Article and photos by Gregory Havel
During our response to and initial operations at an emergency incident at a building, firefighters work according to standard operating procedures or guidelines with built-in risk evaluation and management. Once the event is controlled, the fire is out, and energy sources are isolated and locked out, we must continue to use our risk evaluation and management procedures.
Although we may be familiar with the building in which the event occurred, we have never before been there in its present condition. This is a high-risk, low-frequency situation for workers at this location at this time, as proposed by Gordon Graham in his safety and risk management programs.
When it is time to overhaul the building and check for fire extension or to conduct extensive search operations, the emergency is already over. Most of the urgency is gone. We must allow ourselves “discretionary time”—the time to think things through before we act.
Before operating in, on, or under this structure, we must evaluate the structure using our team’s best observation and communications skills, experience, training, and education. We must take our time and do it right. (Photo 1)
We must never dismiss a piece of the puzzle that does not seem to fit with the other pieces that we have already found. It may fit with other pieces that have not yet been found, and it may be the key to our team’s surviving a secondary event that will complicate this incident.
If the structure is found to be unstable, we must give serious consideration to stabilizing it or taking down the unstable parts before entering.
If it is decided that we must enter a structure of doubtful stability, the hazardous materials technician’s principles of time, distance, and shielding apply:
- We must plan ahead so that we know what to look for and where to look, so that we can complete our task as quickly as possible.
- We must keep all but essential personnel out of the collapse zone and equip them with reliable primary and secondary communications devices so that the entry team’s location and findings can be continuously recorded in the event that something should go wrong.
- We must wear appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) for the tasks and work environment.
- We must maintain team integrity: Enter as a team, work and communicate as a team, and exit as a team.
This short checklist can help us evaluate a structure before we enter it for overhaul, secondary search, or fire cause determination. These points apply whether the incident involved is a fire, an explosion, an earthquake, an impact, high winds, or another force. This list can expand for an incident, depending on the type and use of the structure and the conditions found during your structural evaluation.
- What hazards were present inside/around this building before the incident?
- Which of these hazards have not yet been isolated and locked out?
- What new hazards has the incident created for us?
- Are there conditions or devices present that can cause a secondary incident (fire or explosion)?
- Will this building in its present condition permit the use of our portable radios, or will we need another means of distance communication?
- Are wall and column loads still axial (loaded from the top down through the center to the bottom)? Or have they become eccentric (loaded down the side) or torsional (twisting)? (Photo 2, previous page)
- Has the integrity of the floors, joists, and girders been compromised? If so, to what extent are they compromised?
- Has the integrity of the roof, joists, and girders been compromised? If so, to what extent are they compromised?
- Are the visible structural defects results of this incident, or are they pre-existing conditions? (Photo 3, below)
- Has the integrity of stairways and escalators been compromised? If so, to what extent are they compromised? Will we need to use ladders for access?
- Has the integrity of stairway and elevator hoistway enclosures been compromised? This can be significant since these components are designed as the strongest parts of the building.
- If this is a fire incident, has most of the water from fire streams drained or evaporated from the building? Or has residual water overloaded a weakened structure?
- If this is a fire incident, has water from fire streams flooded the lower parts of the building (basements, cellars, elevator pits)?
For more detailed information on the stability of buildings during and after incidents, see
- Collapse of Burning Buildings: A Guide to Fireground Safety, Vincent Dunn. New York: Fire Engineering Books, 1988.
- Safety and Survival on the Fireground, Vincent Dunn. Saddle Brook NJ: Fire Engineering Books & Videos, 1992
Download this article as a PDF HERE.
Gregory Havel Fire Department; retired deputy chief and training officer; and a 30-year veteran of the fire service. He is a Wisconsin-certified fire instructor II, fire officer II, and fire inspector; an adjunct instructor in fire service programs at Gateway Technical College; and safety director for Scherrer Construction Co., Inc. Havel has a bachelor’s degree from St. Norbert College; has more than 30 years of experience in facilities management and building construction; and has presented classes at FDIC.is a member of the Town of Burlington (WI)
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