Introduction To Structural Anatomy

July 17, 2006
With the variety of occupancies and building characteristics present, there are definable degrees of risk potential with recognizable strategic and tactical measures that must be taken.

The built-environments that form and shape our respective response districts, communities and municipalities pose unique challenges to the day-to-day responses of fire departments and in their subsequent operations at structural alarms. With the variety of occupancies and building characteristics present, there are definable degrees of risk potential with recognizable strategic and tactical measures that must be taken. Although each occupancy type presents variables that dictate how a particular incident is handled, most company operations evolve from basic strategic and tactical principles rooted in past performance and operations at similar structures.

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The fire and emergency services have consistently exhibited its unique ability to overcome adversity and meet headlong the challenges imposed in satisfying the demands of society and the built environment in which we operate. These demands translate themselves into the methodology and manner in which emergency services are delivered and the strategic and tactical disciplines that we adopt are assimilated.

The primary tenet which the fire and emergency service profession has traditionally focused upon is the protection of life and property. This is the basis from which we provide services to our communities and jurisdictions. Of the many functions these emergency services have evolved into, structural fire suppression and rescue forms the major component within this multi-faceted delivery system.

Combat Fire Suppression and Rescue is considered the top response priority of most fire and emergency service agencies. We plan, prepare, train, outfit and anticipate the call for fire suppression services - that alarm dispatch that communicates a possible or actual report of fire in a structure and occupancy and the need to dispatch, deploy and orchestrate the equipment, resources, manpower and expertise necessary to safely handle the fire and incident. Combat fire suppression and interior rescue and support operations, incident severity, magnitude and frequency can vary widely in their application and potential as an incident response factor. There is one element that is a constant in deployment, response and operations during combat structural fire operations; and that is the interface and interaction with the structure, the occupancy and it's inherent features, hazards, risks and performance characteristics.

With any structure, regardless of its construction type, materials, occupancy classification, age or size, strategic and tactical decision-making during combat structural fire operations demands a focused and continuing assessment of building structural integrity, fire behavior and construction performance to ensure the safety and integrity of tactical company missions within the incident action plan. It demands an intimate knowledge of construction techniques, engineering principals and performance measures.

The fire and emergency service profession expends a tremendous amount of time and effort in varying disciple areas to develop, expand or enhance knowledge, skills, abilities, proficiencies and capabilities. Yet when asked; "How much do you really know about building construction, performance and structural integrity?", the response is typically far less than we would expect or have. The initial or continuing education process on the subject of building construction, principles, sciences or engineering is at best minimal, marginal or non-existent.

But still, we respond daily to structures, occupancies and buildings; placing personnel inside of these envelopes and enclosures, many times under untenable and hazards conditions, and command incident operations or undertake tactical assignments with little due regard to how the building will perform or with the poise, ignorance or audacity that we'll mange to knock the fire down, make the grab and take in the job, as successfully as we have in the past. You know, nothing has adversely affected your organization in the past like a LODD or serious event OR you are condition to be fatalistic that it's all part of the job and accept that "tonight could be the night".

Our world has evolved and changed, there a variety of technological and sociological demands that create a continuing element of change in the built environment and our infrastructure. These changes influence the way we do business in the street, interface up close and personal with the buildings in your community and equate to the risks and hazards you and personnel will be confronted with.

Profile Of Selective Significant Or Influencing Events


  • Developing concepts on size-up factors
  • Pre-fire planning
  • Tremendous national build-out, post World War II
Late 1950's through 1960's
  • Advancements in SCBA
  • Developing strategic & tactical refinements versus brute physical fire suppression
  • Developing operational protocols & procedures
  • Construction methodologies & systems - significant growth and expansions


  • Standards development
  • 1971 NFPA Frank Brannigan's Building Construction For the Fire Services published
  • Developments in Incident Command Systems (ICS)
  • Development of EMS System
  • Technological advances in personal protective equipment (PPE) & equipment
  • NFPA statistics
  • The "War Years" of fire suppression
  • Aggressive interior fire suppression tactics


