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

Each article in this series will run a few pictures of different types of buildings from the front and/or side, just as you would observe the building as you place your apparatus in front of a building. Look at the pictures, then briefly describe what you see that you feel would be an important fireground consideration; either from a negative or positive viewpoint. Sound easy? Let’s get started!


Notice the following items of interest:

  • Construction: This building appears to have been constructed between the 1940’s and 1970’s. If this assumption is correct, then this building is likely constructed with conventional construction. Also notice the brick portion is not “unreinforced masonry construction” but is the newer style of masonry construction that utilizes cement and rebar.
  • Style: This is a common two-story office type building with multiple occupancies as follows:
    • Pharmacy & coffee shop.
    • Medical offices.
    Also notice the large structure on the roof. The vents at the rear indicate the probable location for the hydraulic elevator. Although this structure also is the top portion of the interior stairway to the roof, the structure is oversized for just an elevator and stairway.
  • Access/Egress: There is good access to the grade floor occupancies (multiple windows and probable front and rear doorways). An aerial device or ground ladder would also provide quick access to the structure on the roof. The building is also on the corner of two intersecting streets, so there is good access to at least three sides of the building. As a parking lot is not visible, it is probably located at the rear of the building. The absence or presence of cars is an initial indicator of the anticipated occupant load.
  • Roof: Flat roof of probable conventional construction. An attic of moderate size can be expected.
  • Utilities: Notice the pole-mounted transformers at the rear of the building. This indicates an electrical service that is “larger” than normal.
  • Miscellaneous: As we have previously discussed, the name on the front of the building is an indicator of the type and use of a building.


Notice the following items of interest:

  • Name: Kragen Auto Supply. Although this a national auto supply store, the name indicates that the fire load will consist of a wide variety of materials that will readily burn.
  • Type of Structure: Typical modern commercial retail store of moderate size and probably the end store of a mini mall. If this is true, you also will have a common attic for the mini mall.
  • Roof: Probable lightweight truss construction, flat roof configuration, and a common attic that will likely be above a suspended ceiling.
  • Access/Egress: There are numerous windows on at least two sides of this building. Remember that the glass may be the newer type that uses a 4-6 mil film for energy conservation, and will not readily break. If so, the glass will have to be cut and removed similar to the windshield in an automobile.
  • Construction: Lightweight construction throughout the structure.
  • Utilities: Probably moderate.
  • Miscellaneous: Did you notice the mansard on the front and side of the building? Remember this is a collapsible style of construction that is over the easy (definition: front) access route to the interior of the building. So, if you suspect there is a fire in the building that has extended to the fascia, consider another way to access the interior (definition: rear of the building). Additionally, the scupper on the mansard indicates the location of the roof line behind the mansard. So, how many ladders would it take to provide safe access and egress to the roof and back to the ground? Answer: 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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