Firefighting and the Built Environment

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

Jason Poremba's Close Calls on Camera:
Preparing for the Unexpected
Related Resources:

 Building Construction Series (PDF)

 Chris Naum's BuildingsOnFire (PDF)

If you don't fully understand how a building truly performs or reacts under fire conditions and the variables that can influence its stability and degradation, movement of fire and products of combustion and the resource requirements for fire suppression in terms of staffing, apparatus and required fire flows, then you will be functioning and operating in a reactionary manner.

This places higher risk to your personnel and lessens the likelihood for effective, efficient and safe operations. You're just not doing your job effectively and you're at RISK. These risks can equate into insurmountable operational challenges and could lead to adverse incident outcomes. Someone could get hurt, someone could die, it's that simple, it's that obvious.

Risk-preferring and self-indulging firefighting
Don't mistake determined, effective and proactive firefighting with that of reckless, baseless and risk-preferring and self-indulging firefighting. There is a difference, a big difference!

When we address relationships of Building Construction, Command Risk Management and FireFighter Safety with the occupancy and structural environment, all personnel, regardless of rank, need to equate the occupancy risk with strategic and tactical incident action plans. These safely compliment the identified firefighting operation risk, with the projected building risk profile and interface appropriate behavioral characteristics in the task level firefighting activities. Again, equating building, occupancy risk profiles with determined, effective and proactive firefighting.

The traditional attitudes and beliefs of equating aggressive firefighting operations in all occupancy types coupled with the correlating, established and pragmatic operational strategies and tactics MUST not only be questioned, they need to be adjusted and modified; risk assessment, risk-benefit analysis, safety and survivability profiling, operational value and firefighter injury and LODD reduction must be further institutionalized to become a recognized part of modern firefighting operations.

It's no longer just brute force and sheer physical determination that define structural fire suppression operations. Aggressive firefighting must be redefined and aligned to the built environment and associated with goal oriented tactical operations that are defined by risk assessed and analyzed tasks that are executed under battle plans that promote the best in safety practices and survivability within know hostile structural fire environments.

It's all about understanding the building-occupancy relationships and integrating; construction, occupancies, fire dynamics and fire behavior, risk, analysis, the art and science of firefighting, safety conscious work environment concepts and effective and well-informed incident command management. This is what it's going to take to truly provide a means for "everyone to go home".

There are new elements being introduced into the fireground operational formula related to structure fires and the buildings and occupancies that defined them. The axiom of Building Knowledge = Firefighter Safety (Bk=F2S) continues to form the basis for effective operations, for it's the knowledge of the building and it's anatomy that defines the level of operational safety and incident success share by all personnel and operating companies at the incident.

Risk based response assignments
The buildings, structures and occupancies that comprise typical response districts pose unique and consistent challenges during structural fire attack. The variety of occupancies and building characteristics establish varying degrees of risk potential, with defined and recognizable strategic and tactical measures to be taken-sometimes uniquely to each occupancy type. Although each occupancy type presents variables that dictate how a particular incident is handled, most company operations evolve from basic principles rooted in past performance and operations at similar structures. This is based on what I define as; "predictability of performance."

When we look at various buildings and occupancies, past operational experiences; those that were successful, and those that were not, give us experiences that define and determine how we access, react and expect similar structures and occupancies to perform at a given alarm in the future. Naturalistic (or recognition-primed) decision-making forms much of this basis. We predicate certain expectations that fire will travel in a defined (predictable) manner, that fire will hold within a room and compartment for a given duration of time, that the fire load and related fire flows required will be appropriate for an expected size and severity of fire encountered within a given building, occupancy, structural system.

We used to know with a measured degree of predictability, how our buildings would perform, react and fail under most fire conditions. This is what our years of fireground experience provided us, and how we ultimately would predict, assess, plan and implement our incident action plans and ultimately deploy our companies-based upon the predictable performance expected. Conventional Construction Structures (CCS) had this "predictably of performance." You know, that typical residential structure, the 2-1/2 story wood frame, the three story brick and joist type III occupancy, the four story frame multiple occupancy, etc., etc. Unlike Engineered System Structures (ESS) whose predictability is rooted in the fact that they are unpredictable.

The emerging fire service issues affecting buildings, occupancies and structural systems related to ESS is only beginning to take hold a prominent role and level of significance that is long overdue. The fire service has been dealing with the operational issues and line-of-duty deaths related to ESS since the 1980s and now in 2009, we're finally raising these ESS issues to a dialog point that is influencing firefighter safety, survival and operations.

The fire service is beginning to fully recognize the merits in adjusting, altering, and changing our strategic and tactical ways of doing business in the streets. It's becoming self evident in the fire service that it's no longer acceptable to think that ESS buildings and occupancies will perform in the same manner as CCS buildings and occupancies and that tactics deployed in both CCS and ESS buildings and occupancies will react under similar strategic and tactical plans and tasks. These unique and inherent factors within the ESS profiles must give us a new standard for operational deployment; strategies and tactics that are defined by the risk profile of the building, its engineered structural systems, materials and methods of construction and the fire loading present.

