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Journal Entry 46: Fight the Fire, Not the Building

First and foremost, thank you all for your good wishes, thoughts and prayers regarding my cancersurgery. It went well and it looks like they got it all.

Hopefully, you looked at the subject title and asked yourself, “what is he talking about?” which caused you to read on. I’ll be presenting this class at FDIC 2017 so come by and see precisely what I’m talking about. (Friday - April 27 at 1030 hours) For those who are conflicted because there are so many great classes at FDIC and you may not choose mine, please allow me to expound on the subject. I also put this forward for those who cannot be with use in Indianapolis next week.

Commercial buildings offer many challenges for fire departments around the country. Presented for your consideration is how to take advantage of the built-in active and passive fire protection features in a commercial building so you can complete your tasks effectively, efficiently and safely. Specific to safety, this ideal seems to fall in line with risk profiling, survivability profiling, risk assessment and fire ground accountability. It’s about working smarter not harder and perhaps doing great things with small numbers as most departments, career and volunteer alike still clamor for more staff. By merely having an understanding of the building and what the owner and builder provided for us, we’re more apt to be successful and to send everyone home after the job.

Taking a look at fire protection as a whole, many years of code battles have ensued in order to build the best buildings we can for the occupants and now under the newer codes, the firefighters who may have to enter that building to cause search & rescue and fire extinguishment activities. These systems are installed in the interest of life safety (civilians and ours), mitigation of risk, firefighter safety, conflagration control, firefighting efficiency and community economic stability. They also contribute to the durability of the structural environment, historic and cultural preservation and crime control (arson).

Passive Fire Protection Features:

Passive fire protection features are usually installed as part of the structure and simply remain in place until called upon to work during a fire. Some examples are fire doors, smoke doors, fire partitions, automatic fire dampers in HVAC duct work, building set-backs, fire walls, fire rated assemblies, spray-on fire proofing or cement or dry wall encasement, fire stopping and draft curtains.

While most of us know that dry wall creates a fire barrier, let’s further examine it from the firefighter’s perspective. Some of us learned to breach a sheet rock wall as a means of emergency escape. However you need to know if the sheet rock is standard or not. Some drywall comes with Lexan or Plexiglass in it for durability purposes. Are these installed in your district?     

Tactical Tip: Knowing what materials of construction are being used in your district and in your mutual aid districts is essential to safety and operational goals.

Many times a building is split in two parts or sectioned off by fire walls or fire partitions. These afford time for people to evacuate or get to an area of refuge. A simple example is getting in to a 2 hours rated stairwell. This type of construction also gives the fire department time to plan their fire attack and to possibly amass additional units or mutual aid companies as to be able to coordinate multiple operations. Note that “fire walls” generally go through the roof and by definition have their own foundation so if the building fell down the fire wall should still stand. Fire partitions on the other hand are usually rated for one hour and separate dwelling units, apartments, hotel rooms or offices and create corridors. In large buildings there may be entire floors or sections of floors with greater ratings. As an example, a multi-use building may have a surgical suite or a child care center within it. These may have a 2 hour rated enclosure to protect the patients and young children respectively. 

Tactical Tip: Rated stairwells offer a safe haven for firefighters and often contain standpipes. These areas of refuge can be used to discuss strategy and tactics prior to commencing operations and buy some time.

Other passive fire protection features to consider are smoke barriers, fire door assemblies, smoke dampers in duct work, draft stops, draft curtains and curtain boards. As a side note, fire doors are installed to hold fire back so be careful which door you open and when you open it. In most cases, it’s wise to leave the fire doors closed. If you have a fire in a warehouse with a 3 hour wall and rated doors down the middle, leave the interior fire doors closed in the fire wall and commit your resources on the fire side which should remain contained to that side of the building. If you send companies to the non-fire side, tell them to check for extension, however leave the fire doors closed. In some cases, you may need to deliver water through those doors for large areas of fire. Use caution when using opening these protectives. The fire can easily spread to the other side of the warehouse.

Tactical Tip: Get out in to your district and find these features. Understand their role and how you can use them to your advantage. Error on the side of keeping protectives closed.

Active Fire Protection

Active fire protection systems have some form of motion. Sprinklers, standpipes and foam systems flow, alarms ring, clean agents and dry chemicals discharge. Below is a brief review of active systems.

Sprinklers

There are two types of systems. Wet and dry. Within the dry system world, there are three distinct types of systems that actuate (activate) a bit differently. We also put foam in sprinkler systems too. In all cases, these systems simply send water or foam (foam is water with its specific gravity re-arranged so it floats on top of hydrocarbons instead of sinking in them) to the location of the fire to control, confine and in some cases extinguish it. Remember that you still need people to rescue people and pull them out of harm’s way. Sprinklers are simply a tool to protect property, in some cases life (residential) and assist the fire service with effective, efficient and safe operations. Sprinklers save firefighters lives too.  Any of these systems can be adapted to deliver foam solution. More often than not, it’s the deluge type system in a flammable liquid storage area protecting vessels, drums, processes, etc.

Tactical Tip: It is imperative that Incident Commanders send a firefighter to the valve room/riser room with a radio upon arrival. Sprinkler valves should only be closed on the express order of the IC and in most cases will be, when ventilation and hose teams are in place and a coordinated fire attack is pending.

 Fire Alarm Systems

Often looked upon as a fire service mystery, fire alarm systems are fairly easy to read and easy to operate. They have initiating devices such as pull stations and detectors that go to the panel (processor), notification devices like horns and strobes which alert the occupants and auxiliary functions like closing fire doors and notifying emergency services through a central station connection. Automatic and Manual systems: Automatic systems require no human intervention or action. They employ detection devices (heat, smoke, gas, UV & IR flame, etc.) which monitor the environment and report any changes in ambient conditions. Manual systems require some human intervention like pulling a pull station. Either action goes to a fire alarm panel which processes the signal alerts the occupants and perhaps the fire department. The panel will show red for an alarm, yellow for a trouble or supervisory signal and green for normal conditions. Today’s “addressable” LED read out panels give you the actual pin-point location of the alarm, e.g. “Smoke detector-Room 327, third floor NE corner.”

Tactical Tip: Having knowledge of how these systems work and how to use them will assist with operations. Systems in high rise or large area buildings often have a PA system. IC’s should learn how to use them to not only give occupants instructions but to reach firefighters with poor radio reception or those without radios. Consider an emergency building evacuation for all fire personnel by

simply getting on the PA system and repeating the order.      

Specialty systems:

The code requires other types of specialty systems to be installed in buildings depending on height, area, occupancy and other a factors. These are noted below with some sample occupancies:

  1. smoke control systems-high rise, malls, underground facilities
  2. clean agent (including Halon) gas systems-computer rooms, museums
  3. CO2 systems-computer rooms, museums, printing plants
  4. dry chemical-commercial cooking hoods, industrial flammable liquid storage areas
  5. wet chemical-commercial cooking hoods
  6. water mist sprinklers-computer rooms, areas where very little water can be used as an alternative to clean agent gas systems

Tactical Tip: For any of the above noted gas systems that are deemed “total flooding” (fills the entire space) SCBA must be worn in the space and in adjacent spaces whether the system has discharged or not. In some cases the cylinders are in an adjacent room and may leak into that room upon discharge as well.

For a more in-depth look at these concepts, join me as we learn how to Fight the Fire, Not the Building. Hope to see you in Indy!

Be safe,

Ronnie K

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