You face challenging fires all the time. You’ve received training to assess different types of fires and determine the best firefighting approach. In each issue of Community Fire Protection News, we show you a fire and ask you to make the call on a number of different measures. In this issue, you can view a video of an actual wildland fire and see the resulting destruction.
With more and more development taking place in and around areas that have never been cultivated, otherwise known as “wildlands,” has the fire service changed the way we operate? In this issue, you can view a video of wildland fires approaching developed areas. Watch the video and reply to the questions below. We’ll include your answers in the next issue. There are now more than 47 million homes in areas at high risk for wildfires, according to a study conducted by the U.S. Forest Service and several universities, with nearly 10 million sprouting in the “wildland-urban interface” areas between 2000 and 2010 alone. (Source NBC News, Monday, August 19, 2013)
- Have there been any changes in strategies or tactics when responding to fires in these areas?
- What, if any, proactive activities should firefighters be conducting that could reduce the fire risk within such areas?
- Should you commit firefighters and/or other resources to protect isolated structures that may be located within the path of the fire?
- Does your area mandate and enforce safe clearances around structures located within these areas?
- With the increase in residential homes within such areas, does your overall strategy change (offensive vs. defensive) if you discover that occupants refuse to leave their homes?
- How important is preplanning in determining the correct game plan at wildland-urban interface fires?
Results from Last Issue
In our last issue, you watched the residential fire video pictured here, and we asked you some questions. Here’s a summary of responses, including responses from (retired) Fire Chief Tom Weber, who recently joined Verisk Insurance Solutions – Commercial Property as our national director of Community Mitigation Services:
A recent report estimated that commercial building fires in 2011 caused more than $2.5 billion of property loss, 80 deaths, and 1,100 injuries.
- With the advent of lightweight wood and metal construction used to build commercial properties, what new strategies and/or tactics do you use on the fireground?
Battalion Chief Michael Williams of the Lakeland, Florida, Fire Department relates, “This is situational and dynamic. New studies from NIST and UL have debunked a lot of old myths concerning survivability of occupants within a structure fire. Once thought to be a contraindication for survivability, the studies are showing that a short burst from a straight stream from the exterior often cools the fire compartment and lowers the temperatures of the unburned gases and smoke. Once conditions allow, a rapid interior search and complete extinguishment can begin. With the amount of synthetic materials and hydrocarbons present in most modern occupancies, these tactics seem plausible.”
Tom Weber adds his own thoughts: “It’s extremely important to remember, there is very little time to fight a fire offensively once the structural areas of the building become involved. The window for safe interior attack is significantly less in these types of buildings. Offensive firefighting needs to be supported by continuing reevaluation. Conditions should be quickly improving, otherwise strong consideration should be given to a defensive operation. Ten minutes of a fire impinging on structural elements is a significant exposure, and it may already be too much time to avoid structural collapse.”
- Should you commit firefighters to search and rescue during fire attack or wait until the fire is controlled?
Chief Gary Allyn of the West Hartford, Connecticut, Fire Department states, “Based on the building construction, existing fire suppression systems, size, occupancy, occupants, fire conditions, duration of fire conditions, environmental conditions, and so on, the answer is ‘it depends.’ A building constructed from lightweight components was built with the principle of minimal investment for maximum return. Committing the greatest investment and resource (human life) to save other than a viable life is a decision that an incident commander must weigh. Our investment must have maximum return in lives saved. The building can be rebuilt.”
- Would you commit firefighters to roof ventilation before you knew the roof construction?
Battalion Chief Michael Williams responds that “this would depend on many variables: the purpose of the vent (fire attack or exposure control), the extent of the fire, length of burn time, and available personnel to support the mission.”
Tom Weber adds: “This is another situation that requires the incident commander to weigh all options and determine the value of roof work. Can a firefighter perform the work safely from the bucket of an aerial tower? Is there an alternative to roof ventilation? Is the roof able to be vented, or is it prestressed concrete? Knowledge of the building’s construction through preplanning is the best start to a successful engagement.”
- Does your state mandate truss placards for floor and roof construction? (Please answer yes or no and give your state.)
- With the increase in unoccupied commercial buildings, does your overall strategy change if you know the building is vacant (offensive vs. defensive)?
- How important is preplanning to determining the correct “game plan” at commercial building fires?
Tom Weber answers, “Very few states have implemented truss identification laws. Among those that have are Florida, New Jersey, New York, and Vermont. Some cities have implemented the program on their own, for example Chesapeake, Virginia, and San Francisco, California. These signs not only warn firefighters about the use of lightweight building materials, but the public is starting to take notice. And when they ask about the signs, they’re usually very surprised to hear how fast uncontrolled fire conditions could result in building failure.”
Captain Bill Pond of the Hartford, Connecticut, Fire Department states that his plan of action must be flexible. He would consider the attack options based on a risk-benefit analysis that includes “conditions of the building alarm and protection systems, such as sprinkler, standpipe, and FDC.” He would also consider “the former use of the occupancy, current fire load, extent of fire, and the level of risk to personnel.”
Chief Gary Allyn says, “Prefire planning is one of the most critical job functions firefighters can do to prepare for and reduce the risk of injuries and death. From the information gained by Life Safety Code inspections and prefire planning, tactics for a particular construction type or occupancy are considered, especially the mode of attack — offensive or defensive. Additionally, conducting simulations on the preplanned properties helps fire personnel “put it all together.” Currently, all our company officers are certified Life Safety Code Inspectors, and more than 500 preplans exist for target hazard buildings of the nearly 600 buildings identified. Knowing buildings and occupancies in your first-due area is critical to service delivery and safety of fire personnel and the public. Gathering as much information about the building — fire protection systems and fire conditions, 360o size-up, occupancy, and whether the building is occupied — will determine the first minutes of suppression activities.”