By Gregory Havel
For most firefighters, good housekeeping is as natural as breathing; apparatus, tools, and personal protective equipment are kept clean, in good condition, and stored properly; floors are swept and mopped regularly; washrooms and kitchens are spotless; and dust is found only out in the street. Clutter is not welcome, including storage of obsolete or worn out equipment, recyclables, and trash.
For many building contractors, a clean and neat job site (photo 1) is essential to maintain a high level of productivity, eliminate trip and fall hazards and associated injuries, and present an image that will attract the attention of future clients.
(1) Photos by author.
For other building contractors, completion of the job is the only important factor. The fuel load of rubbish that has accumulated in the building (photo 2), the added risk of injury to workers who may trip and fall, and the image they project are not as important as finishing on time and having a satisfied customer. Most emergency responders already know that they are more likely to respond to an incident at a construction job site like the one in photo 2 than to one at a job site that is orderly and clean, without accumulated debris and trip hazards.
A “worst case” scenario of this kind occurred in the Ybor City area of Tampa, Florida, on May 19, 2000. Fire units were dispatched at 0854 hours to a report of electrical wires down. On arrival, they found that a crane used to set wood trusses on the three-story, 450-unit apartment development (covering four city blocks) had come into contact with overhead electric wires. The crane was energized and ignited the grass, trees, and construction debris between the crane and the nearest building. The fire spread rapidly since there had been no rain in the area for six months.
By the time the fire was declared under control more than seven hours later at 1607 hours, four firefighters were hospitalized with serious injuries; several other firefighters needed medical attention for less serious injuries; the entire four-block apartment complex as well as the United States Post Office across the street was burned down; and several fire apparatus were damaged.
Despite the efforts of more than 40 responding units with more than 150 firefighters from two counties as well as water flows estimated at 10,000 gallons per minute (37,854 liters/minute), this fire spread rapidly because of dry weather, the presence of combustible construction debris, and the lack of either active or passive fire protection features in the buildings under construction; it was beyond the capabilities of a modern municipal fire department and its resources.
For details on the Ybor City incident, visit the Web site http://www.fireengineering.com/articles/print/volume-153/issue-10/features/ybor-city-fire-tampa-florida.html or internet search for “Ybor City fire 2000.”
In the interest of preventing similar incidents in the future, we can arrange with the construction managers for the first-due companies to tour these job sites periodically. This will familiarize our personnel with the construction materials and methods used in the new or remodeled building, give us the opportunity to develop preincident plans for the future, and give us the opportunity to provide advice on fire protection and housekeeping needs at that location during construction.
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Gregory Havel is a member of the Town of Burlington (WI) Fire Department; retired deputy chief and training officer; and a 35-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 35 years of experience in facilities management and building construction; and has presented classes at FDIC.
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