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Know the enemy: Firefighters must understand the basics of building construction

Video of Pennsylvania house fire shows how fast a modern residential structure begins to deteriorate

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With the recent death of two Oklahoma firefighters – Waynoka Fire Chief Lonnie Bolar and Firefighter Tayler Bradford – in a residential structure fire, the phrase “know the enemy” seems more applicable as ever for firefighters.

If you haven’t read the recent news accounts, the firefighters died while attempting to rescue two occupants. The roof collapsed, killing all four.

The details of this unfortunate event are still unfolding, as the investigation probes the cause as well as the actions leading up to and during the operation. But today, we are not going to focus on the firefighters’ actions, but rather on our enemy, the building.

The phrase “know your enemy” is a term coined by the late Francis L. Brannigan. The full quote is even more fitting: “The building is your enemy, know your enemy.” Brannigan was the leading expert on building construction. His book “Building Construction for the Fire Service” has helped educate countless firefighters on the dangers of buildings and how they react to fire and heat.

In the corresponding video out of Pennsylvania, we see a residential house fire burning and the fire department arriving on the scene. This video is taken from a vantage point where we can witness the burning characteristics of the fire and the building. It is a good video to use to show how a building breaks down, loses structural stability, and starts to fail in a short period of time due to the high heat release rate and spread of the fire.

We don’t know how long the fire has been burning prior to the video’s start, but from our start point, we can the roof starting to diminish within two minutes. We can see the roof trusses become visible as the fire burns away the roofing material. We can also see the interior structure around the second-story windows start to appear and the exterior melt away from the structure.

By the time we hit the 4-minute mark, firefighters are starting to apply water to the structure, with the second floor showing the signs of a building starting to fail.

Every firefighter needs to know how buildings react to fire and how to read the building in the context of the present conditions.

Buildings are constructed in manner suited for speed and cost-efficiency for both the builder and the owner. Modern residential structures built to code will provide structurally soundness for a long time – but introduce a heat source that emits a high heat release rate, and that building will fail just as quickly as it was built. What contributes to the high heat release rate? The contents of the building – all the modern furnishings and the petrochemical materials used to construct the furnishings are what contributes to this.

All firefighters need to be on the offensive with getting to know the enemy. After all, it is a battle that occurs every day – and it requires preparedness.

After watching this video with your company, take the following training steps:

  • Discuss what tactics could be used to combat the fire and mount a rescue; and
  • Tour the neighborhoods to see if there are any residential construction projects underway. If there are some, tour the houses being built to get a better understanding of modern construction.
  • Review Brannigan’s textbook on “Building Construction for the Fire Service.” I recommend taking a chapter a month to review the key concepts. And if your department doesn’t have this book, buy it!

Mark van der Feyst has been in the fire service since 1998, currently serving as a firefighter with the Fort Gratiot Fire Department in Michigan. He is an international instructor teaching in Canada, the United States and India. He graduated from Seneca College of Applied and Technologies as a fire protection engineering technologist, and received his bachelor’s degree in fire and life safety studies from the Justice Institute of British Columbia and his master’s degree in safety, security and emergency management from Eastern Kentucky University. van der Feyst is the lead author of the book “Residential Fire Rescue” and “The Tactical Firefighter.” Connect with van der Feyst via email.