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!


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


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.



WMD supplement superb!

Kudos! Kudos! The “Weapons of Mass Destruction: Determining Your Readiness” supplement, Fire Engineering, November 2004, is superb! The entire segment was informative, interesting, well assembled, thoughtful, thought provoking, and germane to today’s environment. I feel all of the emergency services personnel in the United States should be strongly encouraged to read and understand the contents of this edition. Thanks to Fire Engineering for continuing to inform and educate emergency responders.
Don Kirkham
Firefighter/Medic (Ret.)
Delaware City (OH) Fire Department

Specialty training a necessity today

Wayne Sutherland’s Letter to the Editor “Firefighting, the New Specialty Team” (December 2004) prompts me to ask him to rethink his career as a firefighter. It appears that his attitude concerning specialty training, and even basic firefighting training, is bad. And bad attitudes kill.

I agree that firefighting is not what it used to be. However, we must remember that without “specialty training” such as EMS, weapons of mass destruction, and hazardous materials, we are taking away “tools from the toolbox” that just may save our lives sooner or later. We have to deal with a vast number and many types of emergencies, some of which we have never encountered before.

Building and home construction are being done faster and with cheaper materials; collapses are quicker. Literally tens of thousands of hazardous materials are being used, produced, and transported each day-and more are to come. And don’t forget about the bloodborne pathogens being transported.

Two skyscrapers were demolished, and 343 of our colleagues lost their lives because someone else was smarter in building construction than we were; boy, they got it right the second time around! We are entering house fires and battling car fires only to find burning enough chemicals, used in the production of methamphetamines, to blow up one or two city blocks. Worse yet is that these “street chemists” don’t work with tried-and-true chemical formulas. For them, it’s a little of this and a little of that, and if I don’t have that, I will try this. Then, we have to deal with all of the “specialty” hazards indigenous to these incidents.

If your department does not train or has forgotten the “basics,” shame on it, your chief, and you. Our fire department and those around us still train, as do the academies I have attended. The fire service is built on tradition. Built into that tradition are the knowledge and experience of the firefighters, company officers, and chief officers who had the foresight and open-mindedness to teach and hand down as much of this information as possible, including in the specialty areas, to keep the great tradition alive in the present fire service and for the future firefighters (the “rookies”) for a long time to come.

Keeping an open mind involves accepting information, both new and old, and will enhance the firefighting experience. Gone are the days of not knowing what killed us. We truly know now what that is-mostly a lack of training and bad attitudes toward training. We have to be prepared!

Think about this: How many times does a resident or a concerned citizen call 911 for a nuclear chemist, a physical scientist, or a WMD expert? When the public calls 911, they expect us, the firefighters, to mitigate all fire, medical, hazardous-materials, special-rescue, and terrorism incidents. We are the first to respond.

Having said that, we have to take care of number one, our responders. The way to do this is with specialty training. If there is fear that the basics are being forgotten, incorporate them in as much of the training as possible, including in specialty areas.
Andrew Marsh
Mt. Oliver Fire Department
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Seeking to extend PSOB benefit eligibility date

I am a totally permanently disabled volunteer firefighter and am trying to get the Public Safety Officer’s Benefit law amended so that any “living” public safety officer classified as receiving a total permanent disability in the line of duty may qualify for this benefit, not just those injured after November 29, 1990.

In October 1972, six months after I became an active member of the Bushnell’s Basin (NY) Volunteer Fire Department, a car struck me while I was directing traffic at a fire scene. I was only 17 years old and a junior in high school. I suffered two broken legs, a fractured skull, a stroke, collapsed lungs, and numerous internal injuries. I was in a coma for three and a half weeks.

I was awarded $80 per week from the Volunteer Firefighters Workers’ Compensation Board of New York State and received no monetary settlement.

I tried in vain to live a normal life. After I got out of the hospital, it took me an extra three years just to finish high school. I tried to work; I had 27 jobs between 1975 and 1991.

Because of the complications from my injuries, I began collecting social security disability benefits in 1991. I later was diagnosed with traumatic brain injury (TBI); the technology to detect this was not available at the time of the accident. I am in constant pain (back, legs, and feet). Overstimulation is also a problem, and I have long- and short-term memory dysfunction.

