BY FRANCIS L. BRANNIGAN, SFPE (FELLOW)
When wintering in Orlando, I spent many hours riding with Shift Commander Paul Skinner. We talked about fire, tactics, and building construction hazards. He is now the chief of the Daytona Beach (FL) Fire Department. Recently I received the following e-mail from him, slightly edited for space. “Last night, I joined our units on the scene of a building fire at 403 North Atlantic Avenue. Chief Pompi was in command and briefed me on the operation underway. E-3’s crew was inside the front with a 13/4-inch attack line, attempting to reach a fire in the attic in the northeast corner. From outside, it appeared that the main body of the fire was in the hanging soffit on that corner. I watched as E-3 received a water supply and Snorkel 3 was set up at the north front corner for roof operations.
“Chief Pompi was communicating with Lieutenant Tyrrell inside the structure and quickly ordered a withdrawal and defensive tactics. At the time, I wondered to myself if perhaps his decision was premature, but I respected his command and let the order stand. He was writing off the building to prevent any harm to our personnel, and I have always coached our chief officers to err on the side of safety. Just moments after the evacuation, the front of the building literally exploded as the ceiling came down, windows blew out, and the strong north wind turned the interior into a furnace. The radiant heat was so great that E-3 had to be protected by a handline.
“I have spent the past 30 years becoming as professional as I can become about our business, learning from some of the masters, including Brunacini, you, Coleman, Fried, Isman, and many veteran mentors within my former department. You continually preach about the dangers of lightweight truss construction in roof and floor assemblies and the likelihood that they will fail quickly during an attic fire. Last night was stark testimony to the importance of knowing your buildings and of having perceptive interior attack crews and courageous officers who order a retreat when their instincts tell them that their personnel are in peril.
“The timeliness of the decision clearly saved our firefighters’ lives. The lesson in all this is that no matter how long you have been doing this and how carefully you have trained, you can still be surprised by how rapidly a building can fail. Chief Mike Kelly1 once taught me that company officers put out fires and chief officers save firefighters’ lives.
“Always listen to and obey your fireground commander. There is no shame in abandoning a building to save a firefighter’s life.”
Regarding the same incident, Battalion Chief Pompi, the IC, writes:
“This is in response to the early roof collapse we had while working a structure fire (meaning the structural components were involved on our arrival) at 403 North Atlantic Avenue, Daytona Beach, Florida on April 5, 2001, at approximately 0244 hours. The building in question was a retail store selling T-shirts. It measured approximately 60 feet by 120 feet deep by 20 feet in height. It was constructed of reinforced masonry block with a glass window front and a lightweight flat wood truss roof. Wood sheeting and tarpaper made up the roofing material. In addition, the front of the building had a wood facade to accent the front of the building. The front of the building (side A) faced toward the East (toward the ocean).
“The interior of the structure opened to the drop ceiling and consisted of a two-level storage area in the rear. The store was full of contents as [was] the storage area. Double glass doors in the front and on the B side of the structure allowed for entry into the structure. A single hung metal door on the B side (rear) of the structure allowed entry into the storage area from the outside. The rear of the building was a full block wall as [was] the D side. There were no sprinkler or standpipe systems. Electricity was on in the building at the time of the incident. The night was clear. The winds were from the northeast blowing about 20 to 25 mph against and into the A/D side of the structure. The temperature was about 60°F, and humidity was low.
“The initial incident report was given by a patrol officer who noticed fire coming from the northeast corner of the structure. He gave an initial report of a fully involved structure fire. Three engines, two aerials, a rescue truck (our EMS vehicle), the battalion chief, and the fire chief responded to the scene. The on-scene engine reported the incident as an attic fire with very little smoke in the store area. Members gained access and began an aggressive interior attack through one of the fallen ceiling tiles, which provided access to the trusses. The other units supported this attack. The battalion chief arrived and conducted a 270° recon and observed heavy smoke coming from the eaves and little or none in the store, indicating the fire was in the truss area. After assuming command and reassessing that the initial attack did not darken the fire and that the fire was progressing, growing rapidly due to the high winds and open truss loft, early collapse seemed imminent. All crews were quickly evacuated to operate in a defensive mode. Very shortly after the evacuation, the roof collapsed. Fortunately, no one was injured.
