Fire Prevention & Protection

From The Ground Up

By Eric G. Bachman

One of the most important fire service tools is preincident intelligence. This customized resource enables a fire department to recognize community hazards, correlate the organization’s capabilities and limitations, and develop countermeasures to lessen adverse community impact and enhance responder safety. Ideally, preincident intelligence should be gathered, analyzed, and prepared for all hazards. Easier said than done, the reality is that most fire departments maintain intelligence on only a fraction of their protected elements. This is due to a myriad of influences including complexity of the district, personnel’s time to engage, and the priorities of the organization leadership. The currency of intelligence is likely dated, resulting in inaccurate information at the time of an emergency. Fire departments often play catch-up in gathering intelligence for their venues, notwithstanding revisiting facilities to ensure the accuracy of the intelligence.

RELATED: The Three Vs of Preincident Intelligence | Preincident Size-Up Practices | Environmental Preincident Intelligence

Recognizing, understanding, and contemplating the challenges, intricacies, and hazards of a facility is essential to mounting an effective and safety-minded response. Postconstruction assessment of a facility can be restricted by coverings, finishes, and other aesthetic features. In many postincident reports, cause and origin investigations, and incident critiques, common incident-escalating factors include unidentified voids, questionable construction practices, and other hidden features that fostered fire spread. Many conditions are not easily recognized through postconstruction intelligence-gathering practices.

Ideally, the intelligence gathering process starts during the planning stages of a facility. Unfortunately, architects, planners, and engineers rarely involve the local fire department in local projects. Unless the fire department engages in plans review or has a close relationship with municipal code enforcement or permitting entity, early involvement in a new project is likely a rare event.

When you identify a new project; invite yourself to get involved, whether it is in the concept development phase presented to municipal planners or a project further in progress. Establish a rapport with the stakeholders. Once the building is built, the responsibility of architects and contractors essentially ends, and the fire department must contend with the final product. The as-built elements, aesthetics, and environmental features can inhibit and even obstruct fire department operations. As early as possible, those challenges (and improvements) should be documented and presented to architects, planners and municipal officials so the fire department voice is heard, operational challenges identified and recommendations for improvement initiated. Sometimes, fire department concerns fall on deaf ears. In these cases, you get what you get, and unfortunately you will just have to deal with it.

No matter the size, scope, or disposition of a new project, the fire department must be engaged to better understand the facility from the ground up. Observing firsthand the various phases of construction, finish, and occupancy provides valuable insight for preincident preparedness and postdispatch operations. Below are two case study examples form different ends of the occupancy type spectrum illustrating benefits to the Local Fire Department (LFD) by gathering facility-specific intelligence from the ground up.

CASE STUDY 1

A municipality approved construction of a single-story, 9,100 square-foot discount mercantile store. Prior to construction, variances were sought by the applicant for a variety of provisions, such as increasing the building size, refining set-back requirements, and other environmental elements. Pushback from the municipal planning entity, however, were concerns primarily with aesthetic features to have the venue blend-in with other neighboring structures. The fire department was not invited into project construction discussions.

The LFD could have easily taken a complacent approach by considering it “just another store.” But regardless of the perceived degree of hazard and size of the building, every structure presents challenges. It does not require a large space for personnel to become disoriented. The myriad of display cases, racks, and shelves can impede movement, cause pinch points for hose lines or rope, and fall over, creating additional obstacles.

(1) The only non-wood structural member is one steel beam. 

(2) Assess structural members before they are set in place to understand how they are put together.

As construction progressed, the LFD closely monitored its progress. Meetings were conducted with construction personnel to learn more about the layout and construction methodology. Except for one steel support structure (Photo 1), the entire building is wood frame. Exterior framed walls were erected with obvious cut-outs for windows and doors. The roof assembly was lightweight wood trusses assembled with gusset plates (Photo 2). Plywood was laid over top of the trusses with a thin layer of insulation and rubber membrane roof finish. HVAC units were installed on the roof. Interior, non-load bearing walls were erected for storage, rest rooms, offices, and a utility room.   

(3) Underground propane tank may not be readily recognized. 

Electric utilities were run underground from a nearby utility pole riser. A 1,000-gallon propane tank was buried underground (Photo 3) behind the building to support heating units. Interior finish consisted of painting everything. There are no drop ceiling/tiles. The interior is open except for a nonbearing separation wall between the main store and storage area. The lightweight wood trusses were painted and ductwork hung from them. Insulation was applied to the exterior walls and covered with thin panels to reflect a brick-like appearance. A common facade was attached to the exterior roof line. The building is not equipped with a fire detection or suppression system.  

(4) Windows are positioned on three sides of the building. 

(5) Void space between faux window areas for aesthetic purposes. 

You are probably saying, “This sounds just like any other cookie cutter discount mercantile facility plan.” Although it may be consistent with other venues, it nonetheless requires careful review. Had the project not been monitored from the ground up, many incident-influencing conditions may not have been realized until an emergency occurred. The building appears to have numerous windows (Photo 4) around it to allow for natural lighting, but the reality is that all of the widows are false windows. Attempting access through a window will only break glass and then present insulation and a wood panel. None provide interior access. In fact, as noted during construction, other void spaces were created between the interior wall panels and the faux window panels (Photo 5) from floor to ceiling for the sole purpose of aesthetics.

The preincident intelligence gathered on this facility has enabled the fire department to contemplate incident potentials. A fire that occurs after hours could go unnoticed for some time because of the lack of detection system. The openness of the interior and wood-painted interior finish will promote rapid and uninhibited fire spread. A well-developed fire will immediately attack the open lightweight wood truss assemblies, leading to rapid roof collapse, abetted by the presence of heavy roof-mounted air conditioning units.

A fire in the fascia (perhaps started electrically from signs) would have uninhibited travel around the entire circumference of the building. Because it is tied into the other wood-frame part of the building and voids, it would almost inevitably lead to fire spread into the interior of the structure. Additionally, the buried propane tank may not be realized when conducting an initial 360º size-up. When evaluating the risks, at what point do you operate offensively in this disposable building?

READ PART II >>

ERIC G. BACHMAN, CFPS, is a 35-year veteran of the fire service and a former chief of the Eden Volunteer Fire/Rescue Department in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He is the hazardous materials administrator for the County of Lancaster Emergency Management Agency and serves on the Local Emergency Planning Committee of Lancaster County. He is registered with the National Board on Fire Service Professional Qualifications as a fire officer IV, fire instructor III, hazardous materials technician, and hazardous materials incident commander. He has an associate degree in fire science and earned professional certification in emergency management through the state of Pennsylvania. He is also a volunteer firefighter with the West Hempfield (PA) Fire & Rescue Company.

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