By David DeStefano
Photo by author.
Most of us in the fire service have referred to certain fires and other incidents as “routine.” Perhaps because they are typical or are frequent occurrences we tend to categorize them together for convenience. Is this convenience contributing a cavalier attitude toward these fires that may lead to firefighter deaths and injuries?
We fight the bulk of our fires in single and small multidwellings, often referred to as “bread and butter” (“routine”) fires. Yet every year firefighters are killed and injured in these so-called routine fires.
Some of the hazards we face in these occupancies are a result of design and construction practices. Others are based on occupancy and fire load. Additionally, environmental factors add danger to our firefighting efforts on a regular basis. These factors may all play a role no matter the size of the building or the frequency of the incident.
Therefore, keeping a sharp eye on some of the most likely “worst-case” scenarios at single and small multidwelling fires may help keep complacency at bay and suppress the “routine” attitude while operating at these fires.
The failure of a structural element during any stage of a fire is possible based on construction features, renovation, demolition, location and extent of the fire as well as the effect of firefighting activities. Structural failure at routine fires often occurs in the first few minutes of a fire attack, sometimes even before all the first-alarm companies have arrived. The wooden I- beams or lightweight wooden trusses supporting a floor or roof system may have been directly or indirectly affected by fire.
Scenario: The first-in engine begins its stretch to the front door, perhaps not realizing the fire is in the basement. The added weight and impact of the members causes several of the compromised wooden I-beans to collapse. The members are then dropped into the basement with the seat of the fire. In the case of a roof system being compromised, the same conditions may cause the members of the roof team to fall into and hung up in a burning loft.
In this scenario, the firefighters are likely repeating the same actions they have taken many times before at routine fires. Stretching in the front door of an occupied single-family dwelling usually works well at most fires. But performing a 360° size-up may provide important clues as to the location and extent of the fire that could cause the first-in engine to plan another avenue of attack. The roof team may have vented countless roofs successfully by working directly on the deck of a roof with a shallow or “walkable” pitch. However, if they fail to take the time to deploy a roof ladder or work from an aerial device, they run a much higher risk of death or injury if the roof system fails.
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