Reading A Building: Different Building Styles

By John W. Mittendorf

Having covered the six basic types of roofs, it is time to continue with other building size-up considerations including this week’s topic: the “style” of a building. For size-up purposes, there are 12 basic styles of buildings. However, the number of building styles is not as important as what you are thinking about when confronted by a particular building style.

Some parts of this country have very few basements while other parts have an inordinate number of basements. If you are familiar with basements, you are well aware that a fire in this portion of a structure can be one of the most difficult fires you will ever encounter. Firefighters normally find a copious amount of storage in basements, and fire, heat, and smoke normally rise upward while suppression personnel normally go downward to access the fire. The main points of considerations are:

  • Access: There is a major difference between one way to access a basement and multiple means of access. A single access point can mean the same route for ventilation, fire spread, and firefighter entry.
  • Contents and size: The contents and size of a basement often determine the severity of a fire. So, is there a potential difference between a basement fire in a typical single family dwelling as compared to a commercial type structure?
  • Extension routes: Obviously, normal extension routes are vertical, so any possible vertical channels are possible routes for extension. Additionally, remember that if a single access route to a basement is used by suppression personnel, that route also can feed oxygen to the fire and will be used as a ventilation route by the fire.
  • Grade floor: From a simplistic viewpoint, the floor over a basement (normally the grade floor) is also the roof of the fire. So, until the fire in the basement is extinguished and/or the integrity of the floor is verified, where are you standing?

Single-Family Dwellings
NFPA statistics indicate that 70 percent of our fires are in single-family dwellings (SFDs). Seventy percent of those fires are confined to one or two rooms. Although this type of structure is relatively simple, it is here that we have most of our fires – and problems. The main points of consideration are:

  • Time of day: 10 pm to 6 am is the most dangerous time of day (sleeping occupants).
  • Construction: Is it conventional construction or lightweight construction?
  • Size and height: There is a major difference between a single-story, 1700′ SFD and a two- or three-story 5,000′ SFD. The more square footage, the closer the SFD becomes to being a moderate size commercial (considering what materials there are to burn and what it will take to extinguish the fire), and the additional floors will complicate access, extension of fire, etc.
  • Converted attics: Attics that have been converted into living areas add another story to an SFD, and are often difficult to access. Look for curtains, flower boxes, and/or air conditioners in attic windows.
  • Windows: Windows can be an excellent indicator of the interior floor plan. If it is necessary to use a window for interior access (last option), choose the largest window in the appropriate area that may also be used as an exit opening.
  • Floor plan: Be familiar with typical floor plans in your area.
  • Entry/exit points: Anytime you enter a structure, ask yourself how you will exit if necessary. As an example, if you are the second company on-scene and the first company has stretched a line through the front door, are there enough entry/exit points for you? I would hope not.
  • Attic vents: Attic vents in any structure can be an excellent indicator of fire extension in the attic area, particularly if the attic area is over a fire.

John W. Mittendorf joined the Los Angeles City (CA) Fire Department (LAFD) in 1963, rising to the rank of captain II, task force commander. In 1981, he was promoted to battalion chief and in the year following became the commander of the In-Service Training Section. In 1993, he retired from LAFD after 30 years of service. Mittendorf has been a member of the National Fire Protection Research Foundation on Engineered Lightweight Construction Technical Advisory Committee. He has provided training programs for the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Maryland; the University of California at Los Angeles; and the British Fire Academy at Morton-in-Marsh, England. He is a member of the editorial advisory board of Fire Engineering and author of the books Truck Company Operations (Fire Engineering, 1998) and Facing the Promotional Interview (Fire Engineering, 2003).

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