  • 1984 NFPA Chief Alan Brunacini's Fire Command textbook published
  • Company officer development
  • Hazardous materials response capabilities
  • Firefighter safety & health
  • NFPA 1500


  • Multi-disciplines services
  • Technical rescue/USAR
  • Declining fire incident rates
  • Construction methodologies & systems


  • Firefighter sfety & survival
  • Risk management
  • Rapid intervention teams
  • Close Calls - Near Miss Reporting System
  • National Incident Management System (NIMS)

There are varying degrees of perception versus reality related to response and operational demands, technological advancements, impacts from standards and regulations, shifting cultural values, society's sophistication, expectations, emergency services proficiencies and expertise, internal & external forces, increasing response and operational risks and our organization's perception versus reality. There are challenges and demands within the structures and occupancies we operate within, in which uncertainty & risks are always present. These risks must be managed by cue-based indicators with experience and knowledge, with the clear understanding that errors and omissions may be very unforgiving and can lead to serious injuries, deaths and property loss.

The dynamics of firefighting and interaction within a structure during combat structural fire engagement has a correlating dependency between command and company officers; between risk management, building construction & firefighter survival; a relationship on incident mitigation and the RPDM process. Can the command and company officer truly make a difference in the outcome during structural fire combat? If they can make a difference - what tools are required to succeed? What are the relationships to;

  • Knowledge
  • Experience
  • Technical skills
  • Proficiency
  • Core-Values
  • Depth & degree of separation
  • Maturity & stability
  • Cue-based mastery
  • Learning curves
  • Variables of liabilities
  • Community-based risks

Although direct structural combat fire engagement experience drives a lot...real world operating experience; previous, historical parameters and building/structural performance always provides a postulated measurement to gauge operational tasks and form the basis for the incident action plan. These parameters must be recognized and integrated, there's a need to integrate performance based incident indicators derived from engineering, physics, fire dynamics, historical and statistical basis and not predicated on antiquated basic size - up methods - these are not enough. There is also a need in today's suppression operations to re-examine influences from the daily experience, expectations, and company & command comfort zones;

  • We're pretty good at what we do - regularly
  • We develop profound habits and methods
  • We treat a lot of things as equal in may respects
  • We've grown accustomed to certain operational modes
  • We've practiced a lot - on certain building & occupancies types
  • But not nearly enough for the complex operations

There are some significant command & company officer challenges;

  • Increasing frequency of EMS and service calls
  • Deceasing frequency of fire incidents, especially "real" structural fires
  • Correlation of varying incident frequency, severity & magnitude
  • Variable cue-based skills & proficiencies, technical knowledge & experience
  • Training ground versus fire ground skill sets and expectations
Fluctuating trends in firefighter line-of-duty death (LODD) fatalities and injuries continue to challenge us daily. It seems that the beat goes on and on and on...
  • 2006 Firefighter LODD; 48 (as of July 14, 2006)
  • 2005 - 106
  • 2004 - 117
  • 2003 - 112
  • 2002 - 101
  • 2001 - 105/449 (344 firefighters killed in Sept. 11 terrorist attacks)
  • 2000 - 103
  • 1999 - 113

When do we say enough is enough! LODD and injuries don't have to be an acceptable part of the job! Its time to wake up and really smell the smoke.

