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Building Construction, Command Risk Management and Firefighter Safety

By Christopher J. Naum
Board of Directors, IAFC Safety, Health and Survival Section

Jason Poremba's Close Calls on Camera:
Building Collapse: Learn the Warning Signs
Related Resources:

 Building Construction Series (PDF)

 Chris Naum's BuildingsOnFire (PDF)
Building Construction, Command Risk Management and Firefighter Safety; three 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.

The mantras of building construction
A variety of themes and mantras have been prompted to support various initiatives for the past 30 years related to building construction and in the support of firefighter safety improvements.
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 aspects 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). We'll discuss this axiom further in the near future.

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.

Legacy, culture and statistics

The United States Fire Administration National Fire Data Center reports that "for a ten-year period, 1997-2006, 23.5 percent 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 percent)

o Thirty-eight firefighters died while engaged in activities at the scene of a fire in 2007.

o 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 percent)

Of the 444 firefighter fatalities (USFA 1990-2006 Analysis):

o 187 (84 percent) occurred in enclosed structures

o  36 (16 percent) occurred in opened structures

Common to all cases: "Aggressive Interior Attack."

According to a previous 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." Former FEMA Director and USFA Administrator R. David Paulison provides firefighters with a simple, yet significant message.

"What we're trying to do is change the culture of the fire service," he said. "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."

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 — 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?

Did anyone tell you the Rules for Structural Fire Suppression and Engagement have changed? Do you comprehend the importance of this statement as it relates to your personal safety, your team, your company and your organization? Think about it.  


Christopher J. Naum, SFPE, is the chief of training for the Command Institute in Washington, D.C. He is a 34-year fire service veteran and the Second Vice-President of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors-ISFSI. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the IAFC Safety Health & Survival Section and an Adjunct Instructor with the National Fire Academy. A nationally recognized authority on building construction, command risk management and firefighter safety, he has lectured extensively throughout the United States and internationally and is the developer of the portal www.buildingsonfire.com, an informational, reference and training site dedicated to the art and science of building construction and firefighting launch in mid-2009. He is a frequent contributor to The Kitchen Table at FireRescue1.com. He can be contacted at christopher.naum@gmail.com.






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