Fire Building Construction: Thanks, Professor

Oct. 1, 2003
In the past several months, I have received "close call" letters from readers who also wrote, "Thank you, Professor Brannigan," and those words deserve mention here.

All fire officers and instructors want to have a positive impact on those for whom they are responsible. The truest measure of that impact is if lives have been saved. Without question, Frank Brannigan's efforts over the years have saved thousands of firefighters' lives by educating all of us on the hazards of building construction as it relates to firefighting.

Are we done? Are we all educated? Far from it. We continue to lose firefighters due to the lack of understanding by officers and firefighters about building construction. Firefighters still walk above areas with heavy fire with no means of escape. A recent video showed firefighters on the roof of a single-family dwelling, with heavy fire and smoke venting from all four sides. The fire was vented - it was blowing out four picture windows - yet the firefighters were still on the roof trying to cut a hole! Without question no one was watching out for them, and they barely made it off the roof before the fire engulfed the entire area.

In two other examples within the last year, firefighters arrived at single-family-dwelling fires with heavy fire in the basement, yet proceeded to the floor right above the fire - which was heavily involved in the basement. They fell into the basement and burned to death.

Building construction: We are much better educated due to the efforts of Frank Brannigan, but we have a long way to go before every firefighter can say, "Thank you, Professor Brannigan."

Take time to read his book, Building Construction For The Fire Service (now in its third edition), take classes, study the buildings in your area and become better educated on the hazards of construction in relation to firefighting operations. It will make a difference.

The following account is provided by a reader. Chief Goldfeder's comments follow.

We were dispatched around midnight to a commercial building fire. Manning on the first out unit was three firefighters, one officer and one driver/operator. The structure, a commercial garage that specialized in tire replacement, was a single-story, noncombustible metal building, approximately 100 by 75 feet. It had large electrically operated garage-style doors on sides A and C. Next to the door on the A side was a personnel-access door. Heavy fire was venting from office windows on the A/D sides, and a heavy smoke condition was coming from all vents from the roof.

I was the officer of the first-in unit and we forced entry to the personnel-access door. We stretched a 21/2-inch line with a 11/8-inch tip. The office on the A/D side was lower than the open roof structure and heavy fire was venting from the office area out all openings inside the garage and impinging on the roof. The high ceiling allowed us to have good visibility to the eight-foot level, but above that level visibility was good only in the area of the fire. Several vehicles in various states of repair near the office, one on a lift, were on fire and we were concerned about the one on the lift falling or the lift coming down. We began our attack on the fire in the office area and the immediate vicinity. Two things from a safety standpoint began to concern me:

  • The roof was in jeopardy.
  • We didn't have a second way out.

Our attack included application of the fire stream on the roof and structural members (Thank you, Professor Brannigan). I also asked the truck to begin to make an opening in the garage door with a saw because I wanted another quick way out if something bad happened. (I had previously tried to open this door, but none of the buttons or manual means to open the door seemed to work.)

We were making progress and visibility began to turn bad when suddenly we heard a loud crash behind us. I ordered everyone out and took a roll call. All personnel were accounted for, the building seemed to be in good shape and we resumed our attack on the fire. An opening was soon made in the garage door as well as the roof and visibility began to get better.

We then saw what had caused the loud crash. Directly behind where our last member was on the line during our attack were the remains of the garage door opener and its support framing. The connectors had been weakened in the fire and had fallen to the concrete floor. Later, we lifted it and we agreed that it weighed in excess of 100 pounds. Falling and striking a firefighter certainly would have caused serious injury.

I have since advised all that will hear me that when operating in the area of a garage door, besides securing the door if it is open, you should also operate to either side of the center line of the door. If that thing comes down, and hits you, it's going to hurt.

Chief Goldfeder responds:

This writer submitted a number of lessons learned, so I will "join the writer" below in the review and comments jointly.

1. This building was constructed of lightweight unprotected metal with an open metal web roof joist system. It was a single-story building attached to a two-story office addition on the B side that was not involved in this fire. Forcible entry was accomplished easily and while there was heavy fire in an otherwise unoccupied building, an aggressive interior attack was called for. Due to the fire involvement and the construction, even minor structural collapse indicators would have been enough for us not to have started such an aggressive attack. These indicators were not present.

Our first efforts were to sweep the roof. While there didn't appear to be any structural failure, the lightweight roof could have been in a weakened state and Professor Brannigan's pleas were ringing in my head - sweep the roof and "freeze" the lightweight roof members in place before attacking the fire. It is my belief that no firefighter should be an officer without first reading Brannigan's book cover to cover. My first copy was my textbook in the late 1970s and he was warning of truss assemblies even then.