“It is this writer’s opinion that the preburn time of the fire, coupled with the lightweight truss roof and high winds, allowed the fire to progress very rapidly, leading to an early collapse.
“All personnel made a valiant effort to stop the fire but were withdrawn in the interest of personal safety.”
Congratulations to the Daytona Beach Fire Department! Note the mention of a hanging soffit or overhang. Some years ago, a Los Angeles County (CA) Fire Department firefighter was killed and others injured when an interior collapse of lightweight trusses to which a mansard had been attached collapsed. The video shows him directing a totally ineffective small line stream into an inferno. When a defensive attack mode is adopted, all personnel should be outside the collapse zone. Interior collapse often precipitates collapse of walls or overhanging structures such as canopies. The collapse of a cantilevered canopy, supported by rods attached to the interior structure, brought down the facade of a New York City taxpayer, and six firefighters died. The collapse of a canopy in Hagers-town, Maryland, trapped several firefighters until a construction crane lifted the canopy.
In “Switching from Defensive to Offensive Operations” (Fire Engineering, April 2001), Charles Angione notes the hazard posed by interior attack crews-withdrawn from the building and without any function-using their ineffective handlines on the fire and creeping close to the building to get the necessary reach. One of the most difficult control situations the incident commander faces is to keep temporarily staged firefighters in a standby position. As Jimmy Durante often lamented, “Everybody wants to get into the act.” Perhaps a standby sector officer should be designated where this practice and other freelancing are common. Angione discusses what to do with the small hoselines. This would not be a problem if evacuating crews abandon any equipment not needed to get out. Buildings are evacuated when there is the potential for collapse or flashover. Where is the IC so smart as to be able to say, “Evacuate this building. You have five minutes before it will collapse or flash over”?
Again, I must repeat my current campaign to get the “firefighter radar” (thermal imaging camera) up to the front line. It would have shown the raging fire in the attic that was not very evident from the exterior. For 30 years I have been saying, “Firefighters do not belong on or under burning trusses.” Nobody can predict when failure will occur. Gravity acts the moment the GRS (gravity resistance system) is not adequate by as little as one molecule.
My longstanding recommendation has been that units be dispatched to a “building” fire, as distinguished from an auto fire. The word “structural” should be reserved to the IC to indicate that the structure of the building is being attacked (steel-concrete) or involved (wood). This fire is now a “structural” fire. This is a heads-up to all concerned to beware of the problem and to be mentally conditioned for a possible order to evacuate.
POSTTENSIONED CONCRETE PICTURES AVAILABLE
In the November 2000 Ol’ Professor, I discussed the successful “defensive from the beginning” tactics of the Key Biscayne (FL) Fire Department on a posttensioned building under construction. At the time, no pictures were available. Thanks to Lieutenant Andy King of the Brentwood (TN) Fire Department, who informed me that pictures could be seen and downloaded at http://www.key-biscayne.com/scene/oceanclub/. These pictures can help illustrate your training lessons. For more information on the hazards of posttensioned concrete under construction, see Building Construction for the Fire Service, Third Edition (BCFS3) pp. 338-9, 345, 354.
DORMITORY SPRINKLERS CONTROL FIRE
A defective fan ignited a dormitory room at Rowan College in Glassboro, New Jersey. The sprinkler system controlled the fire. Water flowing down through an opening around piping wet the contents of the room below. There was no complaint about “water damage.” All were delighted that the fire was suppressed without injury. This particular residence hall was sprinklered when it was built in 1985. The college had just completed a sprinkler retrofit of six older dorms and was the first college in New Jersey to comply with the state law requiring all dormitories to be sprinklered after the three-fatality fire at Seton Hall University in South Orange.
We must work to get the proper authorities to recognize that any college population contains a percentage of people who will do any crazy thing, regardless of consequences, for amusement, for attention, or to get even with somebody who has offended them for whatever reason.