  • Overall fires are down - true combat structural engagement
  • Today's fires are burning hotter and are more intense than in the past
  • More synthetics in construction & furnishings
  • Engineered and pre-fabricated structural systems; lightweight trusses, held together with engineered components that fail, resulting in quicker collapse
  • Time to collapse is sompressed
  • Buildings are less fire resistant
  • Firefighters, company officers and incident commanders have less fireground experience
  • Risk management is not practiced

We need to start seeing through the smoke and assessing and evaluation the vulnerabilities, liabilities and deficiencies that influence, and sometime drive incident operations, strategically and tactically;

  • Vulnerabilities; young officers with less live (Combat) fire experience
  • Lack the ability to "read" the fire building
  • Lack the ability to read signs of flashover and building collapse
  • Lack the ability to have a "command presence"
  • Lack Of building construction knowledge & skills
  • Live fire training in acquired structures
  • Lack of good burns, all burn building type evolutions
  • Treat fires like they were in burn rooms (static vs. dynamic)
  • Personal protective gear is better than it ever has been before

Firefighter Fatalities-Structural Fires

  • The decreasing numbers of structural fires annually does not correlate to the escalating rate of firefighter deaths at structural fires.
  • The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) reports that 968 firefighters died between 1989 and 1998 [NFPA 1999].
  • Nearly half of these deaths (443) occurred on the fireground.
  • Structural collapse caused 56 (18-percent) of the 316 firefighter deaths at structure fires.
  • Structural collapse of any part of a building (floors, walls, ceilings, roofs, or structural members) during fire fighting is a leading cause of death among firefighters.
  • The potential for structural collapse is one of the most difficult factors to predict during initial size-up and ongoing fire fighting. Structural collapse usually occurs without warning. But there indicators that can provide guidance & insights for incident decision-making process

Here are some random thoughts to ponder

  • All building will burn
  • All buildings will eventually fail
  • All fires, do eventually go out
  • The fire will eventually burn down to your operational capabilities
  • RIT and FAST teams do not substitute for decisive command leadership & strategic direction
  • Old buildings are getting older
  • Truss systems kill sirefighter's
  • There is no substitute for experience over time
  • No building is worth the life of a firefighter
  • We will risk a lot when there is a lot to be gained
  • Do not ignore the laws and principles of physics, fire behavior and gravity - they will win in the end.
  • LODD & injuries are unacceptable

There are basic sets of parameters that can provide all operating personnel at structural fire operations with effective tools to increase operational effectiveness, safety and enhance incident stability and lead the forward progress towards event mitigation. This includes the effective integration of BECOME SAFE concepts;

  • Building
  • Evaluation
  • Construction/occupancy
  • Operational hazards
  • Manage-time & elements
  • Engagement
  • Situational awareness
  • Assessment & analysis-fluid
  • Fire behavior & effects
  • Evaluate & execute

With the 1971 publication by the NFPA of Frank Brannigan's Building Construction For The Fire Service textbook, and the over 35 years of its use, the fire service has entered a new phase in its perception and understanding of buildings, structures and occupancies. The passing of generations and the introduction of new ones has brought forth a variation of capabilities, knowledge, skill sets and comprehension of the engineering principles, methodologies and science of building construction and their relationship under fire or environmental conditions during those periodic intervals when the fire service responds to events at structures and occupancies.

There continues to be a profound need for expanded knowledge, skills, increased abilities and assessment and determination considerations that impact factor variable for operations during combat structural fire engagement and the ability to understand your community based risk and hazards. These are fundamental command and company officer responsibilities & perspectives. Your community buildings and structures what's the scope and magnitude of your built environment? What are the typical or extreme compositions, construction features, risk prone types, frequency of fires and the magnitude and severity of impact that they have on structural integrity and operation safety? What have been the past outcomes during structural fire combat? What about present outcomes during structural fire combat? How about predicting future outcomes during structural fire combat? What are the challenges; past, present and future- what do you truly know about your built environment?

  • Buildings
  • Structures
  • Complexes
  • Construction
  • Techniques
  • Materials
  • Workmanship
  • Occupancy
  • Economics
  • History

As a command or company officer - what do you know about the following?

Building construction Reading a structure Strategy Tactics True or projected operation time ICS - NIMS Structural systems Fire behavior Collapse rescue operations True RIT/FAST or collapse operations

What do you know about your community/district buildings, occupancies and structures under fire conditions?

  • Are we...doing the right thing, at the right time for the right reasons?
  • Or do we have our close calls? What are we doing?
  • Have we learned anything from the past?
  • Are we applying the lessons learned from the past?