Chief Goldfeder: Firefighting today requires training and education. Without question, if the writer had not taken some classes and become educated, the results could have been far worse. All of us, no matter how many years on the job, need to continue to take training and education seriously. Simply put, if you are riding the apparatus, you should be training regularly on the tasks you will be expected to perform. Every day is a training day.

2. As an instructor, I have always advised that if entry is made through a garage door, prop it open with a pike pole or other pushing/pulling tool. This is good advice since this tends to prevent the door from coming down on a hoseline, which would eliminate or greatly reduce the water flow from the hoseline, as well as trap anyone in the garage, making a fast retreat difficult at best.

What no one had told me about and what had never previously occurred to me was the weakening of the support and attachment for the heavy motor used to open and close the garage door in the center of this industrial style door, thereby leading to the failure of the attachment and support members of this large heavy motor. It now has become a part of my instruction to anyone who will listen. Stay away from the center portion of a garage-style door where heavy fire involvement is located. If it is an industrial rollup-style door, these motors tend to be placed on the sides of the door rather than at the middle. These areas also should be suspect and avoided when operating in the area of these style doors.

Chief Goldfeder: I recently studied several fires involving overhead doors and have come to the conclusion that not only should the door be secured, but at least two firefighters should be assigned to the doors to insure they are watched and stay secure. Any changes or predictable changes require immediate action and notification. Numerous factors can contribute to the failure of a pike pole alone in a door, not to mention the failure possibilities of the doors themselves. Additionally and most critically, incident commanders must determine at what point their members go in for offensive operations in this type of unoccupied fire, and when we decide to not go in and instead operate from the exterior.

Factors to determine the type of operation and tactics must include:

  • Life saving - the victims!
  • Contents burning - what's the fire load?
  • Building construction - what is burning, the building or the contents?
  • Fire location and smoke conditions
  • Structural integrity

These must be included as a part of your initial and on going size-up. Remember, "Going In vs. Not Going In" is your most critical size-up factor as your firefighters have placed their lives in your hands. Rarely will the owners or the insurance companies care about the risk we take; we have to care about the risk we take!

  • Attempts to save victims - a top priority in the tactical plan, based upon conditions.
  • Attempts to save a well-involved building offensively (interior operations) without obvious victims: a consideration in the overall tactical plan based upon current and predictable conditions.

3. This event occurred prior to any formal accountability system that was in place in our department. As officer, I knew who was on the crew and what their assignments were. I was able to quickly account for them once we got outside. That may not have been the case if the "event" had happened further along in the incident as more units arrived and made entry into the building.

Chief Goldfeder: At this point, personnel accountability should be standard and the tracking of our firefighters is vital. We can use tags, passports, riding lists or whatever works, but the best component of any accountability system is a good company officer insuring that his or her personnel are doing what they are supposed to do, where they are supposed to do it.

4. The cause of the fire was arson. There were several indicators that, while obvious after the fire was under control, would have been noticed by a quick walk-around prior to entry. Access to the rear and sides was hampered by chainlink fencing and the fire appeared to be confined to the front of the structure. Quick work of putting water on the fire confined it and kept it to the front corner. A "quick" walk-around was prohibited by the fencing.

When we finally did walk around, it was obvious that a person had taken a vehicle in the rear lot, started it and then run it through the rear garage door, forcing it open. (The front of the vehicle was still sticking inside the rear garage door when we finally got to the rear.) The burglar ransacked the office, looking for cash and other valuables, and then lit the office on fire.

A quick notification of the fire by a passerby, our quick response and fast attack saved this particular building. If you can't quickly take that walk-around as the initial officer, then assign another to do it as soon as possible.

Chief Goldfeder: A walk-around is essentially part of the officer's "map" on how the attack will be made. The writer is on target - if the officer cannot do a walk-around, get it assigned and get a report.

So often we preach "training and education" as the top factor in making a difference. This "close call" is a classic example of that.

Readers are asked to share their accounts of incidents in which firefighters found themselves in dangerous or life threatening situations, with the intention of sharing the information and learning from one another to reduce injuries and deaths. These accounts, in the firefighters' own words, can help others avoid similar "close calls." We thank those firefighters who are willing to share their stories. We invite readers to share their experiences. We will not identify any individuals, departments or communities. Our only intention is to provide educational information and prevent future tragedies.

We thank Contributing Editor William Goldfeder for compiling these reports. You may send your reports to him at [email protected].

William Goldfeder, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 30-year veteran of the fire service. He is a battalion chief with the Loveland-Symmes Fire Department in Ohio, an ISO Class 2 and CAAS-accredited department. Goldfeder has been a chief fire officer since 1982 and has served on numerous IAFC and NFPA committees, recently completing his sixth year as a commissioner with the Commission on Fire Accreditation International. He is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy and is an active writer, speaker and instructor on fire service operational issues.

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