By Francis L. Brannigan, SFPE (Fellow)
My June “The Ol’ Professor” column on the important subject of combustible metal deck roofs (CMDR) contained for the first time a method of preplanning for a CMDR-namely, to survey buildings with steel bar joists and a steel roof to determine if there is a so-called “built-up” roof. The last endnote asked you to let me know if you have done anything about this and, if not, why. So far, I have heard nothing.
Must we have a page full of fatalities? This is what it took to get the fire service to appreciate the hazard of lightweight wood trusses, which I had laid out in 1971 in the first edition of Building Construction for the Fire Service.
If the occupants do not know, ask if a tar pot was used in the construction.
If you do not know the roofing type but have a metal roof structure, assume a CMDR is present, because this type of roof is far more common than membrane roofs. If you cannot find your copy of the June issue, look it up at www.FireEngineering.com. Go to “The Ol’ Professor” column of March 2001, and view the photo of the roof that collapsed 60 seconds after evacuation. Picture YOUR personnel trapped under such a roof-no RIT team or FAST unit can help them.
My Navy Norfolk firefighters called me “The best Irish Catholic Baptist preacher in the city.” Have I lost that skill? Do let me know that you are looking at roofs. While doing so, ask if skylights have been removed. The patch that replaced it most certainly will be weaker than the rest of the roof. Battalion Chief Jerry Tracy, Fire Department of New York, brought this deadly hazard to our attention some years ago. E-mail me at Fbrannigan@comcast.net and tell me what you are doing about this hazard.
Many people tell me they “enjoy” my columns. They are about as enjoyable as a column telling you to quit smoking or you will die a horrible death from lung cancer. The building wants to kill you. KNOW YOUR BUILDINGS.
In “Preplanning Building Hazards” (July issue), I presented a photo of a burning arched hall and asked for information. A number of readers responded. The building in the photo was a youth center in Salisbury, Maryland. The fire started when the floor was being stripped with a flammable solvent. Additional fuel was available, and the fire involved the entire building except for a sprinklered addition, which is now still in use.
A chief lesson is that the arch sections were connected with steel straps, such as those shown in the Daytona Beach Jai-Lai Fronton photo on the top of column 3 in the July 2005 “Preplanning Building Hazards.”
The wood industry makes much of laminated timbers: “The char insulates the wood” and so on. The important point in all such structures is the connections and how the load gets to ground. In almost all the cases I have seen, laminated timbers are supported on unprotected steel columns, and bare metal connections are commonly used.
I must add that the “good old slow-burning heavy timber structure” often has metal connectors, steel substituted for failing wood columns, and trusses installed to permit column removal. So, do not place faith in the description given in the “Types of Construction” section of textbooks.
Let’s look at the cause of the fire. At Navy Norfolk, we were used to standbys-for ammunition, fuel, and planes in service condition being loaded on ships, so no one thought it strange when I ordered a standby for a building where the floor was to be stripped. This building was an important community resource. If you have such a building that is about to have a very hazardous procedure performed, would you even think of providing a standby unit, providing an immediate attack, and giving immediate notification? The history of many fires when the building is being worked on is, “Workmen attempted to extinguish the fire for x number of minutes and finally called the fire department.” Have you ever heard of such a thing? For example, don’t you provide an EMS standby at large gatherings?
In my Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) days, we had some material stored in an old heavy timber mill that had been converted to space rented out to small businesses. It was a substantial employer. The sprinkler system was out of service because a part could not be found for the old pump. I suggested to the fire chief that he hook up his spare pumper at the plant to supply the sprinklers. His response was, “No way. We need that rig for woods fires, to save our first-line units from damage.”
I pointed out that if the mill burned, they would just go find another mill and set it up for tenants. The jobs and tax revenue would be gone. He did not buy that but agreed to do as I suggested because the “Government” had about $100,000 worth of ordinary stuff in the building. The loss to the AEC in a fire would be a drop in a bucket. We say we are in business to save life and property, but property underpinning the economic health or community life is PROPERTY.
Thus ended the sermon!
LETTERS THAT MAY BE OF USE SOME DAY
I write many letters. The following might be of use to you some day.
Where There Is Smoke, There Is Fire
A school that cares for developmentally disabled children suffered a minor fire and reported it in its bulletin. I wrote the director as follows:
As a 63-year veteran of all phases of the fire protection field, I must commend your staff for their actions in the recent fire. However, I would add one caution. I noted that the room was locked. If it had been unlocked, the natural thing to do would have been to open the door. Staff must be trained never to open a door in such circumstances but to summon the fire department and evacuate the area. The reasoning is that the room may be filled with toxic, explosive carbon monoxide gas from a smoldering fire just waiting for oxygen to ignite it in a fireball. If the room is an occupied bedroom, staff members, misinformed by scenes of heroic actions in fires on TV or in movies, may think they can put a wet towel over their nose and go in and rescue the person. The movie fires are fakes provided by controlled gas fires on metal scenery. A room full of smoke is a deadly environment. Some people have survived such attempts; others have died.
