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Videos: Buffalo LODD highlights collapse dangers

We can’t eliminate collapse dangers, but we can mitigate some risk by studying building construction and rapid-fire events


The fire service endured yet another tragic death in the line of duty earlier this month in New York.

On March 1, Buffalo Firefighter Jason Arno was working a four-alarm blaze inside a downtown commercial building when a backdraft occurred, sparking a fireball that sent flames and smoke into the street, according to the U.S. Fire Administration. The explosion caused a partial collapse of the building, and an evacuation order was transmitted for all crews.

Shortly after, a mayday call went out for Arno, but the firefighter was trapped inside the building due to injuries sustained in the collapse. His body was later discovered 30 to 40 feet inside the entrance.

Know your enemy

While the fire is still under investigation and we do not know the official cause of death, we can assume that Firefighter Arno was killed by the building, as the USFA lists Arno’s fatal injury cause as “caught or trapped.”

The late Francis Branigan, an expert in the field of fire protection engineering, coined the term “know your enemy” regarding building construction – as in, the building is your enemy.

When a building is designed and constructed, it’s certainly not with an eye toward firefighter safety during untenable conditions. Instead, structures are designed to protect occupants as they quickly make their escape in the initial stages of a fire – all while being mindful of costs. This latter note means that buildings are designed, constructed and erected in a quick and economic fashion in order to maximize profits for the owner.

When a building is exposed to fire, the building starts to fail or break down. The rapidly spreading fire – which is a result of high fuel loads in the combustible fuel type, heavy or large fire loads in terms of volume, radiant heat spreading to unburned parts, and high heat release rates – will have an impact on the materials that are used to construct the building. These materials work very well when not exposed to the high heat release rates that a fuel load will produce; however, when they are exposed to such heat, some have a failure rate measured in minutes.

Firefighters need to know and understand building construction. This knowledge will assist crews in suppressing fires and help them understand why fire behaves as it does in certain types of construction, as well as how the building will react when exposed to such conditions, whether crews are inside or outside the structure.

Will building construction knowledge prevent all tragedies from occurring, including LODDs? Not at all. These kinds of incidents will still occur, unfortunately, because buildings, when compromised by fire, are going to fall eventually, regardless of who is inside.

Tying into building construction is a knowledge of rapid-fire events, such as smoke explosions, backdrafts and flashovers. These rapid-fire events drastically alter the building’s integrity, and, in turn, the building behaves or reacts in a way that is going to be detrimental for the firefighter.

The only way the fire service can avoid this situation is if building codes are drastically changed so that structures are erected using the same parameters that our SCBA, fire trucks and structural fire gear are designed to do – protect the firefighter in extreme environments.

Training time

After reading this news story with your company, follow these training tips to spark conversation and learning opportunities among your crew:

  1. Watch the news footage of the Buffalo four-alarm fire to study the effects of the smoke explosion or backdraft – and the signs or conditions leading up to that point.
  2. Study the five basic construction types of building construction.
  3. Review the rapid-fire events that may take place in the structure.
    1. Backdraft
    2. Smoke explosions
    3. Flashover

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.