Structural Anatomy

Structural Anatomy: Building Construction, Command Risk Management and FireFighter Safety

Christopher J. Naum, SFPE Chief of Training, Command Institute Washington, DC

Second Vice-President, International Society of Fire Service Instructors

Building Construction, Command Risk Management and FireFighter Safety; three (3) functional domains common to the fire service, each having a profound influence and interdependent relationship to fire operations, safety and incident management. When we talk about structural fires, combat fire suppression and interior operations, the discussions tend to revolve around the issues affecting strategy and tactics, engine, truck and rescue company operations, tactical assignments, task level protocols, methods and operating procedures.

 The dynamics of firefighting and the interaction within a structure during combat structural fire engagement has a correlating dependency between command and company officers; between dynamic risk assessment and management, situational awareness, building construction and firefighter survival. The relationships of Building Construction, Command Risk Management and FireFighter Safety are interdependent and formulative to all facets of structural fire operations. These three domains and the functional areas that make up these domains, must be mastered in order for any significant changes to the continuing adverse trends in firefighter line of duty death and injury rate can be substantially made within the fireground operations setting.

Core Fundamentals

By addressing Building Construction, Command Risk Management and FireFighter Safety collectively numerous benefits can be attained related to increased fire ground effectiveness. Recognizing the core fundamental relations suggests increased operational effectiveness through improved incident action planning, enhanced strategic and tactical assignments and task level deployment through the greater understanding and awareness of building performance, deficiency inhibitors and extension avenues may be achieved.

Integrating these domains under the area of study related to Building Construction; the studies of the Anatomy of Building Construction, Command Risk Management, Fire Dynamics and Fire Behavior, Firefighting Principles and Practices, Firefighter Safety, Situational Awareness Practices and Dynamic Risk Assessment can be fully incorporated to afford the greatest benefit from cross-disciplined inherent operational factors, best practices, lessons-learned, influential, dominant and prominent relationships and support improved decision-making, incident projection and incident mitigation.It’s all about understanding buildings and integrating; construction, occupancies, fire dynamics and fire behavior, risk, analysis, the art and science of firefighting, safety conscious work environments and effective and well-informed incident command management. This is what it’s going to take to truly provide a means for “everyone to go home”.  

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Legacy, Culture and Statistics  The United States Fire Administration (USFA) National Fire Data Center reports that “for a ten year period, 1997-2006, 23.5% of on-duty firefighter fatalities occurred at the scene of structure fires.” The most recent statistics released by the USFA for 2008 and 2007 provide the following perspectives;

  • Fireground operations accounted for 38 deaths. (34%)
    • Thirty-eight (38) firefighters died while engaged in activities at the scene of a fire in 2007.
    • Traditionally the fire scene is the most hazardous work area for firefighters each year. When compared with the sheer number of responses to non-fire emergencies such as emergency medical incidents by firefighters, the fireground is more dangerous than the scene of a medical emergency by orders of magnitude
  • Residential structure fires accounted for the largest share of fireground deaths (17 deaths) (16%)
  • Opened / Enclosed Structures
    • Residential – 15 = 50%                       (2006- 15 LODD)
    • Commercial – 15 = 50%                      (2006- 5 LODD)
    • Opened – Numerous means of egress
    • Enclosed – Limited openings (“Big Box”
  • 444 Firefighter Fatalities ( USFA 1990-2006 Analysis)
    • 187 (84%) occurred in enclosed structures
    • 36 (16%) occurred in opened structures
  • Common to ALL cases;      “Aggressive Interior Attack”

 According to the USFA Annual Report on Firefighter Fatalities in the United States, “More firefighters using an aggressive interior attack in enclosed structures die more often, in greater numbers, and with greater multiple line-of-duty deaths than those using the same tactical approach in opened structure fires.”

 2007 Significant Incidents

  • Five of the seven multiple firefighter fatality incidents that occurred in 2007 were on the fireground. These incidents claimed the lives of 17 firefighters:
  • Nine Charleston, South Carolina, firefighters were killed when they became disoriented and overcome by smoke and fire conditions during a fire in a retail furniture store.
  • Two Contra Costa County, California, firefighters died when fire progressed rapidly during a residential structure fire.
  • Two Tyler, Texas, area firefighters were killed in a residential structure fire in August.
  • Two New York City firefighters were killed when they were unable to exit the hazardous area during a high-rise fire in a building undergoing demolition.
  • Two Boston firefighters died in a restaurant fire when fire conditions changed rapidly.
  • Nine firefighters suffered heart attacks at fire scenes in 2007, one more than in 2006. All nine heart attacks occurred at structure fires.
  • In addition to the multiple firefighter fatality incidents described above, 12 firefighters died of traumatic injuries on the fireground in 2007:
  • Three firefighters were killed in separate incidents as a result of structural collapses.

 The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) reports that 968 fire fighters died between 1989 and 1998 [NFPA 1999].

