Most of the articles that I write are for the benefit of the readers, but every once in a while, I write to the men and women that put on a firefighter’s uniform and report to duty at their respective station. Firefighters are required to know a great deal about building construction and the effects that fire can have on a particular building. A common type of construction, in my day, was ordinary construction. This construction type is defined as masonry or brick walls, with a wood floor and roof. In fact, my house is built this way. Early on in my career, most ordinary-constructed buildings were masonry walls, with stick built floors and roof systems. These buildings were able to withstand a pretty heavy fire load. This all changed when prefabricated trusses became part of the floor and roof systems. Fire damage to one or two trusses could cause the floor or roof to weaken, to the point of early collapse.
I am watching the doughnut shop being built on West Hundred Road, where the Gulf station used to be. I guess that you would still call it ordinary construction, with masonry walls and a wood truss roof system sitting on a concrete slab. From a firefighting perspective, I see two different truss systems stacked on top of each other. It is normal to find the HVAC units in the middle of a flat portion of the roof in this type of construction. A fire above the ceiling would be an indication of the need to back out or never enter and go to a defensive attack. The roof system, built using wooden-truss construction, adds to the fire load and leads to early collapse. The next construction type up is masonry construction with steel roof systems. The problem is that steel bar joist, though non-flammable, still collapse early when fire penetrates. The only way to know that the fire is above you is to have gotten a good 360-degree view of the building from the outside and to open ceiling tiles as you go in.
There have been far too many firefighters that have lost their lives due to roof collapse. Whether it is a building that was built 60 years ago or a building built in the 21st century, the potential for collapse exists in both. Some older buildings were built with bowstring trusses – usually buildings with a large showroom or garage area – noted for their early collapse. These buildings are still being used today. Newer buildings are built with lightweight materials which is better for the consumer, but bad for firefighters once they are involved in fire.
Chesterfield County has a Fire & Life Safety Division that focuses on inspection of buildings that are in the planning stages, buildings that are under construction and high target-hazard buildings, as well as investigation of all building fires. I could go on about the duties and responsibilities of this division, but my point is that the fire service, in most localities, is involved in civilian and firefighter safety, in the planning stage and beyond. If you see an engine, medic, or ladder truck riding around a building under construction or parked at a facility – most likely doing a site visit – this is for the well-being of all, both citizens and firefighters. Today’s construction is focused on keeping costs down for consumers, much more than focusing on the firefighters that will have to fight the fire. Building inspectors and fire marshals ensure that the approved standard is met. Where would we be without them? To every firefighter who reads this, stay sharp about what is being built in your first and second due, and learn building construction as though your life depended on it, because it does.