The firefighter is provided with more than $2,000 worth of personal protective equipment to enter such a hazardous area and, under Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) rules, cannot enter until other firefighters are available to assist an incapacitated firefighter.
The person concerned must make a personal decision in the circumstances after all others are evacuated and the fire department has been summoned. It is not shameful to avoid risking a disaster to your family, for instance. I suggest you discuss this letter with your local fire chief.
Libraries and Sprinklers
The negative attitude of librarians in general toward automatic sprinklers was noted on pages 575 and 610 of Building Construction for the Fire Service, Third Edition. I received a clipping from the Toledo Blade about a fire in the library, in which it seemed that the focus of the library staff was on water damage. The fact that a terrorist-like attack on their library was foiled and only mild damage occurred did not seem to be appreciated. I sent the following letter.
To: Toledo Library
Re: The fire as reported in the Toledo Blade on October 24, 2003
You got off lucky. A felony criminal attempt was made to destroy your library, and the automatic sprinkler system reacted. From the quotes in the paper, it seems you might think that the fire was minor, but sprinkler heads do not go off on trifling fires. In my 61-year fire protection career, I have conducted many demonstrations of how much fire it takes to set off a sprinkler. It is quite impressive. Your vandal(s) might have stopped up a sink or a toilet and turned on the water, and the loss might well have been much greater.
From the fire’s point of view, a major library is simply a warehouse with a huge fuel load of solidified carbon monoxide and other flammable and deadly gases that can be released with a match. Many libraries are built to spread fire due to ventilation requirements for stacks.
To the fire, sprinklers are a deadly enemy. To many librarians, the thought of water on their books is anathema; it would damage the books, wash off the labels, and, besides, some believe that “Tightly packed books won’t burn readily.” Check this concept with the Los Angeles Central Library, which suffered a massive fire in which 229,000 books were lost along with many periodical files and the largest collection of patents in the West. Despite strong efforts to limit the amount of water, 1,250,000 gallons were required to put out the fire.
Wet books can be restored. Burned books are ruined. The LA Library fire was started at the top of the stacks by an arsonist. If the building were outfitted with a sprinkler system, at most three sprinklers would have operated flowing 15 gallons per minute. Each would have controlled the fire. The water flow alarm in the sprinkler system would have signaled the fire. No other water system is so equipped. Without a sprinkler system, the heat from an uncontrolled fire will collapse stacks and add to the damage.
At the Yeshiva University Library Fire in New York City, forty fire companies worked in 15-minute relays to staff two 250-gpm hoselines-the heat was so great. The Library of Congress’ massive priceless collections are now protected by automatic sprinklers. This is not to say there will be no loss if there is a large fire. A serious property loss may have occurred by fire before a sprinkler operated, and deep-seated fires, such as would occur in books, can be controlled but not extinguished until firefighters tear apart the burning material.
You might argue that this Toledo incident was just a small fire. I am not familiar with your building, but a plastic towel holder on a wood stud wall could transmit fire to the wood studs by conduction through screws and get the fire traveling in the void spaces
In a unique exception to the general rule, the main Salt Lake City Library was sprinklered when it was built about 1964. About 20 years ago, the then assistant director was asked by an architect what she liked most about the library. To his astonishment, she said, ‘The automatic sprinkler system.’ She explained that arsonists have targeted library-book drop boxes and that most library fires are incendiary. Many disturbed people come to libraries; they cannot be excluded, she added. ‘However, if one starts a fire, the sprinklers will put it out, and service will continue.’ 1
BOX CARS IN BUILDING
Many warehouses have “car well” trenches that contain railroad tracks so the box-car floor is level with the warehouse floor. A fire in the rail car would trip sprinklers over a wide area, destroying contents without affecting the fire. I sent a picture of such a situation, shown on page 609 of BCFS3, to the president of that company. I have been informed that the car well was eliminated. ■
1. Eileen Brannigan Longsworth, my daughter, made these comments. She is now director of libraries for Albuquerque and Bernalillo County, New Mexico; past president of the New Mexico Library Association and the Utah Library Association; and a member of the board of directors of AMIGOS, a library service organization. Also, see “Library Stacks,” BCFS3, 610.