By John W. Mittendorf
Every firefighter should be aware that architects and the building industry continue to design and build structures that vary in type, design, materials, and building methods. It is imperative that the fire service (and in particular, every firefighter) stay familiar with both old and new concepts of building construction. Although “standard” types of building construction are still employed, more efficient and cost-effective methods of construction continually replace current construction methods.
Unfortunately, new construction methods typically do not consider fire suppression operations. Considering the cost of labor, equipment, and building materials, it is not economically feasible to construct a structure the same way as during the early 1900’s. Heavy timbers have been replaced by 2x4s, and petrochemical based compounds have replaced conventional building materials, regardless of building type or size. As modern architects reduce the mass of a common structural member and change the chemical composition of building materials, we are losing one of our most valuable assets: FIREGROUND TIME.
We fight structure fires the same way we did 40 to 50 years ago. Hoselines are stretched to the involved structure, and ventilation operations are completed to improve the fireground environment. But modern buildings are not the same as structures constructed during the 1920’s and 1930’s. Firefighters who can recognize and evaluate the strengths and hazards of buildings will increase their own efficiency and safety. A working knowledge of building construction not only provides the necessary expertise to conduct a quick and accurate size-up of a structure, it also provides the foundation for effective, timely, and safe fireground operations which encompass:
- Size Up
- Structural Integrity
- Ladder placement
- Forcible entry – search and rescue
- ventilation feasibility
- Operations (offensive or defensive)
Additionally, when conducting a building size-up, undress the building in your mind. Look past the exterior of a building and visualize what is inside (strengths and hazards) because what you initially see, may not be what you get in 2004. Remember, when you first arrive on scene, every building tells a story. Do you take the time necessary to develop a workable idea of what you want to accomplish, or do you sprint off of your apparatus to see who can put the first “wet stuff on the red stuff”? Most often, the short amount of time required to quickly analyze a building on fire pays huge dividends in timely and safe operations during suppression evolutions. If you want to thoughtfully consider the impact of that last statement, just review any video tape of a recent fire anywhere in this country and evaluate how the operation went. Our size-up will focus on the following seven areas:
- Roof styles
- Construction methods
- Age of the building
- Name and utilities
- Access and egress
- Style of building
John W. Mittendorf joined the Los Angeles City (CA) Fire Department (LAFD) in 1963, rising to the rank of captain II, task force commander. In 1981, he was promoted to battalion chief and in the year following became the commander of the In-Service Training Section. In 1993, he retired from LAFD after 30 years of service. Mittendorf has been a member of the National Fire Protection Research Foundation on Engineered Lightweight Construction Technical Advisory Committee. He has provided training programs for the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Maryland; the University of California at Los Angeles; and the British Fire Academy at Morton-in-Marsh, England. He is a member of the editorial advisory board of Fire Engineering and author of the books Truck Company Operations (Fire Engineering, 1998) and Facing the Promotional Interview (Fire Engineering, 2003).