What Do These Incidents Mean To You?

  • Apartment Fire, Morris Heights, Bronx, NY, 2005
  • Church Collapse, Pittsburgh, 2004
  • Taxpayer/Commerical Fire, Memphis, 2003
  • Commerical Fire, Coos Bay, OR, 2003
  • Residential Collapse, Gloucester City, NJ, 2002
  • Residential Fire, Manlius, NY, 2002
  • Terrorist Attack, World Trade Center, New York, NY, 2001
  • Southwest Supermarket Fire, Phoenix, 2001
  • Mercantile Collapse, Queens, NY. 2000
  • Resturant Fire, Houston, 2000
  • Warehouse Fire, Worcester, MA, 1999
  • Church Fire/Collapse, Lake Worth, TX., 1999
  • Townhouse Fire, Washington, DC, 1999
  • Apartment Building Fire, Brooklyn NY, 1998
  • Mercantile Fire, Washington, DC, 1997
  • Mercantile Collapse, Chesapeake, VA, 1996
  • Terrorist bombing, Murrah Federal Building, Oklahoma City, 1995
  • Food Storage Warehouse, Seattle, 1995
  • Residential Fire, Pittsburgh, 1995
  • Building Fire, Happyland Social Club, Bronx, NY, 1992
  • Printing Office, Denver, 1992
  • Residential Fire, Brackenridge, PA, 1991
  • One Meridian Plaza, Philadelphia, 1991
  • Resturant Fire, New Smyrna Beach, FL, 1991
  • Warehouse Fire, Seattle, WA, 1989
  • First Interstate Bank Building, Los Angeles, 1988
  • Construction Site Explosion, Kansas City, MO, 1988
  • Retail & business fire, Hackensack, NJ, 1988
  • Building Fire, Dupont Plaza Hotel, San Juan, Puerto Rico, 1986
  • Warehouse Collapse, Detroit. 1986
  • Warehouse Explosion, Buffalo, NY, 1983
  • Condominium Collapse, Coccoa Beach, FL, 1981
  • Hyatt Regency Collapse, Kansas City, MO, 1981
  • Waldbaum's Supermarket Collapse, Brooklyn, NY, 1978
  • Apartment Building Fire, Syracuse, NY, 1977
  • Apartment Building Collapse, Bailey's Crossroads, VA, 1973
  • Hotel under renovation collapse, Boston, 1972
  • 23rd Street collapse, New York, NY,1966

Time Marches On... Have We Learned Anything From The Past?

  • Vendome, Boston
  • Waldbaum's, Brooklyn, NY
  • Hackensack, NJ
  • Orange County, FL
  • Lake Worth, TX
  • Memphis
  • Coos Bay, OR
  • The Beat Goes On...

Whenever I'm on the road teaching around the country, regardless of the size of the municipality or structure of the agency; large or small; career or volunteer; posing simple questions as to the nature, scope and extent of many of these significant incidents places blank stares from many of the classroom attendees. When asked what was the Waldbaum's LODD fire in 1978, or the Hackensack, NJ, LODD fire of 1988 or the Seattle warehouse fire in 1989 or the Mercantile fire and collapse, in Chesapeake, VA, in 1996, the Southwest Supermarket fire, Phoenix, AZ, 2001 or the Coos Bay, OR, fire of 2003. How do we learn to stop repeating events? How do we learn from the past, prepare for our own similar events that certainly can present themselves at ay time; we should respect the fact that it can happen in your city, in your organization and most certainly to you and your personnel.

As important as it is to be skilled and knowledgeable to control a hose and nozzle, to operate a SCBA unit, to know about hazardous materials, how to use a power saw or to be NIMS compliant - don't you need to know what and how a building is put together, is affected by incident parameters when we're called to interact and interface with the wide variety of situations within a structure, occupancy and understand fully the manner in which it will perform?

