the year to this point. However, looking at LODD related to offensive structural firefighting operations over the last 30 years (1977-2007) there is a significant trend. Firefighters are more likely to die from traumatic cause (e.g., extreme fire behavior, collapse) today than they were in the 1970s (see the current issue of NFPA Fire Journal). In a previous retrospective look at traumatic fatalities Rita Fahy of the NFPA speculated that limited experience (resulting from fewer structural fires) may be a contributing factor in many traumatic LODD. Note that experience in this case is not simply based on years of service, but the number of fires attended and lessons learned from that work.
Thirteen of those who died were Firefighters and the other seven were company officers. They ranged in age from 19 to 57 with a median age of 40.5. Two who died were volunteers and the remaining 18 were career personnel. Nine of the fatalities occurred in residential structures and 11 occurred in commercial occupancies. Eleven of the fatalities occurred during fire attack operations, eight during primary search, and one involved live fire training.
It is difficult to evaluate the specific factors that contributed to these tragic events as investigations in most cases are ongoing and detailed reports have not been released. However, prior fatalities have a number of common elements (based on an analysis of NIOSH reports on incidents involving extreme fire behavior) that in some combination will likely be found in the fatalities in the current year.
- Not recognizing potential for extreme fire behavior (this may be on the part of the individuals who died, on the part of command, or both).
- Not recognizing the potential influence of changes in the ventilation profile (either due to tactical or unplanned ventilation)
- Failure to coordinate fire control and ventilation operations.
- Working above the fire without a hoseline (or supported by a hoseline).
- Not recognizing that smoke is fuel and controlling the fire environment through effective fire control and ventilation tactics.
- Not recognizing the hazards presented by combustion in void spaces and/or accumulation of pyrolysis products and flammable products of combustion within structural voids.
The frequency of extreme fire behavior related LODD should not distract us from the issue of lightweight construction and collapse hazards as there have also been a significant number of firefighter fatalities related to collapse and floor system failure.
I encourage each firefighter and fire officer to improve their knowledge of fire behavior and building construction. This needs to not only focus on theory (although understanding the underlying theory is essential) but practical application. Consider taking the following steps:
- Seek out and participate in professional development in the area of fire behavior and building construction.
- Conduct post incident analysis on your own fires (even those that are not particularly complex),
- Use case studies and identify the lessons that can be learned from others experiences (e.g., NIOSH Death in the Line of Duty Reports, Firefighter Near Miss Reports)
- Complete near miss reports at www.firefighternearmiss.com if you have a near miss involving extreme fire behavior or collapse (or for that matter any type of near miss).
If you have any questions related to fire behavior or would like to share your experiences or lessons learned, please drop me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.