Construction Concerns: Building Features and Size-Up

By Gregory Havel

Scenario: You are dispatched to a report of fire with an explosion at 5432 First Avenue. On arrival, you find the structure (photos 1-3) fully-involved in fire. Fire is visible through the windows and is blowing out of other windows and the roof, which have self-ventilated. A bystander states that there is at least one person in the building.

(1) A view of the structure’s A-B corner, after the fire. (Photos by author.)

(2) A view of the structure’s B-C corner, after the fire.

(3) A view of the structure’s D-A corner, after the fire.


It can be extremely hazardous for firefighters to simply react to the visible situation and the statement from the bystander and charge into the interior with a hoseline and tools to perform a search without a plan, with another plan in the event that they get into trouble, and enough resources present or on the way to support these plans.

The fuel, the ignition source, the structure, the surroundings (exposures), accessibility, and weather conditions all contribute to make the structure fire incident to which we responded.

When the incident commander (IC) prepares the incident action plan for a structure fire, the structure and the fuel are two of the key points in its development. When considering the structure and the fuel, ask yourself the following questions:


The Structure

  1. What type of construction is it?
  2. What is its age?
  3. Is there evidence of additions, remodeling, or renovations? How long ago did these projects occur?
  4. Are there walls or floor-ceiling assemblies that are rated for fire resistance in hours that subdivide the structure?
  5. Are there concealed spaces? Are they interconnected?
  6. Did remodeling or renovation introduce manufactured wood and lightweight construction methods into a structure built with slower-igniting and slower-burning materials (photo 4) from a different structure?
  7. Is there insulation in the exterior walls and attic?
  8. If there is insulation, what kind is it, and how will it affect fire behavior?
  9. Is the structure stable at this time?
  10. Will it still be as stable in three minutes? Five minutes? 10 minutes?
  11. Location of gas and electric services?
  12. Are there chimneys? Are they masonry or metal? What supports each chimney?
  13. Are there parts of this structure that are less stable than the rest?
  14. If parts of the structure burn away or collapse, will this affect the stability of the remaining structure?
  15. Do we have the ability and resources to save this structure so that it can be rebuilt, or will we be able only to preserve enough of the structure for fire investigators to determine the cause, point of origin, and routes of fire spread before the remainder is condemned?



The Fuel

  1. What is burning inside the structure?
  2. How long has it been burning?
  3. Where did the fire start?
  4. How did the fire spread?
  5. Are the burning items the cellulose-based items common in the era when this house was built or are they likely to be the petroleum-based fabrics and plastics that are in common use today?
  6. Is the structure itself burning?
  7. How long has it been burning?
  8. If the structure is burning, what parts have become less stable as a result?
  9. What effect did the explosion have on the stability of the structure?
  10. Was the explosion caused by the fire, or did the explosion cause the fire? Could there be another explosion?
  11. What is the appropriate extinguishing agent for this combination of fuels?

The answers to some of these questions will be obvious to the IC. If the structure is a commercial occupancy for which we have a preincident plan, additional detailed information will be available. Other answers will be obvious because of recognition-primed decision making. To answer the remaining questions, the IC (and you) must assume the following worst-case scenarios:

  • The fire is burning and extending rapidly in both occupied and concealed spaces.
  • The structure has been weakened by age, weather, remodeling, and fire.
  • The structure includes manufactured combustible structural components of light weight and low mass.
  • The structure will wait to collapse until the IC has committed firefighters to interior fire attack and search.

The tests conducted and the reports published by Underwriters Laboratories and the National Institute of Standards and Technology over the past several years suggest that, for firefighters’ life safety, we should knock down this fire from the exterior using solid- or straight-streams from our nozzles; perform an evaluation of the structure for stability; and only then commit our firefighters to interior fire extinguishment, search, and overhaul if the structure is stable enough to support these activities.

Working through the questions and photos presented here, whether alone or as a tabletop exercise at our fire station, these examples can help us develop mental patterns and images that will be useful in making future decisions.

Although RECEO-VS [Rescue, Exposure protection, Confinement, Extinguishment, Overhaul; with Ventilation and Salvage (implemented as needed)] has guided us well for decades, this can give us an opportunity to work with the new acronym that has been proposed to replace it: SLICE—RS [Size-up, Locate the fire, Isolate the flow path, Cool from a safe distance, Extinguish; with Rescue and Salvage (implemented as needed)].


Download this article as a PDF HERE


Gregory Havel is a member of the Town of Burlington (WI) Fire Department; retired deputy chief and training officer; and a 35-year veteran of the fire service. He is a Wisconsin-certified fire instructor II, fire officer II, and fire inspector; 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 35 years of experience in facilities management and building construction; and has presented classes at FDIC.




No posts to display