Front-Line Decision Making: The Importance of Building Construction Characteristics 4

Special Safety Concerns

Article and photos by William Shouldis

In Part 1, “The Struggle for Safety,” we looked at the practical steps first responders can take before and during an emergency event. The first few minutes on the scene are critical to firefighter safety and survival. In Part 2 and Part 3, we analyzed the five building construction types as described by the International Building Code (IBC) and National Fire Protection Association 220, Standard on Types of Building Construction, in terms of fire separation, strengths, weaknesses, and common characteristics. This article looks at developing a risk-management program based on building construction dangers.

In this era of significant changes in the building industry; progressive fire departments have a unique opportunity to have input at various stages of the construction process. Inadequate consideration of fire safety features during the construction phase can easily lead to destructive and deadly results during occupancy. It is the duty of fire service to be involved during the preconstruction, construction, occupancy, and even demolition of a structure. NFPA 1500, Standard for Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program, stresses the importance of a risk-management plan. Older structures can pose unpredictable risks because the integrity of structural components and connections may have not have been subject to plan reviews and engineering reports. Newer structures use lightweight components that can fail without warning; decades of field experience may not apply to such construction. Vacant buildings with adjoining exposures pose a significant risk of fire extension.

The only reasonable way a firefighter can truly become familiar with the types of construction that exist in the community is to get out of the fire station and see what is in his local response district. Tours of new and existing buildings provide an opportunity to see construction changes, examine modern materials, exchange ideas on new building methods, and review training tips from the past based on errors committed at traditional kinds of structures. Technology has and will continue to change many aspects of emergency response. Economics has driven the use of lightweight construction materials such as laminated composition wood, long span I-beams (basically saw dust and glue), and cold-formed steel (C-joist) on aluminum hangers. These components tend to fail much more quickly when exposed to fire, thus making interior operations more dangerous than ever. Fortunately, new equipment like the thermal imaging cameras (TIC) will assist responders in the identifying building features that may be invisible in heavy smoke conditions.

(1) Renovations will create access and egress problems. Asbestos removal projects will seal rooms. A thermal image camera may be of limited use when plastic curtains chambers are present; the plastic surface may reflect like a glass or mirror and not indicate temperature difference. Industrial accidents are a real possibility.

(2) Masonry walls may appear to be in good shape, yet the wooden floor and roof assemblies may rot if they are not maintained. Normally, remodeling projects are for appearance’s sake, not to strengthen deteriorating supporting elements. Inspections, preincident planning, and properly honed size-up skills are essential for first responder safety. A strong point of the fire service is the constant desire to improve operations. A basic way to accomplish this is through regular postincident reviews and good documentation.

(3) All-at-once construction techniques can lead to a conflagration. Water supply and worker accountability will be a major challenge for command. Building construction phases and features will impact emergency scene objectives, strategy, and tactics.
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The lives of many present and future first responders depend on ensuring strict compliance with building codes, creating meaningful preincident plans, adjusting the size of the initial response, and performing ongoing size-up at the scene. Conducting inspections gives local responders a perfect opportunity to gather the support of the people in the community and also learn what hazardous conditions are waiting to injury or kill firefighters. There are five major type of building construction, each with its own distinguishing characteristics. Even a slight building modification can create special safety concerns. Familiarity with the various types of construction in your response district and training is critical to understanding the strengths, weakness, and the potential for fire spread and collapse of each type of building construction. When fire service leaders encourage inspections and planning, command officers can project and deploy resources effectively. Chiefs must appoint health and safety officers to ensure standard operating procedures are carefully written. Incident commanders must act decisively in selecting a safe operating mode based on the type of building construction. Incident safety officers must monitor burn time, and company officers must have a practical plan of action for an emergency evacuation. All responders must follow a risk-versus-benefit approach from first response to incident termination. First responders must never simply guess at the structural integrity of a structure: Lives depend on you recognizing and evaluating of the type of construction classification.

William Shouldis retired as deputy chief of the Philadelphia (PA) Fire Department, where he served in line and staff positions for more than 34 years. His assignments included working directly for the chief on labor relation and accountability issues and serving as field commander for one-half of the city, department safety officer, director of training, and hazardous material task force leader. He is an instructor at the Graduate School at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia (PA), the National Fire Academy, and the Emergency Management Institute. He has a master’s degree in public. He can be contacted via e-mail at

Subjects: Building construction for firefighters, fireground decision-making.

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