What do you truly know about building construction, performance, systems, risks and fire behavior within the compartment, envelope or structure of a given occupancy? Have you ever taken more than a single class or seminar on the subject of building construction? Have you read any books on building construction, or any case study, LODD or incident NIOSH, NFPA, USFA or other agency reports? Don't you have the profound responsibility to be competent, skilled, knowledgeable based upon your responsibilities, level of supervision, command and decision-making?

  • Understand intimately your community, jurisdiction and the built environment that comprises it.
  • Know your buildings and construction methodologies
  • Anticipate structural compromise
  • All feasible measures shall be taken to limit or avoid these risks through risk assessment,constant vigilance and conscientious application of safety policies and procedures
  • Acceptable risk based upon realistic potential to save a person(s) known to be in distress
  • NO property is worth the life of a firefighter
  • No risk to the safety of a firefighter is acceptable in situations where there is no possibility to save lives or property
  • Firefighters shall not be committed to interior offensive operations in abandoned or derelict buildings that are known or reasonably believed to be unoccupied
  • Predict based upon cue-based indicators
  • Understand your built environment
  • Pre-plan
  • Keep abreast of changes
  • Document & pass along information
  • Be conservative
  • Don't treat all occupancies the same
  • There is NEVER a typical job
  • Assume the worst in all incident situations
  • Have enough resources before you commit
  • Know the limitations & capabilities of your personnel
  • Know & understand your limitations & capabilities

The 10 Rules Of Engagement

Acceptability Of Risk

  1. No Building or property is worth the life of a fire fighter
  2. All interior fire fighting involves inherent risk
  3. Some risk is acceptable, in a measured & controlled manner
  4. No level of risk is acceptable where there is no potential to save lives or savable property
  5. Firefighters shall not be committed to interior offensive operations in abandoned or derelict buildings

Risk Assessment

All feasible measures shall be taken to limit or avoid risks through assessment by a qualified officer The responsibility of the IC is to evaluate the level of risk in every situation Risk assessment is a continuous process for the entire incident If conditions change, and risk increases-change the strategy & tactics No building or property is worth the life of a firefighter

Structural Anatomy is envisioned to be a process of correlating the science of building construction, and integrating groundbreaking operational concepts on; structural combat/command risk assessment, fire dynamics and building performance for the fire services.

Addressing the fundamental and emerging command, operational, risk reduction and technical proficiency issues affecting structural combat fire engagement for occupancies in the built environment, this methodology will seek to elevate the foundation of knowledge on building construction for the fire services and integrates classical physics & fire suppression theory, traditional fire suppression operations with cutting edge perspectives and insights into the emerging philosophies of command safety, proactive risk reduction and visionary structural fire suppression. This methodology will examine the correlation of occupancy risk assessment, recognition-primed decision-making (RPDM), structural and construction systems, and their direct relationship on structural firefighting operations, firefighter survivability and the on-scene incident command decision-making process, affecting structural combat fire engagement for occupancies in the built environment.

Structural Anatomy principles, concepts and insights will provide ways to bridge the gap between basic building construction principles and the need to;

  • Expand technical proficiencies
  • Knowledge of building performance
  • Stability and inherent occupancy
  • Hazard characteristics and
  • Provide the incident commander with a comprehensive understanding of the interrelated basis of;
  • Physics
  • Fire dynamics
  • Building performance
  • Firefighter survivability
  • Command safety and
  • Effective risk assessment to ensure that during structural combat fire engagement, personnel and company safety is paramount and that the lessons learned from historical fire events are not repeated.
The Structural Anatomy methodology and process will strive to establish new insights from which structural fire suppression theory may expand and evolve, accomplished through;
  • Integrating case studies
  • The lessons learned from these events
  • Intrinsic building performance and structural stability factors, and
  • Universal strategic and tactical protocols that form the constants in structural combat fire engagement within various occupancies
  • Performance indicators examine in detail the elements of building construction
  • Structural Assemblies
  • Building support and supply systems, and the anatomy of structures
  • Occupancies and their performance related to time
  • Fire involvement
  • Fire dynamics and the interaction of fire suppression efforts by firefighters orchestrated under prevailing theories of strategic command, tactical deployments and task assignments

