When we look at various buildings and occupancies, past operations (good and bad) give us experience that defines and determines how we assess, react and expect similar structures and occupancies to perform at a given alarm. The “art and science of firefighting” is predicated on a fundamental understanding of how fire affects a building and its occupants and the manner in which the fire service engages when called on to combat a structure fire.
We have certain expectations that fire will travel in a defined, predictable manner:
That the building will react and perform under assumptions of past performance and outcomes
That fire will hold within a room and compartment for a predictable duration
That the fire load and related fire flows required will be appropriate for an expected size and severity of fire encountered within a given building, occupancy or structural system
That we can safely and effectively mitigate a fire in any given building type and occupancy
That we will have the time to conduct the required tasks identified to be of importance based on identified or assumed indicators
That the building will conform to the rules of firefighting engagement
Times have changed
Today’s incident demands on the fireground are unlike those of even the recent past. This means incident commanders, commanding and company officers and firefighters alike must have increased technical knowledge of building construction with a heightened sensitivity of fire behavior and fire dynamics, a focus on operational structural stability of the compartment and building envelope and considerations related to occupancy risk versus the occupancy type. Understanding the building – its complexities in terms of anatomy, structural systems, materials, configuration, design, layout, systems, methods of construction, engineering and inherent features, limitations, challenges and risks – is fundamental for operational excellence on the fireground and firefighter safety.
There is an immediate need for emerging and operating command and company officers to increase their knowledge and insights of modern building occupancy, building construction and fire protection engineering and to modify traditional and conventional strategic operating profiles in order to safeguard companies, personnel and team compositions. Strategies and tactics must have the combined adequacy of sufficient staffing, fire flow and tactical patience orchestrated in a manner that identifies with the fire profiling, predictability of the occupancy and the building that accounts for presumptive fire behavior.
We used to discern with a measured degree of predictability how buildings would perform and fail under most fire conditions. Implementing fundamentals of firefighting operations built on decades of time-tested and experience-proven strategies and tactics continues to be the model of suppression operations. These same fundamental strategies continue to drive methodologies and curriculums in current training programs and academy instruction.
Executing tactical plans based on faulty or inaccurate strategic insights and indicators has proven to be a common apparent cause in numerous case studies, after-action accounts and firefighter line-of-duty-death reports. Our years of predictable fireground experience have ultimately embedded and clouded our ability to predict, assess, plan and implement Incident Action Plans (IAPs).
The demands of modern firefighting will continue to require the placement of personnel in situations and buildings that carry risk, uncertainty and inherent danger. As a result, risk management must become fluid and integrated with intelligent tactical deployments and operations.
“If you don’t fully understand how a building truly performs or reacts under fire conditions and the variables that can influence its stability and degradation, movement of fire and products of combustion and the resource requirements for smart aggressive fire suppression in terms of staffing, apparatus and required fire flows, then you will be functioning and operating in a reactionary manner that is no longer acceptable within many of our modern building types, occupancies and structures. This places higher risk to your personnel and lessens the likelihood for effective, efficient and safe operations. You’re just not doing your job effectively and you’re at risk. These risks can equate into insurmountable operational challenges and could lead to adverse incident outcomes. Someone could get hurt, someone could die; it’s that simple, it’s that obvious.”
Those are the words of Chief Anthony Aiellos (ret.) of the Hackensack, NJ, Fire Department on the 20th anniversary of the Hackensack Ford dealership fire that killed five firefighters in 1988. Without understanding building-occupancy relationships and integrating fire dynamics and fire behavior, risk, analysis, the art and science of firefighting, safety-conscious work environment concepts and effective and well-informed incident management, company-level supervision and task-level competencies, you are derelict and negligent and everyone may not be going home. Empirical insights and test data must be integrated in emerging fire suppression models and improved firefighting theory.
Our world has evolved. Technological and sociological demands create a continuing element of change in the built environment and our infrastructure. With these changes and demands come the need to assess these vulnerabilities, hazards and threats with effective and dynamic risk management and competent command and control.
These changes influence the way we do business in the street, the interface-up close and personal with the buildings in your community and equate to the risks and hazards you and your personnel will be confronted with and the level of safety afforded them during incident operations.
Fire suppression tactics must be adjusted for the rapidly changing methods and materials impacting all forms of building construction, occupancies and structures. The need to redefine the art and science of firefighting is nearly upon us. Some things do stand the test of time, others need to adjust, evolve and change. Not for the sake of change only, but for the emerging and evolving buildings, structures and occupancies being built, developed or renovated in our communities.
