Building Construction, Features, Fire Prevention & Protection

Big City Tactics for Small Town Fire Departments: Company Preplan Made Simple

An interior photo of Union Station in St. Louis
An interior photo of Union Station in St. Louis. Photo by William Wesen.

By Bob Fields

My engine company is part of the first-alarm assignment for one of most famous landmarks in St. Louis: Union Station. It opened for business on September 1, 1894 and at one time it was one of the largest and busiest railroad terminals in the world. Serving over 22 railroads and at its peak and handling over 100,00 passengers per day, including celebrities like: Joe DiMaggio, Joan Crawford, and the St. Louis Browns and Cardinals. Those serving in both World Wars embarked and returned home from here. It was at Union Station in 1948 where newly re-elected President Harry Truman’s photo was taken as he held up the Chicago Daily Tribune with the now infamous erroneous headline, “Dewey Defeats Truman.”

The last train left the station in 1978, and over the years Union Station has been resurrected as a shopping mall with food court in the 1980s. It now contains a 120,00 square-foot aquarium, 200-foot-high observation ferris wheel, and a three-story rope course along with other family-oriented attractions.

Given its 500+ room luxury hotel and accommodations for large events, it was the ideal location for hosting the Fan Fair for the 2020 National Hockey League All-Star Game. A week before the event, the first-alarm companies participated in a preincident/familiarization plan. With its 65-foot-tall vaulted ceiling Grand Hall, 280-foot clock tower, restaurants, ball rooms, and all the unseen facilities inside the grand old station spread out over nearly 15 acres, it was obviously quite overwhelming.

Although we are not normally first due, as a company we talked about challenges we could face and the tactics we would need to overcome regardless of the order of our arrival.  A major incident here would require more resources and unusual strategy and tactics than what our standard operating guidelines (SOGs) outline.

RELATED FIREFIGHTER TRAINING

First Due: Preparation Is Key

Preplanning: Include the Hose Stretch

The Useful Opposition of Preplanning and Premortems

Mayday Monday: Review Your Buildings

The Fog of the Fireground: Know Your Buildings

As overwhelming as this building is, we have never had a significant incident there. But by preplanning this landmark, we now know what we may be up against as far as fire load, utilities, endless corridors, accessibility to different areas, and most importantly, life hazard.

As the legendary Francis Brannigan preached: “Know your buildings.” Preplanning the buildings in your response area is an essential part of the job. You can make preplanning as simple or as complex as you are able with resources available to you. Your goal should be to become intimately familiar with the structures in your area.

Even the busiest fire company has an opportunity to preplan buildings. Every incident you respond to is a chance to size up that building, take notes, discuss concerns, and determine an action plan—no special appointment needed. You are already there, whether it’s an automatic alarm where you are making the building, walking down a corridor to an apartment to assist a civilian, or after you have been released by the medic unit from an EMS call.

Whether it is a small convenience store or a large multi-occupancy structure, you should already be familiar with several important pieces of information that can be broken down into six categories:

Facility Information

  • Business name
  • Street address
  • Phone number
  • Emergency contact information

Building Construction

  • Type of building construction: non-combustible, ordinary, balloon frame, heavy timber, light weight, etc.
  • Number of floors and partial floors
  • Basement/sub-basement(s)
  • Building dimensions
  • Number/location of stairwells: open/enclosed, smoke-proof, self-locking
  • Roof construction: truss, type of decking/covering
  • The general layout of the building

Occupancy

  • Commercial, residential, industrial, mixed
  • Fire load: light, moderate, heavy
  • Life safety concerns: Occupants with special needs, day care, limited egress
  • Evacuation/assembly plan

Hazards

  • Trash/waste hazards
  • Incinerators/compactors and their location (inside/outside)
  • Hazardous materials and their location

Operating and Access Information

  • Hours of operation
  • Primary access
  • Knox Box location
  • Location of elevator controls
  • Interior roof access
  • Building ventilation controls
  • Restricted/difficult areas to access inside building

Firefighting Information

  • Location of the building’s emergency action plan book
  • Location of the main fire alarm panel
  • Location of standpipe connections
    • Do they have pressure reducing valves?
  • Location of fire control room
    • Pumps for sprinkler/standpipe system
  • Location of clean agent suppression systems and how to control them

Written preplans and drawings have value, but they are not a catch-all solution. Having knowledge of the above list keeps you ahead of the game when that call comes in at 3 am. You cannot be scampering about because your computer freezes up or your three-ring binder is missing those important pages of the building preplans that the other shift said they took care of. It is up to you and your crew to keep up to date on your buildings. As the first-arriving company three blocks away, you will not have the time to try and look up this vital information.