Fire dynamics and building performance - Structural Anatomy Performance Indicators & Operational Time Factors; RACE - RATE - TRAC

A major goal and objective will be the development of street level performance indicators that will include implementing concepts for street level command and company operational use for

  • Structural Operations Safety SOS
  • Risk Assessment Command Engagement (Command Evaluation Performance Indicator) RACE
  • Risk Assessment Tactical Engagement (Tactical Evaluation) RATE
  • Tactical Risk Assessment Considerations TRAC

Performance Indicators (PI) (Empirical Based) Factors

  • Occupancy OC
  • Structural Characteristics SC
  • Mitigation Factors MF
  • Mission-Specific Indicators MSI
  • Structural Integrity Performance Factor SIPF
  • Fire Loading FL
  • Fire Suppression (Flow Rates) FS
  • Risk Assessment Considerations (variable) RAC
  • Engagement Factors EF
  • Risk Assessment Command Engagement RACE
  • Risk Assessment tactical Engagement RATE

SUG Factors

  • Severity/Urgency/Growth
  • Immediacy/ Timely/Deferrable

ALL Incidents: TRAC The RATE For The RACE

  • Charted & matrix with value indicators that correlate to strategic and tactical risk assessment-RPDM and command management

The Structural Anatomy concepts are envisioned to be far more than just a study of building construction. Various Structural Anatomy Building Construction performance indicators can provide new insights for the current and upcoming generation of firefighters, company officers and incident commanders, and may contribute towards improvements/enhancements for the necessary technical skills, competencies and proficiencies required for firefighter survivability and contribute in the efforts to reduce and ultimately eliminate contributing factors in line of duty deaths and fireground injuries. Safety is the ultimate goal.

Webcast This Week! Sign Up Now For Structural Anatomy Webcast, July 20 at 2 PM

We hope to explore and expand the vast knowledge base on building construction principles and integrate structural fire suppression theory, case studies, command risk management with firefighter safety and occupancy/structure performance to gain new insights into effective and safe suppression operations within structures and occupancies. In future articles, we'll examine the correlation of occupancy risk assessment, basic and expanded recognition-primed decision-making (RPDM), structural and construction systems, and their direct relationship on structural firefighting operations, firefighter survivability and the on-scene incident command decision-making process, affecting structural combat fire engagement for occupancies in the built environment.

It's time for a prescription change to begin looking at buildings and occupancies from a new perspective.

Christopher J. Naum, SFPE is a 31 year fire service veteran and manages Fire Protection & Industrial Safety/Fire Chief at a nuclear power generation plant in the Northeastern United States. A nationally recognized authority on building construction, structural collapse and incident command management, he has traveled throughout the United States, Canada and the UK delivering training programs on command management, building construction, risk assessment and command safety. An Adjunct Instructor with the National Fire Academy, he specializes in training courses for Structural Collapse-Rescue-USAR Incident Command Management, Building Construction and Safety & Health. A Contributing Editor with Firehouse Magazine since 1988 and since 2002, he has authored numerous articles on building construction, firefighting operations, command, leadership and special rescue operations. He was honored as the 1987 ISFSI National Fire Instructor of the Year as presented by the International Society of Fire Service Instructors. In addition, Mr. Naum has over fifteen years of experience within the areas of architectural design, planning & management having served as a project architect for a consulting architecture & engineering firm. He is a Director-At-Large with the International Society of Fire Service Instructors- ISFSI and a member of the IAFC Safety, Health and Survival Section. He holds full professional member grade Fire Protection Engineer-SFPE, status from the Society of Fire Protection Engineers. He has also served over nineteen years as a company officer with a volunteer fire department in Central New York. He can be contacted at [email protected] and at

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