Recently, two universities had major riots by hooligan students after their basketball teams had lost major games. One student (of what?!) was quoted in the paper: “I saw the bonfire and grabbed my roommate’s mattress and ran out and threw it on the fire. It just seemed to be the thing to do.” Fire investigators are aware that fires in dumpsters are set by people who get tired of innocuous fires and move up to more serious fires. A person such as the one quoted might next get his kicks by setting fire to a recreation room couch thinking a lot of smoke would cause a fun evacuation. The idiot knows nothing of the huge fire load of readily ignitable plastic that the couch represents and the tragedy that would occur. He would then appear in court clean shaven, nicely dressed, and crying that he had no idea it would burn so fiercely. His mother and lawyer would beg the jury not to ruin the career of this brilliant “whatever” who has so much to do for humanity because of a silly prank. The judge and jury might well buy it, and his sentence might be probation and 100 hours of community service.
The only real continuing protection the college can offer those decent law-abiding students who will be useful to society is full automatic sprinkler protection. Education, watchfulness, and stern rules are all useful but fade away as disasters are forgotten. Sprinklers are forever and can snuff out the efforts of the evil people present in the community. As I write this, it is Saturday night. How many drunks will fall asleep smoking on college campuses across the country? Sprinklers can keep them from killing others.
Wouldn’t it be great if all prospective students asked about sprinkler protection in dormitories? Wouldn’t it be great if the federal government (which will not pay travel expenses for employees staying in nonfiresafe hotels) would refuse any assistance to students staying in unsafe dormitories? When parents come to visit, the odds are that they will be staying in a sprinklered hotel. Why not insist on the same protection for their children?
The cost of installing sprinklers in an existing building can be high. Much of the cost is generated by the desire to hide the piping (and in some cases, the heads). We must insist that all we want is to get the sprinklers in. Why hide the piping? Paint it red and brag about it.
SPRINKLERS IN LIBRARIES
In another academic environment, many librarians fear sprinkler systems because “the water would wash the catalog labels off the books” or “the books on shelves are tightly packed and so do not burn readily!” An architect was shocked by our daughter Eileen Longsworth’s2 answer to his question, “What do you like best about your library (the fully sprinklered central library of Salt Lake City, Utah)?” She replied, “The automatic sprinkler system. Libraries are public buildings. By court decisions, we cannot keep out disturbed people. Disturbed people sometimes start fires. Such a fire would be controlled by the sprinklers, and we would still be in business.”
HIDDEN HAZARDS: SKYLIGHTS
With this issue, I am starting a series on “Hidden Hazards” that would not generally be evident on a preplan visit or to the IC on arrival.
Skylights were built into many stores and other one-story buildings to provide daylight to the interior. Traditionally, they were useful to us for ventilation (do not forget if you remove a skylight to turn it upside down on the roof to indicate a nearby hole to other firefighters). Burglars found the skylight provided an easy means of entry. Many owners removed them. The photos above show a skylight opening that was closed with lightweight material and then covered with roll roofing. The whole assembly resembles a jungle trap used to catch large animals. An excellent firefighter fell through the flimsy patch and suffered injuries so serious that he was lost to active firefighting.
A huge section of the steel work of the Washington (DC) Convention Center under construction collapsed, fortunately at night. The cause is as yet undetermined, but it seems obvious that the required temporary bracing was deficient in design or execution. Steel in buildings under construction can be very unstable. If there is a fire, be extremely aware of the collapse potential. Don’t assume, “It’s OK-these people know what they are doing.” See BCFS3, pp. 270-271.
NEW YORK BELLS
For many years, New York City dispatched apparatus by a unique numerical bell system that could send any unit to any location in the city or send a full fifth-alarm assignment from Manhattan to Coney Island and order all require “relocations” (i.e., transfers) to cover vacant units in less than a minute! I have written a paper on this and will send it out on the Internet as a reply attachment to anybody who contacts me at Fbrannigan@aol.com; ask for “Bells.”
The building is your enemy! Know your enemy!
1. Chief Mike Kelly is a longtime friend, former operations chief of the Orlando (FL) Fire Department, and later chief of New Smyrna Beach (FL) Fire Department.
2. Eileen Longsworth is director of libraries for Albuquerque and Bernalillo counties, New Mexico.
FRANCIS L. BRANNIGAN, SFPE (Fellow), the recipient of Fire Engineering’s first Lifetime Achievement Award, has devoted more than half of his 59-year career to the safety of firefighters in building fires. He is well known as the author of Building Construction for the Fire Service, Third Edition (National Fire Protection Association, 1992), and for his lectures and videotapes. Brannigan is an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering.