Reading A Building – Institutions and Public Assembly Structures

By John W. Mittendorf

Institutions
Buildings that fall into this category are hospitals, jails (or detention facilities), and assisted living and/or dependent living facilities. The focus with these occupancies (especially assisted living and/or dependent living facilities) is the presence of nonambulatory occupants or occupants that will have difficulty exiting a building in case of an emergency. Common considerations follow.

Construction
Obviously, lightweight or conventional construction will give you an idea of fireground time, but more importantly, does this type of building in your area of responsibility have sprinklers? Occupancies equipped with sprinklers normally have minimal fires, but if you have retirement-type facilities that are nonsprinklered (older-type buildings), you have a potentially major hazard in your district – rescue. If you have nonsprinklered buildings with a noteworthy occupant load, particularly nonambulatory occupants, you should have more than a good idea of what your actions would be if this type of building has a fire (or any similar emergency).

Rescue
With the preceding thoughts in mind, any fire, smell of smoke, or other type of emergency will not have a great effect on staff personnel. It’s the nonambulatory occupants you should be concerned about. Additionally, you can usually depend on elderly occupants who may be ambulatory to panic at the slightest hint of a problem. If you doubt this concern, just try walking through one of these occupancies with your PPE on and see what happens.

Size
Finally, the size of this type of occupancy will give you a good idea of the magnitude of a potential rescue should a problem develop.

Public Assembly Structures
Buildings that typically fall into this category include restaurants, theaters, night clubs, etc. Common considerations follow.

Ambulatory Occupants
Unlike the preceding occupancies, most, if not all, occupants in these buildings are ambulatory. Though there can be large occupant loads, the fire service normally has few problems in these buildings unless there has been an explosion or other infrequent problem.

Exits
Normally, these types of buildings must meet strict building codes for exits that serve the maximum occupant load.

Configuration
The name on the outside of the building is an excellent indicator of what can be expected inside the building. As an example, restaurants come in a wide variety of sizes, floor plans, and occupant loads. Typically, floor plans can be challenging, and the fire load is often “above average”. The common fire problem is often found in the kitchen area.

Attic Space
These buildings are an excellent candidate for multiple attic spaces. As the type of occupancy changes, so does the ceiling height. As an example, assume you have a restaurant with a distance of 5-feet between the roof line and the windows. You probably have a single attic space. Conversely, assume you have 15 to 20-feet between the windows and roof line/parapet. You may have multiple attic spaces. In any case, an indicator of multiple attic spaces is when there is a fire in this type of occupancy and interior personnel pull the ceilings and find no fire in concert with roof personnel who have opened the roof in the same area and also find no fire, yet conditions indicate there is fire somewhere in the attic area.

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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