A potential disastrous USAR operation at a fire. This supplements the safety cautions in Captain Jerry Tracy`s excellent article “Firefighting Operations in High-Rises Under Construction” (December 1997).

You may encounter some who will deny the advice given. I first presented the picture of mass firefighter casualties at a high-rise incident at the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) meeting in Philadelphia in 1972. The presentation was reported in the Engineering News Record, the weekly “bible” of the construction industry. No one in the construction field wrote to say I was wrong. However, Chester Babcock, editor of the NFPA`s Fire Journal, refused to publish my paper saying, “I simply can`t believe that they are building buildings that will completely collapse.”

This denial of a new situation–no matter how based in fact–is not new to the fire service. The concept of “defensive from the beginning” based on potential but not easily perceived risk goes against the grain in firefighting but is standard operating procedure (SOP) in haz-mat situations. Must we have a bloody disaster to understand the hazard of concrete under construction?

In 1974 in Cleveland, Ohio, a 14-story post-tensioned concrete building under construction completely collapsed. The falsework was burning, but the firefighters were not in the section under construction. Some years before, when I was doing my Chain Reaction Training program for the Atomic Energy Commission (for which the Cleveland Local International Association of Fire Fighters presented me with the Fire Angel award), as was my custom, I “bunked in” with a downtown chief–in this case, Chief Barry. He and I sat up late talking about buildings and fires. He told me the story of this collapse. Being aware of the hazard of total collapse of post-tensioned concrete, the firefighters worked on the fire from the safety of an adjacent completed section. They apparently extinguished the fire, did no overhauling, told the builder he had a real problem, and left. The fire flared up again. While the fire department was setting up to attack the second fire, the collapse occurred. Chief Barry told me that in the time between the two fires he went back and reread the chapter on concrete in the first edition of Building Construction for the Fire Service (BCFS). I was not able to get a written report on this collapse, because the owner of the building was claiming (in the Engineering News Record) that the weight of the water thrown by the fire department caused the collapse and the city attorney had forbidden the fire department to say anything. A subrogation lawsuit was in the wind.

Dr. Culver of the then National Bureau of Standards Building Research Section went to Cleveland to investigate the collapse. I hoped for a printed report I could circulate. He said, “No big report; no-body was hurt.” I retorted: “When they build an 80-story building by the same technique and it totally collapses, will you then write a report?” A couple of paragraphs on the collapse is in the record; there is no mention of the hazard to firefighters.

My nightmare is that such a terrible collapse will produce mass firefighter casualties and I hadn`t done enough to make fire commanders aware of the disastrous hazard, because there is “no experience.” Experience in our field is blood and tears.

When I wrote the first edition of BCFS, I had fallen for the concrete industry concept that “concrete which has set for 24 hours is no problem.” The Bailey`s Crossroads, Virginia, collapse of a conventional reinforced concrete structure proved that progressive collapse is possible in any concrete structure.

No concrete building can resist the collapse of a floor onto the floor below. Total collapse in inevitable. The fire department should be aware on a daily basis of the status of any concrete building under construction. Realistic collapse zones should be set up. In the Bailey`s Crossroads collapse, the tower crane fell on the separate, completed post-tensioned garage and flattened it.

Preventing a disaster is in the hands of the first responding officer, who must be adequately informed and working under an SOP as up-to-date as last night. The situation will not wait for superiors to arrive or a consultation with the Building Department. Time is of the essence. Beware of optimistic statements by builders. They often deny hazards.

The material below is quoted from the 18th edition of the NFPA Handbook, Section 10, Chapter 6, “Building Construction Concerns of Fire Departments,” (page 145), which I wrote. Every line in the Handbook is checked by experts in the field, so this is fact, not opinion.

Concrete buildings under construction. The extraordinary rescue and body recovery operations required at the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995 could be repeated at a fire in a concrete building under construction if conventional firefighting tactics are followed.

