There has been a lot of talk about lightweight, or low-mass, construction in our communities and its inherent risk to firefighters. Those discussions are necessary and should be had at every firehouse in the country.
Lightweight wood frame structure fires are among the most dangerous types of incidents for firefighters
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We know that they fail fast, contribute to fast fire spread and are responsible for more of our members falling into basements with no warning. You can't see a new strip mall, apartment building, hotel or restaurant being built without noticing that the materials are all low-mass and that they look like be lumber yards going up.
Dangerous stuff, no doubt. I would venture to guess that every community shares these same concerns.
But, just like every community has modern construction, I would bet that most of these same communities have some buildings that have been up for quite a long time — you'll find them in the old section with the main streets and where the beginnings of modern civilization were born.
For firefighters, these can be as challenging as modern construction. There are some critical factors that we must pay attention to anytime we have a fire in one of these buildings. The first thing we need to understand is the building itself.
Type-III construction is easily identified by its structure-supporting exterior masonry walls with wood joists, roofs and girders as well as the interior support members. They are usually no more than four-stories tall due to the thickness of the exterior walls.
Beams and girders may be laid into the structural brick walls in ways that contribute to floor and wall collapse. Beam cuts, beam shelves and other building methods can make floor collapse common.
With the ease of remodeling the interiors of these buildings, void spaces are common and often changed with each new tenant. Many have basements that are not accessible from the exterior.
Depending on the buildings age, some have cast-iron support columns. When heated by fire conditions and then hit with fire streams, these can quickly fail causing floor and possibly wall collapse.
Walls with windows will reach farther during a collapse than those without.
The roof will typically be flat or a slight slope from front to back. Depending on the style and builder, expect parapet walls on the front, but small to none on the other three walls, making roof work dangerous for falls.
Many of these buildings have storefronts on the first floor and living areas above. The storefronts can be just about anything you can imagine — barber shops, boutiques, mercantile, laundry mats, meat markets, jewelers, ice cream shops, businesses — you name it, it will be there.
The upper floors may be storage or warehousing, apartments, offices, or more stores. We see a lot of storage and apartments in our area.
With the upper floors being separate from the downstairs, the door to the upper unit may blend in with the lower storefronts. Find them before you have a fire.
There will be floor loads that were not considered when originally built. Firefighters can find anything from bank vaults to washing machines.
So, how do we handle fires in these buildings?
Many of us fight fires in single-family homes with a few in some strip malls and multi-family occupancies. Keep your perspective and be prepared.
Know the way in before you arrive and know what is in the building before you have a fire there. Understand how much hose you need to deploy to the most remote area and what resources you will need to do it.
It is also important to place apparatus strategically from the outset. Stay out of collapse zones. The sides of the building may be too close to other structures to operate from the exterior with ladders, water etc. You may need to get into the adjacent building for some tactics.
Some water supplies in these areas can be poor due to the age of the system. Know what you're working with and plan accordingly.
Fire will move from one level to the other; consideration of void spaces is a must. Controlling the fire path involves controlling ventilation. Don't break out large windows without a very good reason, especially if crews are operating inside.
Control the doors to the entry points. Again, if they are glass, don't break them. Appropriately force them to keep some door control, to keep the opening clear and to protect hose advancing through the door.
Use lighting on the roofs, and if the rear is shorter, it may the best option for access. Remember the parapet walls or lack thereof.
Get big water to the fire fast. If you're going to advance large hose lines, like 2 ½-inch lines, make sure you train frequently with them and have the staff to deploy them.
Frequently check on the integrity of the building from the exterior and the interior if possible. Look for cracks in the bricks and smoke from the mortar and joints.
Watch for overhead dangers. If you find drop ceilings when you enter, lift them and check before you advance. Canopies on the exterior can be problematic when placing ladders.
Throw ladders to upper floors. Throw as many as you can as soon as you can if you have crews operating inside. If there is an interior stairwell, protect it if there is a crews operating upstairs.
Also, be aware of how long the fire has been consuming the building and how long the crew has been inside. Ask, are you making noticeable progress?
These are just a few reminders for Type III buildings. Do your due diligence and study up on your buildings, their hazards and your operations. There are some great resources available, find them and absorb that information. If you want a list of the resources I use, send me an email and I will provide some recommendations.
As always, thanks for reading, train hard and train often and I'll see you next month from the fireground.
About the author
Jason Hoevelmann is a deputy chief and fire marshal with the Sullivan (Mo.) Fire Protection District, a combination department, and a career captain and training officer with the Florissant Valley (Mo.) Fire Protection District in North St. Louis County. His experience spans more than 20 years and he has been an instructor for more than 15 years. He is an adjunct instructor for the St. Louis County Fire Academy and is a State Certified Fire Officer II. Jason holds an associate’s degree in paramedic science from East Central College and a bachelor's degree in fire service administration from Eastern Oregon University. He is currently a state advocate for the Everyone Goes Home initiative, a Board Member for the International Society of Fire Service Instructors and on the technical committee for Professional Fire Officer Qualifications for NFPA. He is also co-owner of Engine House Training, LLC.
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