On researching, I found that compensation benefits for permanently disabled volunteer firefighters are locked into the year in which the injury was received. Since I was injured in 1972, my benefit is $80 a week. However, if I were injured in 1992, I would be receiving $400 a week.

In 1993, I petitioned the workers’ compensation board to reopen my case. I appeared before a workers’ compensation law judge with information from my physicians about my newly diagnosed TBI, which was not documented in my original file. The judge said I was not entitled to any more money. He then said, “If you want to do anything about this, then change the workers’ compensation law.”

I later met with a local state assemblyman and a state senator. We drafted a bill that would authorize and direct the workers’ compensation board of New York State to redetermine my degree of disability benefits as if I had been injured on or after July 1, 1991, the last time benefits were raised. They told me there was little chance of the bill’s passing unless I had the backing of the state’s volunteer fire community.

I wrote letters to each member of the New York State Assembly and Senate as well as members of the legislative committees asking support for the bill. I spoke before numerous town and village board and county legislatures across the state, asking for memorializing resolutions supporting the bill.

The bill, S-1657 (a personal bill dealing specifically with my case), became a law under Chapter 481 of the laws of 1996. Later, I successfully lobbied for legislation to benefit the 28 to 33 permanently totally disabled emergency service workers in New York with similar situations. This law, S-7217-a, orders the state workers’ compensation board to redetermine the disability benefits of these individuals as if they were injured on or after July 1, 1992. This became a law under Chapter 574 of the laws of 1998.

On November 29, 1990, the U.S. Justice Department created the Public Safety Officer’s Disability Benefit, which entitles public safety officers with total permanent disability to receive a one-time monetary line-of-duty benefit.

Recently, I wrote my congressman asking if he would sponsor an amendment to the federal legislation that would grandfather me and the other “living” totally permanently disabled volunteer firefighters injured before the date the benefit was created.

He sent me the following reply: “A concern I’m hearing about expanding the program is that one would have to include all of our nation’s public safety officers injured 30-plus years ago to be fair-not just New York. This could result in a substantial number of newly eligible applicants and could significantly drain the scant resources that currently fund the program. Each new participant would be eligible for up to $5 million, which could add up quickly. The program gets about 275 claims a year. The worry is that the program would be spread too thin.”

I even asked a representative of the National Volunteer Fire Council for help and was told “off the record,” “We all have empathy for you and the rest of the disabled volunteer firefighters out there, but there are other more important issues for us to deal with. It is a dead issue!”

This summer I asked for and received memorializing resolutions from many towns, villages, and county boards of supervisors in Western New York in support of amending the Public Safety Officer’s Disability law to include any living totally permanently disabled public safety officers injured prior to November 29, 1990. I am getting grass-roots support to get the law amended.

Recently, the board of directors of the Fireman’ Association of the State of New York and the Association of New York State Fire Chiefs have agreed to support my proposal for an amendment. I am asking other public safety officer associations across the country to join in the campaign for a change in the federal law.
T. Michael Nicholson
Victor, New York

Lack of seat belt use a problem

Dr. Burton A. Clark’s “How to Get Firefighters to Wear Their Seat Belts” (October 2004) points to a very serious problem in the fire service today. As a firefighter with the Catlett (VA) Volunteer Fire Department, I have responded to more than 1,000 emergencies in the past couple of years. I will be the first to admit that when we are responding to calls, the last thing we want to think about is buckling up that seat belt, but we have to do it.

“Only 55 percent of firefighters wear their seat belts,” according to the article. Wow! Not good. Chief Al Woo [Washington (OH) Township Fire Department] states in the article that firefighters use the excuse of not being able to fit in a seat belt while wearing turnout gear. If this really is the case, then the departments these firefighters are part of need to not only enforce rules for wearing seat belts but also set and enforce rules for the physical fitness of their members. Not wearing seat belts is the number two cause of firefighter line-of-duty deaths. Heart attacks (due to lack of physical fitness) is number one.

You would think that we firefighters would always wear seat belts, with all of the times we stress safety to citizens, not to mention all of the accidents we see on a daily basis. This article should not have been needed, but it is. This is a huge problem. I thank Dr. Clark for giving this issue much needed attention. I just hope it can save a few of my brothers’ and sisters’ lives by getting them to buckle up.
Jeremy Moore
Catlett, Virginia