If the fire service can significantly increase proficiencies in building knowledge and equate that to other fundamental operational aspects in structural fire operations, then there would be a direct enhancement to firefighter safety, through injury and LODD reduction, operational efficiency and operational excellence. If we understand buildings, occupancies and construction, and balance this with our understanding of fire dynamics and orchestrate it with appropriate strategies, tactics and command management, then we made the new safety equation work; Building Knowledge = Firefighter Safety (Bk=F2S). It’s all about the Anatomy of Buildings on fire.
Understanding Buildings, Performance & Fire Operations
- There is an acute corollary of technical knowledge and inter reliance on occupancies, construction, strategy, tactics, risk, safety, physics, engineering and fire suppression theory…FACT!
- There are Fundamental Domains that can be applied
- There is a direct empirical correlation that provides quantitative & qualitative performance indicators and command gauges that can be utilized for risk assessment and strategic & tactical operational decision-making.
Think about the following;
- Read, comprehend and implement the new IAFC The Rules of Engagement for Firefighter Survival and The Incident Commanders Rules of Engagement for Firefighter Safety
- Take a tour of your response area, district or community. Take a good look around and begin to recognize the apparent or subtle changes that will affect and influence your future incident operations; Take note and think about what needs to be adjusted, modified or changed in your operations.
- Read up on the latest research and technical literature on wind driven fires, extreme fire behavior, structural ability of engineered lumber systems, fire loading and suppression theory, vent path studies and fire suppression theory.
- Take the time to personally read a series of the latest NIOSH Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program LODD reports and relate them to your organizations operations and jurisdictional risks.
- Start thinking in terms of Occupancy Risks versus Occupancy Type and align your operations and deployments to match those risks. It’s much more than just the Five Fundamental Building Types of the past.
- Increase your situational awareness of today’s fireground and refine your strategic and tactical modeling.
- Implement both Strategic and Tactical Patience; Slow down and allow the building to react and stabilize, for fire behavior to stop behaving badly and for your companies to increase survivability ratios while meeting the demands of conducting time sensitive tactical fire service operations
- Think about Adaptive Fireground Management and Command Resiliency
- Reprogram your assumptions and presumptions and options on building construction and firefighting operations; the buildings have changed, our firefighting has not; what are you going to about that gap?
- Understanding the building-occupancy relationships and the art and science of firefighting, equating to Building Knowledge = Firefighter Safety.
- Start knowing your buildings-intimately; it’s the key to effective firefighting
Understand the buildings and occupancies not only in your jurisdiction, first or second-due areas, but also in those areas that you may be called upon to respond to for greater alarms or mutual aid. Remember Building Knowledge = Firefighter Safety.
Understand and improve upon your skill set levels and those of your company, battalion, division, department or region.
- Keep apprised of different types of building materials and construction used in your community.
- The operative question is this: “What do you “really” know about the buildings in your district?”
- As you drive about your response district, coming back from an alarm, heading to the firehouse tonight or running errands around your community, take a good look around. Ask yourself a simple question; “How well do you know the buildings, structures and occupancies in your response jurisdiction?”
- Be honest, do you really understand how those “older residential” structures were built and understand how fire travels and impacts your fireground operations?
- Are your aware of the newest features of engineered structural support systems being constructed within that new set of homes going up in your second-due area?
- Are you aware, that vacant office building is being converted into a light manufacturing and assembly business?
- How about those unoccupied store fronts and businesses that have recently closed up due to the tough economic times…. any special hazards or operational concerns to your company should you get a dispatch to respond?
- Have the senior members of your station or department shared their stories of operations and incidents at various buildings around your district or community?
- Did you listen to them, or were you quick to dismiss those “old war stories”. There’s a wealth of “pre-planning’ nuggets hidden in those stories. Take the time to listen, remember or postulate
- Take a good look around….think about any given building, the one across the street that you’re looking at while you waited for the traffic light to change; Think about a fire in that same building.
- Do you really understand how it will truly perform under combat structural fire conditions?
- What’s the building’s collapse profile?
- How much operational time will you have? Will you need?
- What’s the fire load package size?
- What are your concerns for rapid fire extension, extreme fire behavior and vent path issues that may affect firefighter safety?
- What dynamic risk assessment factors will you have to deal with?
- How safe is it for you to engage in interior operations upon your arrival?
- How can this building, its occupancy and structural system hurt, my team, my company, my firefighters, my department, me?
Keep an eye in the rear view mirror; learning from the wisdom and knowledge from where you’ve been, what you’ve done and all your past experiences and practice; but at the same time focusing on the road before you with keen attentiveness on situational awareness, anticipating error-likely conditions and balanced risk assessment and operational management in both your strategic and tactical deployments.
Ensure you’re glancing occasionally in your rear view mirror to monitor where you’ve been, while driving your initiatives, programs, processes and actions forward. Above all, maintain the courage to be safe and know and understand your buildings, occupancies and your company’s capabilities.