Considerations for changing fire flow rates, the sizing of hose line and the adequacies for fire flow demand and application rates, staffing needs for safe operations, considerations for defensive positioning and defensive operating postures must be considered, and it warrants repeating again; Reckless-Aggressive firefighting must be redefined in the built environment and associated with goal oriented tactical operations that are defined by risk assessed and analyzed tasks that are executed under battle plans that promote the best in safety practices and survivability within know hostile structural fire environment- with determined, effective and proactive firefighting.

Occupancy risk not occupancy type
Many of today's incident commanders, company officers and firefighters lack the clarity of understanding and comprehension that correlate to the inherent characteristics of today's buildings, construction and occupancies. We assume that the routiness of our operations and incident responses equates with predictability and diminished risk to our firefighting personnel.

Our current generation of buildings, construction and occupancies are not as predicable as past conventional construction, therefore risk assessment, strategies and tactics must change to address these new rules of structural fire engagement. You need to gain the knowledge and insights and to change and adjust your operating profile in order to safe guard your companies, personnel and team compositions. Again strategic firefighting operations; Strategies and tactics must be based on occupancy risk not occupancy type.

With this being stated, another primary consideration that must be deliberated and changed as it relates to firefighting and the built environment is the long held fire service tradition and practice of Structural Fire Alarm Response (resources) Assignments being based upon the Occupancy Type. Sending the two Engine Companies and one Truck Company assignment with a Battalion Chief and a RIT team to a reported structure fire in an occupied single family residential structure; is not acceptable.

As I previously stated, the rules for structural fire engagement have changed. Structural Fire Alarm Response (resources) Assignments should be based upon the Risk Profile the occupancy has related to Building construction, systems and projected or determined fire loading. Sending the four Engine Companies, two Truck Companies, a manpower Heavy Rescue Company, two additional Battalion Chiefs, a Safety Officer and support staff assignment with the assigned Battalion Chief on the alarm assignment to a reported structure fire in an occupied single family residential structure, that happens to be 5000 square feet in size with ESS components; IS Acceptable.

• There is an acute understanding and corollary of technical knowledge and inter reliance on occupancies, construction, strategy, tactics, risk, safety, physics, engineering and fire suppression theory, This is a fact.

o Think about the results of the Charleston, S.C., Sofa Super Store (Routley) Report (part one and part two) and the results and recommendations published in the recent NIOSH Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program Report F2007-18 for the June 18, 2007, fire in which nine career firefighters died in rapid fire progression at a commercial furniture showroom.

o There are extensive and numerous examples of issues affecting Building Construction, Command Risk Management and FireFighter Safety. The performance of a building, structural systems, occupancy, fire behavior and interaction of firefighters under combat fire suppression operations clearly frames our focus on the building, occupancy and Firefighting and the Built Environment.

• Occupancies & Associated Risks
o Each occupancy type has inherent risk factors. Are you aware of this fact and do you employ appropriate tactics in your operations to operate effectively and safely?
 Single Family Residential
 Multiple Occupancy
 Multiple Occupancy -Transient
 Multiple Occupancy -Special
 Business
 Mercantile
 Industrial
 Storage
 Assembly
 Institutional
 Miscellaneous
o The predictability of performance

• Risks & Containment; Firefighting and the Built Environment.
o What are your considerations
• Beyond the Fire Compartment
• Fire Analysis of ESS versus CCS
• Exposure to Products of Combustion & affects
• Fire Dynamics and predictability of Fire Behavior
• Personnel Exposure Risks- Aggressive versus Reckless versus Pro-Active
• Structural Degradation, Compromise and collapse

• Previous, historical parameters and Building/Structural Performance always provides a postulated measurement to gauge operational tasks and form the basis for the Incident Action Plan. These parameters must be recognized and integrated

• There is a need to integrate performance based incident indicators derived from engineering, physics, fire dynamics, historical and statistical basis

• Basic Size-Up is Antiquated for Firefighting and the Built Environment. – Start Thinking in terms of Dynamic Risk Assessment and Command Risk Management

• 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."

That's all Folks - It's Not about Entertainment
When we focus out attention on Building Construction, Command Risk Management and FireFighter Safety and the essence of combat structural fires; Structural firefighting is what it's all about, is it not? The reason we have such veneration for firefighting and the fire service and all it entails; has a lot to do with going into burning buildings and fighting fire. We enjoy it tremendously; we have fun at, because of who we are and what we do-as firefighters. But, firefighting has its adverse consequences, with all too familiar costs, in the form of injuries, debilitating accidents and line of duty deaths.

As a firefighter, to say that we love firefighting would be an understatement, BUT one issue that we need to address is the fact that there are many individual firefighters, companies and organizations that employ fireground operational practices that promote the "enjoyment and entertainment" of working a good job within the occupancy compartment of a structural fire in the building environment.

Staying too long in the wrong place, operating tactically in an adverse environment with known hazards that do not have value, other than the enjoyment of nozzle time and operating time in the fire.


Fire suppression tactics must be adjusted for the rapidly changing methods and materials impacting all forms of building construction, occupancies and structures. The need to redefine the art and science of firefighting is nearly upon us. Some things do stand the test of time, others need to adjust, evolve and change. Not for the sake of change only, but for the emerging and evolving buildings, structures and occupancies being built, developed or renovated in our communities. As Chief Brunacini stated; "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."

If the fire service can significantly increase proficiencies in building knowledge and equate that to other fundamental operational aspect 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).

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