FLAME SPREAD HAS BEEN CALLED THE UNKNOWN HAZARD

How many of the conditions in the following photographs would you recognize as extremely hazardous to occupants and firefighters? (See BCFS3, Chapter 9, “Fire Growth.”)

I realize that many flame spread hazards are grandfathered and building officials concentrate on code requirements for new buildings, but I believe that the fire department should bring the hazard to the attention of the owner and the building department. Don’t leave them the defense, “If you had only told us.”

Explain that it is not against the law but that it is a severe hazard nonetheless. I cannot forget the fire marshal who complained in a report on a fire drill only about a broken glass and ignored the fact that the school was lined with combustible tile, a year after the terrible Our Lady of Angels school fire, which I was at. Specifically, warn against leaving the hazardous tile in place and installing a new “code-approved” ceiling below it. (BCFS3, 389)

Painting with a fire-retardant coating is often ineffective where the tile is glued up and would not be effective in other cases because the back surface of the tile or plywood is unaffected.

Do your preplans include an estimate of the extent of the potential fire and the need for big lines in the interior? Don’t get firefighters killed because the Btus far outnumber the H2O.




This corridor in a New York hotel was lined with carpeting. None of the many fire personnel who passed through it recognized the hazard. Radiation and reradiation would turn the corridor into an inferno.




The ordinary guest probably feels safe to be in a concrete building. Firefighters should recognize, but often don’t, the hazard of a fast burning plywood liner. After the Happy Land Club disaster in New York, the city asked the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to see what could have been done other than install sprinklers to prevent such a tragedy. The answer was, “Take out the combustible tile ceiling and the plywood.”




Cork is a fast burner. One office suite lined in cork created a five-alarm fire in the Empire State Building in New York City. Note the sprinkler head. It is not at all a sure thing that the sprinkler would hold the fire.

Combustible fiberboard, which spreads flames rapidly, made up as plank gives a cheap, easily installed interior finish.




This ceiling is made up of burlap and urethane imitation beams. Again, it is questionable whether the sprinkler would be effective.




Wooden ceilings are becoming fashionable. Battalion Chief John Norman, author of the Fire Officer’s Handbook of Tactics, Second Edition (Fire Engineering, 1998), told me of a fire in a wood-lined house that progressed from a mattress to full involvement in about four minutes.




Combustible acoustical tile, which is glued up, is very hazardous; the hazard is not mitigated by painting the tile with a flame-retardant coating (see BCFS3, the Hartford Hospital fire).




Hardboard with holes punched in it, called “pegboard,” burns furiously. The holes accelerate the fire growth.

FRANCIS L. BRANNIGAN, SFPE (Fellow), recipient of Fire Engineering’s first Lifetime Achievement Award, has devoted more than half of his 57-year career to the safety of firefighters in building fires. He is well known for his lectures and videotapes and as the author of Building Construction for the Fire Service, Third Edition, published by the National Fire Protection Association. Brannigan is an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering.

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