Predictability and Performance Of Buildings and Today’s Fireground

Understanding the distinctiveness of your first-due, mutual aid or greater-alarm response area requires constant vigilance and continuous observations. Building knowledge equals firefighter safety. Photo By CJ Naum


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.

We must maintain a balance with learning about old and new building construction. A renewed focus on Type III, Ordinary /Protected construction and Type IV Heavy Timber must be incorporated within initial, in-service and periodic training and drills. Recent firefighter LODD events in these building types reinforces this need and gap. Photo By CJ Naum

Increasing company and command officer competencies in Building Anatomy, structural systems and how buildings are built and affected by fire behavior is fundamental to effective fireground operations. Interdependent structural components are evident for wall, floor and support assemblies in this Type IV occupancy. Do you know the inherent collapse potential of these buildings? Photo by CJ Naum

We have assumed that the routiness or successes of past operations and incident responses equates with predictability and diminished risk to our firefighting personnel. Photo By CJ Naum


Our current generation of buildings, construction and occupancies are not as predictable as past conventional construction, therefore risk assessment, strategies and tactics must change to address these new rules of combat structural fire engagement. Photo by CJ Naum

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.

 Managing Risk

“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.

It’s Occupancy Risk versus Occupancy Type; Changes in building size and floor area, compartment volume and interconnectivity, fire load packages, methods and materials in construction and structural support systems create specific risk profiles and demands in what used to be common Occupancy types. A report of a fire in a residential occupancy will have different risks and operational requirements if the house is a 1500 SF Bungalow, a 2500 SF old Decker/Flat or a 4000 SF Engineered system house. Photo By CJ Naum



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.


The Probability of Adverse Consequences (PAC) must be recognized in all buildings with continuous and focused risk assessment during all phases and task assignments. This single building and occupancy exemplifies an Integrated Hybrid Building (IHB) type that incorporates Type III Ordinary construction with an engineered wood I-beam roof assembly on the lower street level and Type II non-combustible construction on the upper floors. This would require different IAP’s and tactical deployment in the event of a fire. Photo by CJ Naum

Get out on to your streets and into the field and look at how the buildings are being constructed in your jurisdiction. Understanding how they are built and what the inherent dangers are, coupled with accurate pre-fire planning data will provide mission critical information when engaged in combat fire suppression operations. The anatomy of the building is fundamental to corresponding firefighting operations. Photo by CJ Naum


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?


Never assume the same rules of structural fire engagement can be applied to all buildings without constant risk assessment, recon and situational awareness. Strategies and tactics must remain fluid. This single story commercial occupancy looked like a basic renovated Type III building from the street. An exposed (minimal design) interior accompanied by a non-conventional bow string truss support system and a raftered roof deck are ingredients for catastrophe for the unsuspecting Engine or Truck Companies. Photo by CJ Naum



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.








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