Tips to being structure smart

Understanding building construction is more than memorizing the five types; it's about knowing the different characteristics to gain an advantage

When the tones drop, we should be creating a picture of the situation we are responding to, the type of building and its unique characteristics. This not only includes exterior characteristics but also interior characteristics as they relate to our tactics and ability to proceed safely and efficiently.

It's not enough for firefighters and officers to regurgitate the classic types of construction; we must have a working knowledge of the buildings that we are responding to and operating in.

The same old building construction classes are not enough; they only hit on generalizations. When I ask students what they get out of the building construction classes that they have attended, a common response is:

  • Trusses are bad.
  • Light-weight construction is bad.
  • A rundown of Type I, II, III, IV, V construction characteristics.

Then they roll their eyes when I tell them we are going to go over building construction for the fire service, again. However, we get tactical and specific with construction features that they can actually use. We must provide information and techniques that firefighters and officers can use when the building is on fire and we are operating inside.

We know trusses can be bad and that low-mass (light-weight) construction creates many challenges for us tactically. What we need to spend more time on is figuring out building layout, unique characteristics that indicate room and spaces and being able to use those to plan for tactical proficiency.

It is important that firefighters know the interior indicators and clues to use for orientation. This is not necessarily about being lost, but more about knowing where you are in the building. This can assist us in determining stair location, rooms and spaces that may have victims, and ensure we are stretching the line in accordance with what we saw on the exterior during our size up and 360 degree evaluation.

Depending on the type of house — ranch, cottage, two-story farm, split-level or two-story modern — we can use the knowledge of how those houses were built to our advantage. In many cases we start to make these determinations from the outside and based on being in similar structures either during emergency calls or while visiting friends or family.

Being above the fire is never a good thing, so during a confirmed basement fire we want to spend as little time as possible looking for the stairs. The first thing we need to recognize is the proximity of the stairs based on the type of house. These are not always 100 percent, but a really good bet when looking for the stairs descending to the basement.

Ranch and two-story
In a traditional ranch home the stairs are usually located between the front living room and the kitchen. Look for outward-swinging doors in those areas. If the garage door is open, take a peak in the door from the attached garage leading into the house, in older ranch homes the outward-swinging door for the stairs may be right there.

There are some smaller ranch homes that will have stairs at the beginning of the hallway. Check those two corners of the hall for outward swinging doors; they will be closets or the stairs. It doesn't take long to check. Those are the most common three locations for the stairs in a ranch home.

In two-story houses the stairs are normally located in the middle of the house. As you walk in most two-story homes the stairs going up will be near the front entry door. 

This makes it easy to find the stairs to the basement. On the opposite side of the stairs going up will be either an open stair well in modern homes or an outward-swinging door for enclosed stairs.

Doors and floors
When looking for bedrooms or living spaces look at which way the door swings. Bedroom doors will typically swing into the room. This helps us quickly identify habitable rooms to search for victims. We can pretty well count outward-swinging doors as closets and enclosed stairs. In some homes it could be a utility room, but most of those swing inward as well.

In traditional or older homes we can get a sense for where we are based on the transition of flooring. Going from carpet to a hard flooring while not passing through a door strongly indicates that we have gone from some sort of living space into a functional space like a dining area or kitchen. 

If we can find cabinets, we can likely find the exterior wall and thus a door or window if we need to make a hasty exit. It also provides us with some orientation to where we are in the house based on what we saw from the exterior indicators.

One last quick tip is to look for air registers. These are typically below windows and on exterior walls. Now, if you are on the second floor many air registers will be in the ceiling. But, on the main or ground level, air registers can help you identify windows and exterior walls to re-orient yourself or make an exit.

Take this information and use it to build upon and find other characteristics out there that you can learn, teach and use for tactical proficiency. Building construction is more than types and low-mass construction; it is about using the information of the building to gain an advantage.

Keep training and thanks for reading. I'll see you next month from the fireground.

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