Ronald Spadafora: Firefighting in the Modern World: Sustainable Green Design and Construction

By Ronald Spadafora

            Building construction and use have a tremendous negative effect on human health and our environment. Large amounts of energy and materials are required and used during construction, renovation, and operation. The production of these resources also has detrimental impacts.  Buildings also account for a substantial part of the greenhouse gas emissions that affect climate change. In the United States, buildings account for approximately 40 percent of all carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Pollutants from energy consumption in buildings also includes the following: sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and mercury. Buildings consume more than 70 percent of all the electricity produced by our country.  In 2003, the Environmental Protection Agency estimated that 170 million tons of building-related construction and demolition debris were generated in the United States. That amount has been growing. It is for these reasons that construction companies focus more on minimizing waste production, maximizing the use of recycling, and creating sustainable buildings.

            Green building construction practices are allowing large metropolitan areas to provide a healthy indoor and outdoor environment for their populations. Advanced technologies are creating high-performance buildings that use energy efficiently and effectively. These structures are also referred to as sustainable design buildings. They are built in an ecological manner.  Some objectives of green building construction include enhanced air quality in the built environment, improved worker productivity; more economical use of energy, water, and materials, and decreased environmental impacts associated with the building construction industry. All firefighters should have a basic understanding of this new building design concept.  It is becoming more and more prevalent throughout the country and should be included in preincident planning.

The concept of sustainable design can be traced to the energy (especially fossil oil) crisis and the environment pollution concern in the 1970s. The green building movement in the United States originated from the need and desire for more energy-efficient and environmentally friendly construction practices. Motives for building green include environmental, economic, and social benefits. However, modern sustainability initiatives call for an integrated and synergistic design of new construction and in retrofitting existing structures.

Green Building Council

The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), a nonprofit organization of the nation’s foremost leaders from the building industry, was established in 1993. Its mission statement states that its goal is to transform the way buildings and communities are designed, built, and operated–to make them environmentally and socially responsible, healthy, and contributors to the quality of life. The USGBC created the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system in 1999. LEED is a voluntary, consensus-based national rating system for constructing high-performance, sustainable buildings and addresses new construction, core and shell, operations and maintenance.  It can be used to enhance governmental, commercial, and residential occupancies as well as neighborhoods, college campuses, schools, healthcare centers, laboratories, libraries, public assemblies, lodges, and so on.

            The following (non-inclusive) LEED categories impact firefighting operations:

• Sustainable sites: site selection, building orientation, brownfield redevelopment, erosion and sediment control plan, storm water management, permeable roads, green and blue roofs, reducing heat island effect, and alternative transportation.

• Water efficiency: water use reduction, rainwater harvesting techniques, gray-water and black-water reuse technologies, and nonpotable water for fire extinguishment.

• Energy and atmosphere: passive solar design; energy-efficient windows; on-site renewable (wind, solar) energy; refrigeration management; microturbine technology; alternate (compressed natural gas, liquefied natural gas, biodiesel, liquefied petroleum gas) fuels; energy storage systems; exterior insulation foam systems.  

• Materials and resources: waste reduction; engineered lumber (glued laminated timber, cross-laminated timber); lightweight building materials; core and shell restoration; certified (sustainable harvested) wood; tall timber buildings; recycled materials.

• Indoor environmental quality: reducing indoor pollutants; Sick Building Syndrome; cooling towers; low-emitting volatile organic compounds; CO2 monitoring systems; daylighting techniques.

The sustainable design features will have a dramatic impact on how chief officers manage and firefighters operate at fires and emergencies. All fire service members should have a basic understanding of these new concepts that are becoming more and more prevalent throughout the country and internationally.  


Ronald Spadafora is an assistant chief with the Fire Department of New York, where he has served for 37 years. He is also the chief of fire prevention. He has written numerous articles for WNYF and serves on its advisory board. He has also written for Fire Engineering, Size-Up, and the American Journal of Industrial Medicine. He has taught fire science at John Jay College for 25 years as an adjunct professor and is the senior instructor for Fire Technology Incorporated. He teaches emergency management at the graduate and undergraduate levels for the Metropolitan College of New York.




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