HAZARD CLUES: OLD BUT VALID

BY FRANCIS L. BRANNIGAN, SFPE (FELLOW)

In browsing the Fire Engineering archives, I came across the following letter from John E. Sleights, SFPE, in Franklin, Massachusetts:

A serious, easily overlooked condition

    The bottom right photo and caption in “Preplanning Building Hazards” (Francis L. Brannigan, April 1996) caught my eye, and I wish to relate a story from my fire service experience regarding a similar condition. Until recently, I was an active volunteer firefighter, EMT, and fire service instructor. Near the beginning of my 20-plus years in the fire service, we responded to a midafternoon call for a structure fire. We were the second-due company and had the longest run to make, at least five miles. When we were about halfway there, the first engine arrived from the other company and reported a working fire.

    On arrival, we found the fire to be in a large 2-story, wood-frame house that dated from the turn of the century. The neighborhood was originally developed around that era as a resort area, and this place was set back from the street with the back side facing a river. There were flames out two street-side windows on the second floor, and a crew from the first engine was trying to get up the front stairs with an attack line.

    My partner and I took another line to the second floor via a ladder that had been raised to a corner porch. That put us in a bedroom next to the room of origin. We knocked down what fire we could find in a closet but could hear it burning overhead. Part of the ceiling was pulled down but no fire was located, only a solid deck (probably the attic floor). After reporting this outside to the officer, we began to search for the attic access. Shortly afer this, the order was given to evacuate the building. The line was backed out, and we followed with our tools, etc. I don’t know for sure how long we had been in there, but I do remember that neither of us had exhausted two original cylinders on our 30-minute air packs.

    A few minutes after we exited the building, the second floor and roof collapsed onto the first floor toward the center rear of the house (in a big “V”). After the fire, we learned that since the house had been built as a summer “cottage,” it was designed for entertainment and parties. Over half of the first floor (toward the rear) was one wide-open space without support columns or load-bearing walls to interfere. The support for the second floor was via long stretch bolts or rods (as in the photo), passing up through the second-floor walls, to trusses in the attic. The fire made its way into the attic early on, attacked the trusses, and you know the rest. The first crew in reported that a lot of plaster and ceiling were falling on them while they tried to get up the front stairs. Buried somewhere I have photos taken after the fire in which the rods are visibly sticking up through the burned-away roof.

    Oddly enough, I had been in that house at least twice for ambulance calls but had never seen the rear side of the first floor. The officer who pulled everyone out did so on gut reaction based on the apparent buildup of fire in the attic and our reports. Good decision in my book!

As an exercise is using the wonderful resource, the Fire Engineering archives, do the following to see the photo referred to in the letter:

Go to FireEngineering.com/.

Scroll down the left of the page to Article archive.

Click on it.

Select Fire Engineering, April 1996.

When it comes up, scan down to “Preplanning Building Fires.”

Open it.

Note that in the beginning of archiving, all the text of “Preplanning Building Fires” was printed in a block and the photos were set below. Shortly after this issue, the page was reproduced as seen in the magazine.

Scroll down the text through the photos to the last one. Note the escutcheon plate with the protruding threaded end of a rod secured by a nut.

Scroll back up to the text beginning, “In general all illustrations should be …”; read the discussion of the picture. Try to develop the “Brannigan Eye,” a term for my practice of looking at everything from the point of view of firefighter safety.

KNOW WHAT TO LOOK FOR

In my early days, I was a speaker at the annual meeting of a state association of fire chiefs. I was taking a picture of a very serious hazard in the headquarters hotel. There happened to be a picture of a nude on the wall, and a group of chiefs had a big hoot at “Frank taking nude pictures.” I asked them if they could tell what I was really photographing. Not one answered. The fire door had been removed from the doorway, connecting this large furniture-filled smoking lounge with the residential part of this big hotel. No one recognized that the opening would pour deadly smoke from a fire in the lounge into the hotel corridors.

Photo editors always look for nice clear pictures, but hazards are often hard to see. Develop the knack for seeing a clue and following it to the hazard. For instance, trace the load all the way to the ground and see where the gravity-resistance system is most vulnerable to fire.

Suspect a deadly old combustible tile ceiling above a nice looking code-compliant acoustical panel ceiling in an older building. Lift a tile and take a look. You may find the source of a deadly flashover in a fire when a firefighter pulls the ceiling and admits oxygen to the smoldering fire above.1

Before I was out of college, I had read every back issue of Fire Engineering in the New York Public Library. I accumulated a wonderful body of knowledge that served me well later when I had the awesome responsibility of incident command.

You now have almost 10 years of really good information at the touch of a key. USE IT. Browse the back issues. Copy the items that are useful, and you will have a great base for drills, training programs, and experiences you can absorb from people who have “been there and done that.”2

Divide the available issues among your officers. Have each officer read the full contents of the assigned issue and pull off the Web articles pertinent to your department’s needs. Copy the articles to CDs, and you will have a body of information that can be easily searched.

MUST READS

Be sure to read the following:

“Challenges in Preengineered Metal Roof Decks of Polyiso Foam,” John Novak, Fire Engineering, October 2004, 65.

“HI-impact Wallboard Poses Safety Hazards,” Sean Murphy, Fire Engineering, December 2004, 63.

I have been passing along information from Assistant Chief Ed Murphy for some time. Now, you have a primary source, his son, who first identified the hazard of this type of wallboard.

Get out to building suppliers and learn if this material is used in your area and where it is. In place, it looks like conventional wallboard. You just might save a firefighter’s life.

Endnotes

1. References include Building Construction for the Fire Service, Third Edition, page 390, and Ol’ Professor columns in Fire Engineering; June 1996, January 1998, and particularly January 1999.

2. For a list of the Fire Engineering issues in which this column and its companion, “Preplanning the Fire Building” appeared, contact me at Fbrannigan@comcast.net/.

FRANCIS L. BRANNIGAN, SFPE Fire Engineering’s first Lifetime Achievement Award, has devoted more than half of his 63-year career to the safety of firefighters in building fires. He is well known as the author of Building Construction for the Fire Service, Third Edition (National Fire Protection Association, 1992), and for his lectures and videotapes. Brannigan is an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering.

Author

  • Francis L. Brannigan , SFPE (Fellow) , was a expert on building construction who devoted more than half of his 63-year career to the safety of firefighters in building fires. He was well known as the author of  Building Construction for the Fire Service, Third Edition  (National Fire Protection Association, 1992), and for his lectures and videotapes. Brannigan was an editorial advisory board member of  Fire Engineering . He was well known as the author of  Building Construction for the Fire Service, Third Edition  (National Fire Protection Association, 1992), and for his lectures and videotapes. Brannigan was an editorial advisory board member of  Fire Engineering and taught at the Fire Department Instructors Conference . He passed away in 2006 .

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