After gathering all this information, you and your company need to formulate a plan. Your company should review SOGs to ensure they are compatible with this building. Discuss what strategy/tactics you would use as a company for this specific building. Talk about different scenarios and the different assignments on the first alarm. You may not always be first due, so it is important to train on every task should you have an incident in this building.

During a response, you may find it is necessary to deviate from your SOGs. This is a serious decision to make and will affect the outcome of the incident. Make sure you make a radio call so everyone responding knows this is not a normal incident and it is necessary to change the order in the way assignments are accomplished. You may need to direct specific companies to perform certain tasks.

 A scenario you may encounter is your point of entry may be the front of the building, and the fire department connections (FDCs) are in the rear of the building.  You will have to direct another company to make the connections at the rear of the building while you are making entry to at the front. We have a three-story apartment building that we frequently respond to where this is the case. Since we are first due, we normally enter through the front where the alarm panel is. The second-due engine automatically goes to the FDC. By preplanning this building, we have eliminated the confusion of who would have to perform this task.

Another situation you may encounter is limited access. There is an apartment building right by my firehouse. It is a five-story building of Type II construction occupied by college students. Every single door is locked with radio frequency identification (RFID) locks. These are locks are operated by plastic keys using a radio frequency to operate the lock. Each key can be programmed to operate certain doors or used as a master key. The main entrance, office doors, apartment doors, stairwell doors, and even the doors in the hallways separating parts of the building are controlled by these locks. We keep a master key on the apparatus as well as several keys in the Knox Box for the other responding companies. A problem we encounter with these keys is they often become deprogrammed. Thankfully, there is usually someone at the front desk around the clock to assist with entry through the building, but with limited access, we have to either prop open every door or wait for the rest of the assignment to arrive.

These examples illustrate that preplanning is not a one-and-done deal. It is important to revisit buildings in your area on a regular basis. Locks get changed, renovations take place, occupancy changes. The building might be abandoned altogether without any kind of notice.

After performing a preplan, you may find your standard SOG may not be adequate. There may be a need to have a specialized SOG for a building or site. Factors that may contribute the decision to have a separate SOG include:

  • The size of the building
  • Life hazard
  • Type/quantities of hazardous materials on site
  • Lack of standpipes
  • Poor radio communications throughout the facility
  • Water supply

This will be a huge undertaking that will need to involve more than just your company. The entire chain of command including your fire marshal’s office (if applicable) will need to be included. It may be more feasible to customize your SOGs by the type of occupancies such as:

  • Health care facilities
  • Box stores
  • Warehouses
  • Different types of multiple dwellings

Even if your department has only one firehouse, by preplanning and having a good relationship with neighboring departments, you can implement a customized SOG that will make incidents at these occupancies less chaotic.

Buildings under construction or demolition pose their own unique set of problems that impede access and firefighting efforts. There is a lot of new construction and older buildings being torn down or renovated in our response area including a high-rise hospital, several multi-story dwellings, and a 100-year-old foundry being converted into an entertainment center with several restaurants, a 10-screen movie theater, and offices.

Depending of the fire code, most of these buildings require “a conspicuously marked and adequately accessible fire department connection and at least one standard fire department connection on each floor.” Even with adequately defined codes, it is up to the building and fire officials to enforce. With dozens of buildings under construction and/or a limited number of personnel to enforce these codes, this can quickly be an overwhelming task to keep up with.

Even with the codes being followed, you may encounter unfinished stairwells that limit access, the FDC in operation may be remote from where a fire is located, and there may be limited/difficult access to unfinished parts of the facility.

When preplanning facilities under construction, you may come across issues that you can pass along to the other shifts and report them so they can be addressed. Recently, we had a large, wood-frame multiple dwelling that was under construction; it did have a conspicuously marked and adequate FDC. The problem was that the FDC was just bare pipe sticking out of the wall with no way to make a connection. This was quickly reported but took some time to remedy. In the meantime, it would have been necessary to use alternate means of deploying hoselines had a fire occurred.

Some grumble at preplanning and view it only as busy work. While we would all rather be crawling down a dark, smoky hallway with the tip in hand, preplanning is a critical part of knowing where to turn the corner in that dark smoky hallway and find that fully involved room. Even if your department is smaller or not as proactive with preplanning as they should be, your company can make the effort on their own by having the knowledge and confidence to be the aggressive interior firefighting unit you aspire to be.

Bob Fields has more than 26 years of experience as a career firefighter. He has spent 14 years with the St. Louis Fire Department in some of the busiest companies and is a captain on an engine company. The first 12 years of his career was spent with a small department with fewer than 60 personnel in Northwest Indiana. He also spent several years as a volunteer in a suburban and a very rural fire department.

ALSO

Big City Tactics for Small Town Fire Departments: The Fire Academy

Big City Tactics for Small Town Fire Departments: Have a Plan!