Overhang dangers: Maintain situational awareness while working near the collapse zone

Video shows a California firefighter narrowly escaping a collapsing overhang at a commercial structure fire

Back in April, we looked at a collapse situation involving a church fire and a steeple toppling from the building. Fortunately, no one was caught in the collapse, but it was certainly a near miss.

This month we’re considering another type of building collapse – one involving a commercial building with overhangs.

Any type of building collapse is bad news for fire crews, as it indicates a weakened structure that has been compromised. And weakened structures put the lives of firefighters working on scene in jeopardy, as they might find themselves in the path of a collapsing building or collapsing portions of the building.

When it comes to commercial buildings like restaurants or stand-alone stores, there are sometimes overhangs built onto the front or all the way around the structure. These overhangs serve one purpose – aesthetics, aka decoration or architectural beauty. It’s a way to “dress up” a building with a specific design style.

The overhang does not house any mechanical duct work or HVAC system, although it may have a few wires inside to feed lights within the overhang. For the most part, it is a hollow structure attached to the main structure. A business sign may be attached to the overhand, or it may be a constructed in a way so that the overhang is the business sign, serving the function of an overhang.

While these overhangs may be hollow inside, they can still be heavy; it all depends on the material used to construct them. The material used construct the skeleton of the overhang may be lightweight steel or lightweight wood. And when they fall, it will likely injury any firefighter working directly below.

The collapse of a building or parts of a building typically doesn’t happen immediately upon fire ignition, but rather well into the fire fight. This is when we see firefighters getting caught in collapses. They have been on scene for quite a while, they are conducting their assignments per protocol, and in the process, they find themselves in the collapse zone.

This month’s video comes from California, and shows a well-involved fire, burning for quite a while, with fire extending throughout the building. As you might expect, this is when we’re going to see parts of the building collapse. The firefighters who are working around a building like this must be fully aware of the collapse potential due to the degradation of the building.

In the video, near the 4:30 minute mark, we see a firefighter applying water with a hoseline into the interior of the building. The benefit of a hoseline and a nozzle is the reach of the stream, which firefighters should use to provide distance between them and the building, thereby avoiding any potential overhang collapse.  

When on scene at any commercial building fire that has an overhang, firefighters must maintain situational awareness, particularly if work must be completed underneath or near the overhang.

After watching this video with your company, take these steps to train for operating at fire scenes where overhangs are present:

  • Practice size-up skills by driving around your district to identify buildings with overhangs; and
  • Discuss what other options are available to complete certain tasks that involve working underneath or nearby the overhang of a building.

Editor’s note: Have you had a close call with a collapsing overhang? Share your story in the comments.

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