Restored Buildings: 13 Assumptions

Article and photos by Gregory Havel

When an older or historic building has been restored or renovated, as most have been, there are some questions that we must answer to protect ourselves from injury when we respond to a fire or other incident at that location. These questions are part of the size-up that we must do at any incident.

Photo 1 ( left) shows the nearly completed renovation of a single-family residence. Photo 2 (right) shows the same residence before the renovation, including the original house that is more than 100 years old, and its three additions.

From these photos, we must ask the following:

  • Did the renovation affect only the exterior appearance of the building, or were structural changes made?
  • Did the renovation affect only the structure, or were changes made to heating, air-conditioning, domestic hot and cold water, the electrical system, or other systems?
  • Were the masonry chimneys removed completely or to a point below the roof line and roofed over?
  • Were the floors and walls made plumb and level before new windows and doors were installed, or were the new windows and doors inserted plumb and level within the original crooked openings?
  • Were any columns, load-bearing walls, beams, or joists replaced because of rot or other deterioration? If so, were they replaced with materials similar to those used in the original construction? Or were they replaced with structural steel and/or manufactured wood materials and components?
  • Were any of the original sawn lumber roof rafters replaced with trusses?
  • What methods and materials were used to close the location of the skylight on the one-story roof on the B side?
  • Was firestopping between floors retained, or was it removed or penetrated for installation of ducts, pipes, or cables?
  • Was firestopping between floors added where it was missing and to protect new penetrations?
  • Were the original building doorways and stairways retained, or were they expanded and rebuilt for accessibility and greater strength?
  • Are the interior partition walls in the same place as before, or have some been removed and replaced with long-span manufactured wood components?
  • Does the building now contain a fire and smoke detector system that complies with the building code and/or an automatic fire sprinkler system?
  • Is the new exterior finish on this building noncombustible cement stucco or cement board or aluminum siding? Or is it combustible wood or vinyl siding, or a combustible exterior insulation foam system (EIFS)?
  • Will the lightning protection system (lightning rods and grounding cables) be replaced?
  • Were all of the renovations done with the assistance of an architect or engineer and reviewed and approved by the Building Inspector or other Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ)? (National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1, Fire Code, and NFPA 5000, Building Construction and Safety Code, assume that they were.)
The answers to these and other questions can help us predict fire behavior within the structure or of the structure as an exposure. The answers can help us predict how rapidly the remodeled or renovated structure will collapse under localized overload or fire conditions.
A tradition in the fire service is to “Plan for the worst and hope for the best.” Sometimes when we get into trouble , it is simply because we planned only for the moderately bad and not for the worst possible situation.

Since it would be impossible for us to maintain a preincident plan (see NFPA 1620, Standard for Pre-Incident Planning, especially Chapter 5) for every structure in our response area, we need to prepare our incident action plans based on some assumptions about structures:

  1. This structure has been remodeled or renovated at least once without the benefit of an architect, an engineer, or a plan review by the Building Department.
  2. This structure is presently used for a different occupancy classification than that for which it was designed, and its live load exceeds its original design.
  3. Remodeling, renovation, and additions have removed or bypassed firestopping features of the original construction.
  4. Remodeling and renovation have replaced original construction materials and components with long-span lightweight trusses and manufactured wood materials that burn and collapse more quickly than the original sawn lumber.
  5. Unused masonry chimneys are still in place below the roof and are supported on wood framing rather than on foundations.
  6. The original wood framing or timbers have been deteriorated by moisture and dry-rot, and the fasteners have been weakened by rust and corrosion.
  7. Load-bearing masonry has been subject to deterioration from moisture and repeated freeze-thaw cycles, although the surface may have been repaired for cosmetic purposes.
  8. Even though the structure has been renovated several times, parts of the original (deteriorated) electrical and heating systems are still operating, and are still hazardous.
  9. The exterior siding or other finish is less fire-resistant than it appears and will be a problem if the structure is an exposure to a fire in an adjacent structure.
  10. Smoke detectors, fire alarms, and other life safety systems do not work properly.
  11. Automatic fire sprinkler systems (if present) are not working since they have been turned off to prevent water damage from leaks because of lack of maintenance.
  12. Upper-floor (and cellar or basement) access is by way of narrow, deteriorated stairways that are subject to collapse under the weight of firefighters, tools, and a hoseline or an EMS team, equipment, cot, and patient.
  13. The structure is so combustible and so compromised by its history of “improvements” (or by the recent addition of lightweight construction materials and methods) that it will not support our traditional interior fire attack with roof ventilation.
We can reduce the number of these assumptions that apply to the older structures in our response areas that are used as schools, apartment buildings, health care facilities, community-based residential facilities (CBRF), and other target hazards. We can do this by preparing preincident plans for them (with annual review and updating, and training for our personnel ) and by regular inspections by alert and dedicated fire companies or qualified fire inspectors. However, no matter how carefully we plan and inspect, we must still respond to incidents at these structures as though all of these assumptions are true.
At the conclusion of the incident, if many or all of these assumptions have been prov en false, all of our emergency responders will be able to return home uninjured. 

If we choose to ignore these assumptions, we will continue to injure our personnel at incidents and to attend ceremonial funerals for line-of-duty deaths.


Gregory Havel is a member of the Burlington (WI) Fire Department; a retired deputy chief and training officer; and a 30-year veteran of the fire service. He is a Wisconsin-certified fire instructor II and fire officer II, 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.


Subjects: Building construction for firefighters

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