  • Nearly half of these deaths (443) occurred on the fireground.
  • Structural collapse caused 56 (18%) of the 316 fire fighter deaths at structure fires.
  • A structural collapse often results in multiple fire fighter fatalities. For example, during this time period, 43 fire fighters were fatally injured by collapsing materials at 11 fires.
  • Structural collapse of any part of a building (floors, walls, ceilings, roofs, or structural members) during fire fighting is a leading cause of death among fire fighters.
  • The potential for structural collapse is one of the most difficult factors to predict during initial size-up and ongoing fire fighting.
  • Structural collapse usually occurs without warning. But there indicators that can provide guidance & insights for incident decision-making process

Former FEMA Director and USFA Administrator, R. David Paulison provides firefighters with a simple, yet significant message. Chief Paulison states: “What we’re trying to do is change the culture of the fire service. It’s no longer acceptable to put your life on the line for a piece of property. Yes, we’re going to save lives and we’re going to put our lives on the line if we have to save somebody else. But stop and think what you’re doing before you go into a burning building.” Defining our evolving safety culture

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 The Mantras of Building Construction   A variety of themes and mantras have been prompted to support various initiatives for the past thirty years related to building construction and in the support of firefighter safety improvements. Varied focus on Building Construction issues, operational factors and safety, changes in the principles of size-up and its evolution into risk management and the command decision-making process over the years. Common voices over decades of efforts and dialog. Some examples include:

  • Brannigan, “The Building Is the Enemy” (1971)
  • Dunn, “No Building Is Worth the Life of a Firefighter” (1985)
  • Brunacini, “We will Risk” Doctrine (1985)
  • Brennan, “Make the Building Behave” (1995)
  • IAFC, “Risk Assessment & Rules of Engagement” (2001)
  • Goldfeder, “Everyone Goes Home” (2001)
  • NFFF, “Sixteen Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives” (2004)
  • Naum, “Building Knowledge = Firefighter Safety” (2008)

Building Knowledge = Firefighter Safety (Bk=F2S) is the mantra and axiom I began promoting in 2007 and expanded in 2008 that takes into account the true need for the fire service to have a deep seated understanding and technical proficiencies not only in building construction, but the allied functional areas as defined in the core fundamentals. If the fire service can significantly increase proficiencies in building knowledge and equate that to other fundamental operational aspect in structural fire operations, then there would be a direct enhancement to firefighter safety, through injury and LODD reduction. If we understand buildings, occupancies and constructions, 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). Chief Alan Brunacini, in his “We will Risk” Doctrine (1985) wrote, “We will risk our lives a lot, in a highly calculated and controlled manner, to protect a savable human life; we will risk our lives a little, in a highly calculated and controlled manner, to protect savable property. We will not risk our lives at all to protect lives or property that is already lost.” The simplicity of this doctrine prompted a significant change in perspective within the fire service.

Long held beliefs, established and pragmatic operational strategies and tactics began to be questioned; risk, benefit, safety, survivability, assessment, value and firefighter injury and LODD reduction were being introduced into the fireground operational formula related to structure fires and the buildings and occupancies that defined them. When coupled with the NFFF Firefighter Life Safety Initiative #3 that states; Focus greater attention on the integration of risk management with incident management at all levels, including strategic, tactical, and planning responsibilities, we can optimistically begin to identify with the necessary areas to focus on training, skill development and operational competencies.

Situational Awareness and Risk Assessment

Situation Awareness related to Building Construction, Command Risk Management and FireFighter Safety is another mission critical element. Situation Awareness (SA) is the perception of environmental elements within a volume of time and space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their status in the near future. It is also a field of study concerned with perception of the environment critical to decision-makers in complex, dynamic situations and incidents. Both the 2006 and 2007 Firefighter Near-Miss Reporting System Annual Reports identified a lack of situational awareness as the highest contributing factor to near misses reported. Situation Awareness involves being aware of what is happening around you at an incident scene to understand how information, events, and your own actions will impact operational goals and incident objectives, both now and in the near future. Lacking SA or having inadequate SA has been identified as one of the primary factors in accidents attributed to human error (Hartel, Smith, & Prince, 1991) (Nullmeyer, Stella, Montijo, & Harden, 2005). Situation Awareness becomes especially important in the structural fire suppression and firefighter domains where the information flow can be quite high and poor decisions can lead to serious consequences.

Dynamic Risk Assessment is commonly used to describe a process of risk assessment being carried out in a changing or evolving environment, where what is being assessed is developing as the process itself is being undertaken. This is further problematical for the Incident Commander when confronted with competing or conflicting incident priorities, demands or distractions before a complete appreciation of all mission critical or essential information and data has been obtained. The dynamic management of risk is all about effective, informed and decisive decision making during all phases of an incident at a structural fire. To the Incident commander, Fire Officer or firefighter, knowing what’s going on around you, in and around the building structure and understanding the consequences of building, construction, assembly, fire load and fire development and growth is mission critical to incident stabilization and mitigation and profoundly crucial in terms of personnel safety. The integration of Situational Awareness and Dynamic Risk Assessment related to the building and occupancy is a mission critical element in managing structural fires and in the strategic command management and company level tactical operations as we go forward into the next decade. Traditional phased incident scene size-up and monitoring is antiquated and no longer appropriate or applicable to modern fire service operations.

