SPEAK UP! TRADEOFFS ARE JEOPARDIZING YOUR SAFETY ON THE FIREGROUND

BY JACK J. MURPHY JR.

An International Code Tech- nology Committee hearing was held in Chicago in July to determine what constitutes “balanced” fire protection. We need to ascertain the appropriate formula for active (e.g. sprinklers) vs. passive (e.g. fire partitions, fire barriers, for example) components. Many code changes over the past code cycles have revised requirements, such as for height and area building provisions, that have resulted in greater distances of travel, less fire-rating for corridors, elimination of areas of rescue assistance for the disabled, and other fire sprinkler “trade-offs.”

Although the fire service for many years has been advocating sprinklers and will continue to champion their cause, a small word-BUT-needs to be added to the fire service vocabulary to ensure that the codes incorporate an effective balance of active and passive fire protection features. The automatic sprinkler/passive fire protection features should not be a “versus consideration”; they should instead be an effective balance that will ensure better smoke containment in areas far beyond the fire’s point of origin, enable occupants to egress in an environment that is reasonably free from toxic smoke, and enable firefighters to search more rapidly and effectively.

WHERE ARE THE FIRE SERVICE VOICES?

During the July hearing, in attendance were representatives from only two national fire organizations and one local chapter of the International Association of Fire Fighters. However, more than 36 individuals came from the industries representing fire sprinklers, passive fire protection, construction, and architects.

Since this is the fire service’s area of expertise, the national fire service voice must have a broader base to speak collectively about issues relative to construction and building systems that affect firefighter health and safety on the fireground.

Over the years, the fire service has experienced economically driven trends in construction materials and techniques that have diminished for firefighters a firm footing on roofs and floors afforded by solid-mass steel I-beams and solid wood beams. The newer “less-mass” construction components that feature unprotected lightweight trusses made of metal or wood, lightweight cold formed steel (C-joist), engineered wooden floor systems such as wood I-beams (saw dust and glue) supported off an aluminum hanger, and composition floor decking also put firefighters in danger. They force a significant change in attitude and approach to fireground strategy and tactics in these buildings.

Sprinkler trade-offs have included corridors and tenant separation walls with no fire rating, no smoke-control provisions for high-rise buildings, and “unlimited floor area” in certain types of multistory buildings where no fire rating is required on the floor. We must be aware that when these buildings are constructed of less mass, there must be more balance in fire protection features in the structure.

One of the 16 National Fallen Firefighters Foundation Initiatives calls for more fire service activism in the areas of code development, fire prevention, and code enforcement. A recent National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) report, “Preventing Injuries and Deaths of Firefighters Due to Truss System Failures,” cites 15 separate incidents in which at least 20 fatalities and 12 injuries occurred from 1998 to 2003 in firefighting operations in buildings containing truss systems. One of the report’s recommendations calls for more fire service involvement in the building code development and enforcement process.

If the fire service is to get a foothold with regard to these important fireground health and safety issues that occur during the life span of a building, its voice must be heard in the building and fire code development process. It must be part of the International Building and Fire Codes (http://www.iccsafe.org/) and National Fire Protection Association (www.nfpa.org) code processes. I encourage all to become active code members and to advocate a cultural change within the fire service to better serve our firefighters.

JACK J. MURPHY Jr., managing director of JJM & Associates, LLC, is a fire marshal (ret.) and former deputy chief of the Leonia (NJ) Fire Department. He is an editorial advisory member of the FDIC and Fire Engineering. He is vice-chairman of the New York City High-Rise Fire Safety Directors Association and was the charter president of the Bergen County (NJ) Fire Chiefs Association. Murphy has a master’s degree in education and several undergraduate degrees and is the author of RICS/Rapid Incident Command System (Fire Engineering, 1998).

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