When concrete buildings are under construction, massive loads are supported on temporary forms that are either combustible or, if made of steel or aluminum, subject to fire-caused failure. A massive failure of forms that drops one floor on another is almost certain to cause progressive collapse of several floors, possibly all the way to the ground. Fire in such forms is a serious concern and might well justify keeping firefighters entirely out of the potential collapse zone.

In such cases, the command decision process should be the opposite of the traditional method. Traditionally, firefighters rush into the structure and withdraw only when it is determined that the structure is unsafe. In the case of fire in concrete forms, which support thousands of pounds (kg) of concrete, it may be advisable to stay out until a decision can be made as to whether it is safe to enter the structure, or even be near it. [Italics supplied]

[At the Skyline Towers apartments] in [Bailey`s Crossroads] Fairfax County, Virginia in 1973, workers were prematurely ordered to remove shores supporting the 23rd floor. The floor collapsed, causing the progressive collapse of the floors below, all the way to the ground. Had the shoring burned, the result would have been the same.

The situation in the case of post-tensioned concrete construction is even more serious than for conventional reinforced concrete. Until the tendons are tensioned and the cables are stretched, the entire weight of the concrete, even hardened and dry to the touch, is supported on the concrete forms. If the forms burn, the entire floor or floors dependent on it will fall, possibly precipitating a total collapse.

For additional information on concrete construction, see Chapter 8 of BCFS3.

“The Chief`s Job.” If you serve or may serve as an incident commander, you should keep this article by Battalion Chief Frank Montagna of the City of New York (NY) Fire Department (October 1997) in a folder and review a section every day from the perspective of seeing how it pertains to your operations. You may not agree with every point, but argue the subject out with yourself. You will be a better IC for the effort.

A possible change in tactics. I can clearly recall one of my idols and mentors, Captain Tommy O`Brien of Engine 65, teaching me to take surplus line from a standpipe stretch up the stairway so that heavy, charged lines could be pulled down the stairs.

Now, Chief Vincent Dunn of FDNY warns against this practice, which caused the death of an FDNY firefighter. As the truck company was forcing the door, it sprang open and a burst of fire rolled up the stairway, fatally engulfing the firefighter pulling up the hose.

A recommended article. Copy and distribute to every officer and file permanently the article “Preparation and Training Key to Emergency Operations” by retired Washington, DC, Deputy Chief Robert Bingham (August 1997). It is full of good advice from a competent, experienced command officer.

Under the heading “Don`t Be Lax,” he describes a situation I have observed too many times. In one case, I was in town for a major fire service meeting and was in my room on the eighth floor of a high-rise hotel. The fire radio dispatched a full assignment to my hotel. I watched the action. It was unfortunately a laid-back operation, typical of too many high-rise responses. Firefighters expected to find nothing. SCBAs were slung over one shoulder. The phone rang. One of my students called to inform me that “some of the guys (also students of mine) are fighting a pretty good fire on the 16th floor.”

Check your air yourself. When I enlisted in the Navy, a tough old CPO passed around a mirror. “Take a good look in the mirror,” he said. “That`s the guy who takes care of you. Never forget the old sailor`s motto: `One hand for the ship, one hand for yourself.` ”

Two recent firefighter fatalities are said to have occurred when the firefighters entered the building with depleted air cylinders. I was thoroughly trained in SCBA (the 1916 model Draeger mask, a quite complicated rebreather) by Captain Teddy Beliakoff of Rescue 3 in New York City. “Your life depends on it. You take care of the mask yourself,” he warned.

In Panama, I drilled my grass-green sailor-firefighters unmercifully (they thought) in the Navy A1 SCBA (OBA is the Navy term) and later in the Mine Safety Chemox. The drilling paid off.

For our first real fire, we were called to aid at a fire in an Army refrigeration plant under construction. The cork insulation was generating huge quantities of thick black smoke and CO. The Army was well organized. On one side, a colonel was sending groups in Army gas masks, which did not protect against CO, into the building. On the other side, a medical colonel was packing 100 GIs off to the hospital in ambulances. My guys took a quick lesson in operating a jackhammer. We carried the jackhammer and a line into the building, walked the unrailed narrow catwalks between the pits where ice was made, breached the concrete block wall, and hit the fire. They had no problems with their masks. They couldn`t have done it better. Train. Train. Train.

