Tactical Safety: Building Diversity in the Fire Service

By Ray McCormack

We have a tremendous amount of diversity in the fire service, and we are seeing more and more diversity each day. Many departments have witnessed vast changes over the years, some gradually, some very quickly. The reasons vary from economic incentives and new opportunities to federal and state aid.  Most departments still have a lot of standard construction mixed with modern construction, making building diversity an ever-evolving topic of concern and study.

Buildings all have common features. Some may have cellars and basements, but all have first floors, roofs, and stairways to get us from floor to floor. What we concern ourselves with is not only construction practices and materials, but how these elements affect our deployment of resources and firefighting. Data is a key component of forming a more accurate size-up capability. To know more about buildings and how they can impact firefighting operations is extremely important, and the information is easily obtainable.

This information must be garnered prior to construction and during construction and incorporated with codes and other inspection data. We inherit all buildings eventually, and many times our information is garnered post-construction. We need to be aware of what our response area demands. Some firefighters work in areas where two-story homes are the norm.  For others it is high-rises, and although that’s a major swing in building diversity, it’s easier to comprehend than a response area that is made of building styles that vary widely.

Buildings types that form residential neighborhoods are usually a mix of several types of homes with variations that are based on the category type and can be easily packaged, allowing for more standardized operations. Although our old standbys should be understood, our new neighbors may not fall into easily adapted operational patterns. Many new buildings are vastly different in their layouts, and even the most diligent of firefighters would be unable to remember all the variations.

Enhanced dispatch information, photo technology, and the ability to rapidly transmit information can allow us a brief glimpse at factual building data, but down-and-dirty details will most likely be much more difficult to express as bits of information. The transmittal of building data to responding units is vital if a comprehensive prearrival size-up is the goal. Information needs to be relevant, using understandable text to maximize information, and also be value-tiered, with must-know information placed first.

So what do you do when such diversity is impacting your area? You must study and look for common elements that can be clustered together. Diverse buildings contain fundamental elements which can be unified into working operational plans. Common denominators which might just list stairway or hallway types must be shared so that fire operations within them do not remain a mystery only be solved during involvement. Preplanning, good detective work, and flexible operations aid us in making sure building diversity does not outpace tactical safety.

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Ray McCormack: Tactical Safety for FirefightersRAY McCORMACK is a 30-year veteran and a lieutenant with FDNY. He is the publisher and editor of Urban Firefighter Magazine. He delivered the keynote address at FDIC in 2009 and he is on the Editorial Board of Fire Engineering Magazine.

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