Today during some down time between runs I took my company out on a building familiarization tour. The tour included looking at a really large, 4 story lightweight residential dormitory being built in our first due. The tour affords firefighters with the opportunity to get out and mingle with contractors, see new construction materials or techniques and really get to see behind the walls of a specific dwelling before they are covered up. A fire service x-ray of the structural support system(s). Firefighter survival within the modern construction era is the responsibility of progressive fire service leaders. History is played out time and time again within our service. NIOSH reports do not lie and many of us whether we are volunteer, paid-call or career continue to not learn from our "brothers" unfortunate incidents.
Fire sprinklers are designed to provide the occupants of a dwelling the chance to get out when a fire strikes. The protection industry has produced some wonderful results and often the system controls the fire to the point of total fire extinguishment. That said, the fire service must remember that the sprinkler system was not designed to extinguish every fire within that same building. There are many voids within a dwelling that are not protected by the sprinklers. Pipe chases, electrical conduit holes, heating / ventilation duct work, and the structural support materials themselves may afford lateral heat, smoke and fire spread underneath your feet.
We all know that drop ceiling tile construction is loaded with many, many feet of grid wire which can entangle us firefighters. With the advancement of newer fuel efficient forced hot air furnaces (high pressure FHA for example) newer construction contains miles of basically "dryer vent hose" in the walls and ceiling. As the ceiling tiles drop and the plastic burns off the vent hose the wire is exposed. We are now faced with being entrapped in a gigantic slinky. Any of us who owned a slinky can appreciate just how difficult it was to untangle the coils when they became twisted. Imagine being literally trapped inside the coils while wearing our full PPE and SCBA.
Getting out and seeing a building in the early stages of construction will produce a huge amount of life saving information. Things like that nice exterior brick or block wall from the street may not actually be true ordinary construction. There are many really lightweight exterior wall finishing’s or “facades” that are really cost effective and go up relatively quickly today. This type of information will be important during the operational decision making process during a large fire.
Newer single or multi-family and even commercial construction are now using lightweight laminated I-Beam or Box Truss materials. The height of these beams (from top chord to bottom chord) are determined by the strength needed to hold up the weight above and the span from bearing wall to bearing wall. This dimension in turn, creates a larger than usual void space compared to our traditional 2” x 10” (or) 2” x 12” floor joist construction. Not only do we have to worry about the burn rate and collapse time of the lighter materials used for glue-laminate or I –beams, but the increased voids are now holding miles and miles of slinky duct work waiting for us as well.
Today's firefighter needs to carry wire cutters and a rescue knife, both of which that can be operated with your gloves on. We must be proficient in self-disentanglement to the extreme and not just wiggling by some small diameter rope tied off to the bannister railing in training. Don't be fooled by the fire prevention officer's creed of "I want to sprinkle everything". Remember sprinklers are designed for life safety - to provide time for the occupants to egress the building before we arrive. A relatively small fire in any one of these void spaces listed previously may go undetected and uninterrupted by any sprinkler head.
Maybe we do not burn the place down, but losing a company or two to an early, no warning, lightweight construction failure should be a concern. So get out and tour your construction sites before they are completed.
Take Care and Stay Safe Brother and Sisters… See you all in Indy!