The fire of today is not your grandmother’s fire. Furnishings today contain so much foam and other plastics that the BTU release is much greater than a fire 30-50 years ago. In addition, what hazards do newer construction products and methods present for all first responders arriving at a burning or damaged building?
How are fire codes relevant to all emergency responders?
I know I never want to take the direct route to the basement of a collapsing building. And nobody wants any first arriving police, EMS, or firefighters being seriously injured, buried alive, or killed in a building collapse.
Do you know:
- How long various types of buildings will stay structurally sound?
- How many minutes until the burning building begins to crumble and collapse around you?
- what buildings don’t evacuate, a.k.a. “defend in place”?
- the role of demising walls in buildings?
- the concept of compartmentalization and creating multiple fire areas, essentially multiple buildings within a building?
Knowing a building’s construction, its occupancy use classification, and fire protection systems lets you know what your strategy and tactics approach should be.
From a responder strategy standpoint, you know when adding the time from alarm to time of arrival if you have 1 minute left to building collapse, or 1 hour.
For building occupants, you’ll know:
- If you need to call a full building evacuation
- If a partial evacuation (as high-rises and large factories are typically not fully evacuated).
- That critically ill individuals in hospitals or nursing homes, or anaesthetized patients in 1-day surgical centers or larger dental offices, are not capable of self-evacuation
- That jails and prisons are not evacuated
Fire codes have provisions allowing buildings with sprinkler systems and/or fire alarm systems to essentially have less safe life safety conditions (e.g. longer egress travel distances, longer dead-end corridors, increased floor area or building height, or defend in place arrangements).
Live and Learn
All firefighters should take building construction courses, or attain the knowledge through self-study. And don’t just take a class once. Construction processes, materials, and code requirements – especially energy code mandates – continually change. Lightweight construction techniques, the use of adhesives, cellular insulations, recycled plastic composites, photovoltaic roofs, vegetated roofs, solar systems, back up battery and on-site electrical generation, will only become increasingly commonplace.
It is imperative that first arriving units can provide an accurate size up describing the construction type, such as:
- Whether truss or other lightweight construction is expected
- If balloon frame is likely, identifying if there are demising walls (2 hour fire rating or greater compartmentalizing fire areas)
- The number of anticipated occupants, along with furnishings and equipment contributing to fuel loads
- Dead loads from library stacks or super-size equipment
Does your community have a system that identifies lightweight construction buildings? Some do, some don’t, but it’s a good idea to do so, especially if you don’t have the ability to regularly pre-plan.
Everyone Should Pre-Plan!
The importance of pre-planning cannot be stressed enough. Hit the streets, get to know your buildings, the processes and activities that take place within those buildings, and locations of any special hazards (forklifts with propane cylinders, industrial lead acid batteries, combustible metal grinding operations with their associated shavings and dust, are some of my favorites). How many machine shops in your community have some or all of these hazards? I’ll bet it’s more than you expect.
Meet the Business Owners
Business owners know their buildings and processes inside out, and can point out major hazards to responders as well as things you may not have considered.
You can perform tabletop or full-scale training exercises with their fire brigades, if applicable. At a large manufacturing plant you will rely on the fire brigade for special hazard information, such as how to safely turn off specialized machinery, if you can shut it down (think Fukishima nuclear reactors, or high-velocity spinning cast iron dryers that will explode if cold water touches them). They will be your tour guides to navigate acres upon acres of under-roof building. After all, we can’t be experts about every industry, but we can recognize what we don’t know.
By meeting and reaching out to the business owners, you learn what you need to watch out for, and can better plan how to react if you have to respond there. Business owners are very receptive to fire safety and security recommendations, and your Chiefs and Dept. Heads will appreciate the resulting business community’s support come budget season. If you provide a daily value to them, beyond the standby “ready-for-an-emergency” typical of most emergency services, you can form a community-wide safety partnership.
Another bonus: when businesses take ownership of their safety, it places less strain on community resources.
Police officers should consider pre-planning with the local fire department. Together, you will be able to point out things building owners can do to “harden” their buildings and increase security (with immediate feedback from fire personnel if security suggestions violate fire and building code requirements).
You might be surprised by the number of business owners who have shotguns behind the counter, or propped up at the ready in the corner of their office. Not a bad thing to know when you get called for a dispute, a disgruntled employee situation, or a robbery.
If you’re a police officer, you may be in a position to run up to burning buildings, or to try to rescue trapped people; you need to know how much risk you accept by doing so and what to look for in order to assess this risk. Is there an exterior placard alerting you that under fire conditions the building will rapidly lose its structural integrity? You need to understand building collapse zones so you don’t stand where the building is likely to fall.
EMS can pre-plan so that they’re aware of physical, chemical, and health hazards that could pose mass-casualty and/or decontamination situations, or require advanced or special notification to hospital staff. EMS may want to further pre-plan or drill with businesses and medical providers to obtain special standing orders, or develop on site triage/staging/treatment areas.
Recognize and Utilize All of the Resources Available to You
For all services, when pre-planning (or during a fire, haz-mat, or other emergency incident) use your local Fire Marshals as technical experts. Fire Marshals can be a critical resource on scene, and their knowledge can save responder’s lives. They will have/know:
- Many of your area buildings intimately both inside and out
- The iterations of renovations and additions over the years
- An existing rapport with the business and property owners
- What walls are fire walls
- Where and how the hazardous materials are stored
- The building’s weakest features and
- When/how a building is likely to collapse
- How fire will spread within the building
Watch the unedited footage of the Station Nightclub Fire. Multiple code violations led to a near instant inferno within the nightclub.
Review NIST, UL, and FM videos of incipient fire to flashover times for different occupancies, furnishings/fuel load, ventilation arrangements, construction types, and fire suppression systems.