Holiday Inn “improvements.” Holiday Inn is starting a major upgrading, particularly of its older franchises. Among the improvements announced are “peaked roofs.” Watch for this. Most likely, the new roof will be built on top of the old ugly flat roof. (See the photo by Captain Dave Mager of the Boston Fire Department on page 550 of BCFS3.)

The old tar-and-gravel roof will remain. Venting the new roof will be useless for a top-floor fire. Take pictures. (Don`t forget this column.) Get the alteration into the permanent record, the “institutional memory” of the fire department. The firefighters who may waste valuable time “venting” the false roof may be in kindergarten today.

If the building is sprinklered, an exemption may be sought for the roof void on the grounds of “no life hazard.” Almost universally, code enforcers and writers consider the life hazard to the occupants, not to firefighters. “If you are crazy enough to go into a burning building after the occupants are out, you are on your own” was the dictum from one code writer.

Disaster planning–the Eurotunnel Catastrophe. In November 1942, I was a newly commissioned Navy ensign, part of the Panama Canal Pacific side team that would score the reactions of personnel in a war game problem involving bombing of the Naval facilities on the Atlantic side of the Panama Canal.

Commander Decker, USN, the War Plans officer, laid it out. “The heavy bombers will blow up the water mains, here and here, so there will be no water. The incendiary bombers will set fire to buildings, here and here. Their plan provides for calling help from W, X. Y, and Z. The firefighting officer observer will see if they do so.”

Brannigan, grass-green reserve ensign, said: “Sir! The red paint and chrome on fire engines do not put out fire. It takes water. There is no water, so there is no point in his calling all that help.”

“Young man,” he roared, “we are not interested in realism. We are interested in having a problem!”

The unspoken continuation of that sentence is “which we can handle with existing resources.” Unfortunately, too much emergency planning contains that same unexpressed premise: “Don`t bring up any problems that can`t be solved with available resources.”

I had this very much in mind when I read the emergency plans for the Eurotunnel from England to France. It did not seem that they had developed realistic scenarios of possible events.

On page 443 of BCFS3, I wrote: “At this writing, the Eurotunnel under the English Channel from England to France is under construction. Cars and trucks will be carried on trains. There are two separate train tunnels. A service tunnel between the two train tunnels is kept at a higher pressure than the train tunnels to exclude smoke. Access is provided through `smoke proof` doors at 375 m (415 ft.) intervals. Reports estimate that 1500 passengers will be evacuated from a burning train in 25 minutes. Whether or not the planning is adequate remains to be seen.” (Italics supplied)

It certainly was not adequate. On November 18, 1996, a fire in a truck extended to other trucks. The fire did about $100 million damage to the tunnel–in some cases, concrete was destroyed by the fire, leaving just a hole through the limestone–and emergency structural repairs were necessary. The train crew and the truck drivers riding in a “club car” evacuated without serious injury. In a subsequent test run, 500 employees (hardly the equivalent of passengers) were evacuated in two hours and 10 minutes. As one critic put it, “Two hours is plenty of time to die.” The story of the fire, “Fire in the Chunnel,” by Ed Comeau, the NFPA`s chief fire investigator, was published in the March/April 1997 issue of NFPA Journal.

Do your disaster scenarios play down the hazard to avoid discomforting the “powers that be”? We need more people in responsible positions like Ole Singstadt. In 1919, the Holland Tunnel was being planned to connect New York and New Jersey under the Hudson River. It was designed to provide enough airflow through the tunnel to reduce the maximum amount of CO that could be generated by auto exhausts to an acceptable level. The permissible level for CO was determined by having volunteers drive Model T Fords around a “racetrack” cut into the coal mine at the Bureau of Mines Experiment Station near Bruceton, Pennsylvania, until the volunteers were affected. This was the basis for the permissible level for eight-hour exposure. (In the 1950s, the permissible level was cut in half.) Tests showed that the airflow required would be about 50 mph.

