What do I mean by “built to burn?”
There are some buildings that simply should not catch fire, for if they do, they will surely be destroyed. Some buildings were built hundreds of years ago before fire and building codes. There are buildings that were built in a location with no thought of fire extinguishment. If you live or own one of these buildings, I am sure that you are paying a lot to insure the building, if you are able to insure it.
I will start with the high-rise building that has no sprinkler or standpipe system. A high-rise is any building that is built higher than the reach of a fire department’s aerial ladder. Even with the standpipe, firefighters have to carry hose and equipment necessary to fight the fire. Without a sprinkler system, the fire will extend rapidly. The harder it is for firefighters to access the fire, the more damage that will occur.
Sometimes, the location of a building will lead to its destruction by fire. I remember a house in Station 14 that was back in the woods. A winding, single-lane, dirt road was the only access to this house. A brush truck, designed to fight woodland fires only, is the only piece of fire apparatus that could make it to the house. Trees on both sides of the driveway prevent the engine or truck from being able to gain access.
How about the building on an island? If it is not built with a sprinkler system and the fire department does not have the resources needed to fight a fire on an island, then the building will be destroyed. Even when fire department resources are enhanced – such as using a fireboat – proximity is dependent on channel depth and distance to the building.
The longer it takes firefighters to set up a good water flow, the faster the fire will advance. Readily accessible water supply is vital to an adequate fire flow. An old fire department statement: if the gallons per minute do not exceed the British Thermal Units, then we are sorry out of luck.
Buildings built remote from fire hydrants require tankers to shuttle water. If no hydrants exist, then ponds, lakes, rivers or swimming pools must be used. Shuttling water takes time, and time cuts the maximum water flow. A quick reference formula for fire flow is length times width divided by three and then multiplied by the percentage of the room or building involved. This gives the recommended gallons per minute flow. Here’s an example: a 30-foot x 60-foot rancher that is 25 percent involved requires 150 GPM on one hand line from a standard pumper. All is good as long as there is adequate water supply and adequate pump capacity. However, when either or both of these are limited, 25 percent of the buidling becomes 50 percent becomes 100 percent faster than you know.
Old buildings that are in remote locations have probably not been retrofitted with sprinkler systems. Even if they have, all spaces would have to be sprinklered. If access by firefighters and their equipment is limited and no sprinkler system is in place, then one of two scenarios come into play: firefighters must work to get to the fire or the fire burns to firefighters and their equipment.
Construction features are another reason that buildings are built to burn. Lightweight construction is cheaper, but more dangerous when buildings catch fire. It involves truss roofs and truss floors, which when subjected to fire can cause quick collapse.
Firefighters are required to know basic building construction and know what the fire behavior will be in the various construction types. This led to a motto in Chesterfield Fire & EMS: “Risk a lot to save a life” and “risk nothing to save nothing.” Buildings can be built every day, but a human life that is lost cannot be replaced.
The fire service does everything possible to stand ready to fight every fire in a locality. Problems arise when fire protection is not considered in construction.
I consider firefighters to be some God uses to perform miracles, but even then, there are some things that cannot be overcome.
Be sure to have a practiced home escape plan.