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Building Construction: Know your enemy

George Washington’s fire knowledge was incomplete

President George Washington was also ex officio mayor of the District of Columbia. Having seen the devastation caused by a conflagration in Richmond, Va., he wrote into the Washington, D.C., building code a requirement for masonry walls between buildings to prevent spread of fire. Unfortunately, he specified “party walls”—walls structurally common to both buildings. As shown in photo 1, even when adjacent buildings don’t share a wall, the joists of the two buildings are often located in the same opening in the wall. The connection between the joists becomes a path for the extension of fire, especially when the connection is hidden above a ceiling. The problem is not confined to old buildings; photo 2 shows more recent construction exhibiting the same flaw.

Photo 1: A brick structure showing the end of beams visible in the hole. The shared opening creates a hidden path for fire extension

When responding to fires in connected row buildings—whether old or modern townhouses—get lines immediately into the building on either side of the involved structure, and open the ceiling where the beam enters the wall. Avoid this scenario: The occupant of the house next to the involved structure tells the incident commander (IC) that his house is full of smoke. The IC responds, “That’s to be expected with a fire next door.” A short time later, fire breaks out in the adjacent house, and firefighters have to scramble madly to put it out.

Photo 2: A more modern block wall with two beams in common opening. Even modern structures have these shared openings.

Another reason to get into the adjacent units as soon as possible: The fire may have originated in an adjacent building, and you are actually operating at the exposure fire. In a 1966 collapse in New York City, a presumed extension turned out to be the original fire. Twelve Fire Department City of New York (FDNY) firefighters died when the floor collapsed in the structure that was thought to be the exposure, but was actually the location of the original fire. The basement of one building extended under the back-to-back exposure.

Carefully study interconnected buildings in your community and prepare maps and isometric drawings to assist in response. Preplanning should include consideration of when to withdraw units because the construction has created an impossibly dangerous situation.

Paste in your helmet this quote from retired Deputy Chief Vincent Dunn, FDNY: “No building is worth a firefighter’s life.” Then consider my mantra: “The building is your enemy. Know your enemy.”
Francis (Frank) L. Brannigan, a fireground commander in the 1940s and a fellow of the Society of Fire Protection Engineers, was named one of the 20 most influential people in the fire service by Fire Chief Magazine. For 37 years, Brannigan has defined building hazards for firefighters. His book, “Building Construction for the Fire Service, Third Edition,” is available from the NFPA.

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