Ole Singstadt, the design engineer, objected. He argued that if a fire occurred, the occupants would be incinerated. He argued for a triple tunnel arrangement, an air supply tunnel below the car tunnel, and an exhaust tunnel above so that toxic gases would be vented vertically, directly above the fire. The Port Authority management balked, citing the cost. Singstadt, a tough world class engineer, pointed out that he was the only person in the world who could build the tunnel and it would be his way or no way. It was built his way.

In 1951, a truckload of carbon disulfide burned in the tunnel. Fire showed out the New Jersey side vent tower, and it was necessary to use hose streams to cool the fans. Everyone in the tunnel escaped. One fire officer died of a heart attack. Ole Singstadt stood his ground against his bosses. His foresight prevented an unprecedented loss of life in the Holland Tunnel and many other tunnels.

Construction failure. When I was first concentrating on building construction in 1966, I came across two books, Building Failures by Thomas McCaig and Construction Failure by Jacob Feld. Both men are what are now called “forensic engineers.” They get involved as experts after collapses. These books impressed on me one vital concept. I noted that in many cases of building collapse, the signs that failure would occur had been visible but were ignored. I determined that relying on the usual warnings of a possible collapse–water or smoke going through the walls, hearing strange noises, and so on–are as effective in preventing tragedy as those truck signs that say “If you can read this sign, you`re too close.” I wondered why we couldn`t go out and look at buildings and determine which are more likely to collapse based on observed elements of the gravity resistance system that make them vulnerable to fire. This then wholly new approach became the foundation of my writing.

Dr. Feld`s book Construction Failure has been updated, rewritten, and greatly expanded by Professor Kenneth Carper of Washington State University at Pullman, Washington. Every fire department, and particularly those that have taken over the Building Department, should have this book.1

Thought for the day. On a middle-of-the-night response to a closed commercial building, the first question should be, How long has this building been burning? These fires are likely to be delayed alarms. The fire building begins to deteriorate the moment the structure is attacked by fire, not when the alarm is given and certainly not when you arrive on the scene.

An unusual firefighter line-of-duty death. A San Antonio, Texas, pump operator was exposed to heavy smoke that hugged the ground due to weather conditions. He died the next day from myocardial infarction exacerbated by stress and smoke inhalation. Smoke contains poisonous gas. Would personnel be allowed to work downwind of a serious haz-mat incident?


1. Professor Ken Carper, Washington State U. Architecture, P.O. Box 64220, CARPENTER 509, Pullman, WA 99164-2220.

This three-story, post-tensioned concrete garage–in the Bailey`s Crossroads, Virginia, apartment complex–was completed. Part of the tower crane hit one corner, and the entire section totally collapsed (at right). Must we kill an entire alarm assignment to learn the hazards of “hard and dry concrete”? (Photos by author.)

(Left) In 1974, workmen removed the falsework from the top floor of the conventional reinforced concrete Skyline Towers apartments in Bailey`s Crossroads in Fairfax County, Virginia. The “hard and dry” floor collapsed, and the accumulated loads collapsed all floors and the stairway. Eighteen workmen died. Falsework and formwork can be more than half the cost of a concrete building, so the tendency is to remove it for reuse as soon as possible. If fire had removed the falsework, the result would have been the same, except that there may have been numerous firefighter fatalities. One survivor reported that he was jumping from landing to landing down the stairway and that others were passing him. (Right) City of New York (NY) Fire Department Rescue 3 members donning Draeger masks to cut off an ammonia leak at a brewery devastated by a fatal coal-dust explosion in 1938.

FRANCIS L. (FRANK) BRANNIGAN, recipient of Fire Engineering`s first Lifetime Achievement Award, has devoted more that half of his 56-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. He may be reached at (301) 855-1982.

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