By Homer Robertson
Published Saturday, January 1, 2011
| From the January 2011 Issue of FireRescue
Just like people, buildings have a life cycle, from the time they’re “born” (built) until they “die,” which can come in a number of ways, including fire, demolition or simply deterioration from the elements.
In a past Quick Drills column, I reviewed operations in vacant buildings, most of which are at the end of their existence. So to complete the cycle, we need to cover operations that occur early in the building’s life—when it’s under construction.
Structure fires in buildings under construction come with a unique set of circumstances that require an equally unique set of tactics and strategies. Because these buildings are just starting their useful lives, many of the construction and fire protection features that help us control incidents, such as sprinkler systems, standpipe systems and hydrants, may not be in place. And if the construction process is still in the early stages when the fire occurs, you may be presented with what’s basically an exposed standing lumberyard.
Although the economy has slowed the pace of new home and commercial building construction, almost every department has buildings under construction in their first-due. Following are a few important teaching points to cover with your company to ensure that you’re prepared to respond to fires in structures still in the building stages.
Preplanning Is Essential
During your daily activities out in your response area, take the time to identify new construction sites. Stop by and do a walkthrough of the site. This is a great way to teach building construction to your crew because you can see features of the building that will be hidden from sight as it nears completion.
During your walkthrough, note the location of the nearest water supply and identify access issues that responding companies will face.
Snap a few digital photos of the building to pass on to other members who aren’t present. Print the photos off and post them in the station to raise awareness of the locations of building under construction. Include the address and any associated dangerous conditions you found.
Not Another House Fire
We can’t tackle fires in buildings under construction like just another house fire. Depending on the stage of completion of the building, just about everything could be different about it. In regular house fires, we rely on construction features such as drywall to limit fire spread to voids and attic space. In a building under construction, drywall might not be installed yet. This lack of protection from the sheetrock allows fire to spread quickly into wooden truss areas, leading to premature failure of the truss assemblies.
Another example: The entire building may be in the framing stages of construction, essentially creating a standing wooden skeleton in which fire will spread quickly.
Other dangers associated with rapid fire spread occur when tracks of homes in different stages of completion are closely spaced. The fire can then spread to exposures quickly, meaning that you’ll face several well-involved buildings on your arrival. Be sure to discuss with your crews the importance of recognizing these possibilities and outline the proper strategies and tactics to control several homes on fire at once. Also discuss the dangers of flying fire brands downwind from the initial incident.
High Fire Flows
One of the most important things to recognize in fire attack is when not to use small, low-flow handlines. Since the 1¾" handline has become our weapon of choice for most of our fire work, we’ve developed an overreliance on it.
Because buildings under construction tend to produce well-developed fires before the arrival of the first fire department units, make sure your department recognizes when it needs to go into a high-flow attack, and leave the small handlines we tend to use on the truck. Practice operations where first- and second-due companies must establish a continuous water supply and start high-flow attacks to knock down large volumes of fire or cut off the extension of that fire from moving into other uninvolved buildings.
Construction Site Dangers
You don’t have to look far to find ample dangers around any construction site. Make sure your crews are aware of the increased dangers they face on a construction site under fire conditions. Examples include limited access to the area where concrete forms are being built and rebar rods are exposed, making deployment of lines much more difficult and increasing trip hazards. There are all sorts of other trip hazards as well, including but not limited to piles of lumber and trash, high stacks of new lumber or building materials, and lots of holes and uneven ground.
Other dangers you may encounter: paint and other flammable or combustible liquids used in the building process. Be sure to look for scaffolding around the site that could collapse because of flame impingement or fall from hose streams pushing it over.
A Final Word
Fires in buildings under construction offer plenty of challenges and dangers for responding fire companies. Because these buildings are unoccupied, the biggest life safety issue is usually the one that we bring. We still need to search buildings under construction, of course, because vagrants or construction workers could be trapped inside. But risk assessment in such incidents is key. Take the time now to review the adjustments in tactics such fires require—before your crew faces a real fire in a building under construction.
Site Visit Drill
- Look for a building under construction in your response area and make arrangements with the construction company for a preplanning site walkthrough.
- During the walkthrough, take digital photos of the building’s interior components so you know what they look like before they’re hidden from view by dry wall. These photos can be a great way to teach building construction.
- During the site visit, identify the challenges firefighters will face on scene, including access issues, water supply, fire flow requirements, site dangers and the possibility of early collapse of the structure or the scaffolding.
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