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Knowledge of building construction is critical for a firefighter.  2 good resources for this information is 'The Art of Reading Buildings' by Dave Dodson and John Mittendorf and 'Building Construction' for the Fire Service by Francis Brannigan.  But how do you recall 600 plus pages of information when you arrive on the scene of a fire?  What from those 600 pages is important right now in determining my actions?   Firefighters need to have a good understanding of building construction as a whole, but more importantly they need to know the buildings in their response zone, how they are constructed and what the dangers of those buildings are. 


I work in Florida where we don’t have basements.  It would be foolish of me to spend much time learning about basements.  Instead I focus on the types of homes and buildings that I respond to (Type 3 construction with lightweight trusses or type 5 construction both on a slab).  My focus is on the construction characteristics of these buildings is how they will react under fire conditions for the first 15 minutes, what tactic those buildings will afford me what tactics will not be effective.  I also need to know what features of the building can fool or kill me.  The following are 4 observations and questions that relate to building:


  • Is this single family, multi-family or commercial?
  • Is this new or old construction?
  • Will the roof covering hide a fire in the attic or will it make vertical ventilation difficult?
  • Is there anything out of the ordinary here that might present a problem?


Why these questions are important?

Single Family, Multifamily or commercial?

The majority of fire deaths in the United States occur in residential buildings.  This can be attributed to two main factors:  Residential buildings have less stringent fire protection codes and systems; and people sleep in residential buildings.  If a person was awake and there was a fire they would simply exit the building.  Therefore search may not be that high up on the priority list of a commercial structure.  Whether a residential building is multi-family versus single family is important because multi-family will offer different compartmentization in the living areas as well as the attic.


New or Old Construction?

The hazards of new construction relate mostly to the lightweight building materials and truss systems used.  These do not hold up well under fire.  A good article that explains this was written by John Mittendorf on Vertical Ventilation in the  December 2011 Fire Engineering.  We can expect that a lightweight truss will fail between 5-7 minutes in fire conditions.  Older construction will give crews more time to operate before failure begins.


What is the roof covering and type?

I feel one of the most overlooked items in size-up is examining the roof covering.  The 3 main roof types in my district are shingle, metal and barrel tile.  Our concern here is whether the roof covering will hide fire involvement in the attic. Both metal and barrel tile hold the heat in and will show very little sign of an impending collapse.  A good drill is to have your crew look at different house fires on YouTube. Pay attention to the different roofs types and the signs they show or fail to show as the fires progress. 


Barrel tile and metal roofs take longer and are more difficult to open up.  If ventilation is needed quickly you need to take this into account.  Roof style and pitch is important.  A steeper pitched roof may slow down ventilation.  A gable roof may afford you the opportunity to vent at the gable end rather than putting people on the roof depending on fire location whereas a hip style roof will not allow this as an option.  The weight of barrel tile is important too.  A single tile weighs as much as 9-10 pounds.  This means crews have a significant roof load above their heads.


Is there anything here out of the ordinary that could kill us?

My response zone varies from smaller homes with burglar bars to large McMansions with hurricane shutters.  A lot of the homes we respond to use hurricane shutters as a blind and often these blinds are closed on the B,C and D sides of the structures with people living inside.  This presents an obvious problem to firefighters operating inside a structure.  In this case a Pro-Active RIT team is paramount.  The same holds true for any other odd features like power lines, overgrown vegetation,  and walk out basements (2 stories on A side and 3 on C side).

No doubt it is important to be a student of the fire service and learn all you can.  With so much information available at our fingertips it is important that you come back and create a cliff's notes version and summarize what you've learned on various topics and how it's applicable to you at 2:00 in the morning when you are overloaded with stimulus.

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