Parapet walls: A potential firefighter killer

While on an emergency scene with a potential for collapse, we must clearly define and establish a collapse zone for all structures and parapets walls

Firefighters are faced with many dangers when on the job. If we study past fatal firefighter incidents, history will tell us parapet walls are proven killers during fireground operations. A few basic concepts can protect firefighters from future parapet-related fatalities.

Most importantly, fire departments should establish and implement written standard operating procedures when operating on the fireground. These guidelines are critical for setting the tone and the path for conducting emergency operations, and will also increase the effectiveness of the firefighters, officers, and command structure.

Next, officers and firefighters must continuously analyze the building to identify collapse potential. When fire is involved, the threat for collapse should always be considered.

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Understanding building construction is critical. Stress should be placed not only on situational awareness and continual size-up, but response size-up. Know your response area and know the related building construction within it. This will help expedite decisions during emergency operations.

During operations, we must take special note of factors that may signal potential collapse of a parapet wall. These may include bulging or cracked masonry walls, a wavy or curved appearance to a normally straight surface, unlevel top parapet ledge, failed connections, or separations between parapet wall and side wall, and parapet wall and flat roof.

Sometimes you can visualize potential failure by noticing that façade signs, HVAC units, or overhangs are racked, out of shape, or compromised. This may be a signal of worse things to come.

While on an emergency scene with a potential for collapse, we must clearly define and establish a collapse zone for all structures and parapet walls that may be susceptible to collapse.

A parapet wall has little, if any, lateral stability and will present a high potential for collapse. Often decorative signs or awnings are attached to the parapet wall.

We can never be sure that the parapet was engineered to take the weight and forces now being applied by additional dead and live loads, wind loads, and in our case a compromised structure as a result of fire.

When establishing a collapse zone, we take the height of the building times 1 ½ to account for falling and scattered debris.

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Another critical element in preventing parapet-related firefighter deaths is preplanning. I often talk about size-up, which is a concept that should not be limited to the fire scene itself.

Size-up needs to start even before the run goes out. If we can identify occupancies that present additional risk to life, safety, and property in our response area, we can establish plans for that specific target hazard.

This preplanning will promote not only safer but more effective operations. In turn this may also increase our ability to save lives and protect property. When preplanning, NIOSH recommends identifying the following:

  • Age of structure
  • Structural integrity
  • Type of roof structure and supports
  • Type of interior support structures
  • Building materials
  • Types or class of building

Additional hazards such as life, hazmat, exposure risks, water source, etc. may be considered as well.

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Finally, fire departments should ensure that a separate Safety Officer is put in place. In researching parapet- and collapse-related firefighter fatalities, you will find that in some cases the IC was acting as both positions.

In departments with very little manpower, this often becomes difficult. Departments with staffing issues may need to have a policy with adjacent jurisdictions for a Safety Officer response.

According to NFPA 1521, Section 6, "the incident safety officer shall be integrated with the incident management system as a command staff member, as specified in NFPA 1561, Standard on Emergency Services Incident Management System."

NIOSH recommends, "The ISO would inform the IC as existing or potential hazards are identified and addressed. The ISO shall have the authority to alter, suspend, or terminate those activities judged to be unsafe or to involve an imminent hazard."

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References and additional resources
Collapse of Burning Buildings: A Guide to Fireground Safety, V Dunn 

NIOSH 1999 Preventing injuries and deaths of fire fighters due to structural collapse

NIOSH Parapet Wall Collapse at Auto Body Shop Claims Life of Career Captain and Injures Career Lieutenant and Emergency Medical Technician - October 3, 2003

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