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 be of an older type of construction-possibly balloon frame construction (notice the “Victorian” style of construction and the windows on the first and second floors are “inline.”
  • Notice the dormers on the sides of the roof appear to be original, and the dormer on the front of the roof is an “add on.” Also notice the dormer on the right side of the roof has an air conditioner in the window. Therefore, the attic has been converted into a multiple occupant living area. Additionally, look at the picture of the side of the building. There appears to be several “add-ons” at the rear of the original structure.
  • Style: This is an obvious residential occupancy, there is no basement, and there are three floors that are occupied.
  • Access-Egress. The add-ons at the rear of the structure are one-story structures, so access-egress is simplified. However, the three story structure has two doorways to service three floors and numerous occupants. Additionally, notice there are no external stairways, so egress is limited to the stairway(s) in the interior of the building!
  • Roof: Old style gable roof of conventional construction.
  • Utilities would be expected to be of a light configuration.
  • Miscellaneous: Did you notice the multiple mailboxes in the front of the building? In case you are wondering, there are twelve separate occupancies in this building complex, yet it is not that large a building.


Notice the following items of interest:

  • Name: Nu-Way cleaners. What would you expect to find inside this building? Heavy fire load of clothing and a noteworthy amount of cleaning fluids. A good portion of the clothing would be expected to be synthetic materials!
  • Roof: Older type of heavy construction. Method of construction -most likely bowstring.
  • Access – Egress: Three windows in front, one door on the side, and several large doors in the rear of the building.
  • Construction: The walls are solid concrete (notice the inset windows on the side of the building), and the scuppers on the side indicate where the roof line is in relation to the parapet wall (about 3′ down). There also appears to be a small fascia on the front of the building, and it appears to be over the normal entry point to the interior of the building.
  • Utilities: The electrical meter on the side appears to indicate a light service. The gas utility would expected to be of moderate or heavy service.
  • Miscellaneous: Notice there is turbine ventilators on the roof; they would indicate possible extension of fire into the attic area. The door at the rear of the structure is different from most doors. Likely, this door is an explosion proof door, as the boilers for the cleaning operation are likely behind this doorway! The building has good access from three sides of the building. The building does not have a basement (that’s very good).

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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