The lumberyard and what it means to firefighter safety
Familiarize yourself with the wood construction and fast food restaurant construction in your neighborhood to pre-plan and keep your crew safe
In recent months, there has been an ongoing discussion on the near exclusive use of lumber in some residential and commercial high-rise structures under construction. Coined the “lumberyard,” some of the building designs are architectural wonders with cantilever floors extending high above existing smaller buildings below due to an extremely small building footprint of ground level.
Of course, fire sprinklers and standpipes are mandated in these finished buildings, but one of the issues raised in this ongoing discussion, is how far do these sprinklers and standpipes extend during the building construction? And further, how does that impact fire tactics and therefore firefighter safety?
While I have yet to have such a structure proposed or started near me, I’m closely following these discussions on how the affected jurisdictions are monitoring the construction and inspections process to assure compliance with fire safety issues that impact firefighter safety.
One key factor with ongoing inspections is the need to continually update and modify the fire department’s operational pre-plan in the event of a fire during the various phases of construction. I’m hoping that there will be some extensive articles from those departments experiencing this new type of construction and how they resolved these critical issues.
A close call in a fast-food restaurant fire
Closer to home, I was reminded that the “lumberyard” takes another, more common form for most of us in the fire service. I recently watched as a free-standing older fast-food restaurant was demolished to make way at the location for another fast-food chain. The older restaurant had experienced a couple fires over the past 20 or so years, including one in a range hood that extended well into the grease ducts (prior to the fire code change that required a full fire suppression system over all cooking appliances, and above and within the range hood). This older restaurant had been built using masonry construction with a peaked metal roof, and withstood both this serious fire and several smaller ones during its tenure.
Once the site had been cleared, the new construction began within days. The foundation was quickly poured, followed by wood framing and flat wooden roof trusses held together with gusset plates. The outside composite board covering soon followed, with a three- to four-foot smattering of brick venue on the sides and a full brick veneer wall on the signature front of the structure facing the main street. The final phase was the electrical service, installing the cooking appliances, and testing the fire alarm and suppression systems.
From a historical perspective, it wasn’t that long ago that a nearby fire department nearly lost three members of an engine company operating at a 24-hour fast-food restaurant fire. The fire started from what appeared to be an electrical fault in a ceiling light, but while there was extensive smoke, little fire was visible from the exterior (except from near the light fixture).
The restaurant was situated close to the border of two departments that worked under a county-wide automatic aid agreement that dispatched both departments to the structure fire. The automatic aid engine arrived first, took a water supply and a crew of three entered the structure with a charged fire line.
As they began to pull ceiling, the captain didn’t like what he saw and heard emanating from the ceiling and began to back out his crew just as the ceiling began to collapse. As they reached the side door near the parking lot, the restaurant flashed over, and soon after, an HVAC unit on the roof dislodged, crashing through to restaurant floor. This quickly became a defensive fire that required several other departments to respond. It took nearly a year for the fast-food company to rebuild on the same site.
Serious injuries and potentially one or more firefighter fatalities were averted only because the captain recognized the fire was much more than a light fixture. His awareness of the building’s construction including the flat roof supporting several items (including the HVAC unit) prompted him to act when he did, saving his crew.
Corporate loss is planned for
With more and more commercial structures – including storage facilities and stand-alone fast-food restaurants – using lightweight wood construction, firefighters need to be aware of a building’s construction during the initial size-up and 360-degree assessment.
Look for signs that confirm the type of construction, and remember that a 360-degree walk-around is preferably done with a thermal imaging camera and includes looking for both a basement or underground storage area, as well as heavy objects suspended on the roof that were never designed to withstand the damage from direct fire impingement.
This initial assessment helps set the strategy – offensive, defensive or rescue mode – as well as the initial tactic – interior, exterior or transitional attack – and those key factors must be clearly relayed to all other responding units. It follows that the first arriving chief officer needs to either confirm that initial assessment; or change the tactics, strategy or both; but if doing so, must clearly announce these changes for all to safely operate on the scene.
Firefighter safety and pre-planning through construction awareness, especially when dealing with lightweight wooden construction, is not just the job of the Fire Inspection Bureau or the company officers. That responsibility lies with each of us, from the newest recruit to the chief of the department. It’s time we learn to occasionally stop by construction sites covered by our own and neighboring fire departments, have a chat with the foreman, and become familiar with the type of construction being used, then pass that information on to everyone.
Just because a building conforms within the current building code, doesn’t necessarily make it safe for a firefighter to operate within the interior when it’s on fire. Large restaurant chains statistically know how many locations throughout the country they will lose to fires each year. They build that number into their self-insurance plan when estimating their net annual revenue.
Firefighter deaths or injuries are not among those estimated corporate loss statistics, so a word to the wise: you must know your area and the buildings within it. The type of construction used in a well-involved structure fire is a key element to firefighter safety. When in doubt, err on the side of your safety and that of your crew members.