Reading A Building – Practicing The Theory

By John W. Mittendorf

During 2005, we spent numerous articles describing a seven-point size-up to increase firefighters’ abilities to size-up buildings before they commit themselves to a structure for firefighting operations, which are normally conducted inside a structure that is being weakened every minute a fire is burning. Although firefighters are injured and killed every year as a result of interior firefighting operations, firefighters are also injured and killed every year as a result of exterior firefighting operations. Therefore, it is imperative that every person on the fireground continually look at a building that is exposed to fire (remember: buildings exposed to fire are really buildings going through a process of demolition) to determine the strengths and weaknesses of a building and if the building will give you the necessary time to do whatever you are planning to do in a safe manner.

With these thoughts in mind, let’s use the preceding “Reading A Building” series to analyze different types of buildings in a new series. Before we start, make sure you have the preceding series handy so you can refer to a more comprehensive explanation of the various factors we will discuss for each building. The Reading A Building archive can be found HERE. We will use the seven point size-up that was described in the previous series:

  • Construction
  • Roofs
  • Style of Building
  • Method of Construction
  • Age of the Building
  • Access/Egress
  • Name on the Building and Utilities

In our last article, we focused on an important fireground consideration that can either make or break your day: the ability or inability of the occupants to get out of a structure during an emergency.

Although means of egress has always been an important fireground consideration, it is more important today than ever in the history of the fire service. If any audience of firefighters anywhere in the country is asked if it has seen a backdraft, the normal answer is no. However, when the same audience is asked if it has seen a flashover, the normal response is yes. If this fact is true (and it is), any firefighter entering a structure that is under demolition from fire should always be able to exit the structure in a timely manner. Remember, forcible entry is a two-sided coin. The first part is forcible entry, and the second part is forcible exit. You make the call regarding which part is the most important to you.

With these thoughts in mind, let’s look at two buildings that should raise a red flag in your mental computer regarding your ability to ensure a timely exit.

Building 1

This building is a common warehouse-type building that can be block or tilt-up type construction. How many entry and exit points do these types of buildings offer? Answer – few! This particular building has a man door in the front of the building that offers access to the office, and, as pictured, one loading dock door at the rear/side. That’s it. Also notice there are no windows, which is common to these buildings. So, which door would you choose to make entry? All things being equal, choose the larger loading dock door compared to the man door for the following reasons:

  • This door is the largest the building offers (easy egress for multiple personnel, better ventilation, easy to see from the inside, etc).
  • There is no mezzanine over the door.
  • You will not have broken glass on the ground (as you would from breaking into the glass man door).

Remember that you would also open the man door for a secondary egress opening.

Building 2

This is a simple single-family dwelling. What is the apparent problem with making a timely exit? Obviously there are security bars over the windows and doors. S, any openings into and out of the building must be created by you before entry. This raises an excellent question: if there was a fire in the interior of this house, how many exits points would you create before entering? The answer is at least two unless you want to be similar to a “fish in a fishbowl” (one way in and one way out).

As a parting thought for this article, what is the minimum number of ladders you are supposed to raise when operating above ground? The answer is the same as the number of exit openings you should have available when operating inside of a structure – two.

John W. Mittendorf joined the Los Angeles City (CA) Fire Department (LAFD) in 1963, rising to the rank of captain II, task force commander. In 1981, he was promoted to battalion chief and in the year following became the commander of the In-Service Training Section. In 1993, he retired from LAFD after 30 years of service. Mittendorf has been a member of the National Fire Protection Research Foundation on Engineered Lightweight Construction Technical Advisory Committee. He has provided training programs for the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Maryland; the University of California at Los Angeles; and the British Fire Academy at Morton-in-Marsh, England. He is a member of the editorial advisory board of Fire Engineering and author of the books Truck Company Operations (Fire Engineering, 1998) and Facing the Promotional Interview (Fire Engineering, 2003).

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