Situational awareness is a combination of attitudes, previously learned knowledge and new information gained from the incident scene and environment that enables the strategic commanders, decision-makers and tactical companies to gather the information they need to make effective decisions that will keep their firefighters and resources out of harm’s way, reducing the likelihood of adverse or detrimental effects.

According to a 1998 published Tri Data Corporation report, “Situational Awareness is one of the most difficult skills to master and is a weakness in the fire community. The report goes on to state that “The culture must change so that [personnel] are observing, thinking, and discussing the situation constantly.” It’s all about implementing effective human performance tools; perceptions versus reality, expectations versus realization, comprehension and forecasting, informed decision-making and calculated and formulated risk.

Command and company officers and firefighters MUST understand the building, the occupancy features and the inherent impact of fire within and on the structure, AND be able to identify, communicate and take actions necessary to support the incident action and battle plans, mitigate incident conditions and provide for continuous safety protection to themselves, their team, their company and the entire alarm assignment operating at the incident scene.

 The defining questions you should be asking yourself are;

  • What do you know about building construction?
  • Do you have a knowledge base on fire dynamics and fire behavior?
  • Are you implementing situational awareness into your operations and assignments?
  • Are you utilizing appropriate and continuous risk assessment (RA)and analysis?
  • Do the risk assessment indicators influence your incident action plan AND modify it when needed?
  • Does firefighter safety come first? Or does tactical “fireground entertainment” permeate your structural fire operations?
  • Do Individuals practice and deploy the following tactics, contrary to appropriate risk management?

1: of or relating to structural fireground tactics: as a (1) a means of amusing or entertaining during fire suppression, support tasks or operations that places personnel at risk
2: the condition of being amused while engaging in fire suppression, support tasks or operations that places personnel at risk
3: pleasurable diversion while engaging in fire suppression, support tasks or operations: entertainment; that places personnel at risk

1: the reckless act or an instance of diverting from an assignment, task, operation or activity while engaging in fire suppression, support tasks or operation for the sake of amusing or entertainment; that places personnel at risk
2: the reckless act of self determined task operations that diverts or amuses from defined risk assessment and incident action plans; that places personnel at risk

1: to deliberately manage to get around especially by ingenuity or approach that diverts for the purpose of amusing; assignment, operations or tasks that countermand or disregard defined risk assessment and incident action plans; that places personnel at risk

Final Question: Did anyone tell you the Rules for Structural Fire Suppression and Engagement have changed? 

Christopher J. Naum, SFPE Chief of Training Command Institute, Washington, DC   Second Vice President, International Society of Fire Service Instructors

A 35-year fire service veteran and former Fire Chief/ Coordinator at a U.S nuclear power generation plant in the Northeastern United States, he is a nationally recognized authority on building construction, structural collapse and command management, and has traveled throughout the United States and internationally delivering training programs on building construction, command risk assessment and firefighter safety. An Adjunct Instructor with the National Fire Academy and a NFFF/EGH Firefighter Safety Advocate, he is member of the Board of Directors, IAFC Safety, Health & Survival Section, the Open Fire Academy International and the ISFSI, he is a former architect and fire protection engineer and was the 1987 ISFSI George D. Post National Fire Instructor of the Year. He is the Chief of Training for the Command Institute in D.C, the Second Vice President with the International Society of Fire Service Instructors and a Contributing Editor with Firehouse Magazine and where he authors the Structural Anatomy of Buildingsonfire column and blog series.
He continues to present his popular structural anatomy building construction training series throughout the United States and internationally and is the developer of the informational portal dedicated to building construction, command risk management and firefighter safety, launching in January 2010. Buildingsonfire informational insights are also now being posted on Facebook. He is presently authoring a new text book integrating building construction, risk management and firefighter safety and provides insightful firefighter safety commentary on his CommandSafety Blog at  and thru two twitter accounts at and Chief Naum has developed and delivered training to over 176,000 personnel nationally and internationally throughout his career. He can be reached at

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Without understanding the building-occupancy relationships and integrating; construction, occupancies, fire dynamics and fire behavior, risk, analysis, the art and science of firefighting, safety conscious work environment concepts and effective and well-informed incident command management, company level supervision and task level competencies…You are derelict and negligent and "not "everyone may be going home". Our current generation of buildings, construction and occupancies are not as predictable as past conventional construction; risk assessment, strategies and tactics must change to address these new rules of structural fire engagement. There is a need to gain the building construction knowledge and insights and to change and adjust operating profiles in order to safe guard companies, personnel and team compositions. It's all about understanding the building-occupancy relationships and the art and science of firefighting, Building Knowledge = Firefighter Safety (Bk=F2S)

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