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Among the several causes of firefighter fatalities that occur in the United States, structural collapse ranks fourth. Brassell and Evans (2003) define structural collapse as the “gradual weakening of structures by fire” (p. 4). The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) made public a report indicating that eight firefighters died in 2013 as a result of the roof, floor or ceiling collapses that occurred in separate incidences (Fahy, LeBlanc, & Molis, 2014). It is disheartening that the very people charged with the responsibility of rescuing both victims and property from burning buildings lose their lives in the course of duty. The structural collapse prevalence has been exacerbated by the contemporary use of lightweight construction materials with little fire resistance and high flammability. This paper briefly explores the history of firefighter fatalities due to structural collapse and presents a policy geared towards their elimination.Literature review
Structural collapse is an old challenge associated with burning buildings. Brassell and Evans (2003) describe it as an “insidious problem” because it occurs without any warning, and can, therefore, claim many lives of firefighters both inside and outside a burning building (p. 2). The earliest investigations into these fatalities stemmed from the analyses done by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to identify the trends and possible causes of firefighter deaths related to the structural collapse. This it did by examining the data on fallen firefighters collected and compiled by organizations such as the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA), National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and NFPA. The data covered the period between 1979 and 2002. The findings from the research showed an increasing rate of collapses in residential buildings over the years, claiming more than 180 firefighter deaths (Brassell & Evans, 2003). Further results indicate that the deaths stemmed from two main causes: those who were caught or trapped in burning buildings (60%) and those struck by objects outside the buildings (40%). In addition, 65% of the collapse fatalities occurred during aggressive fire attack, with victims succumbing to death after suffering burns, asphyxiation, and internal trauma. These conclusions highlight the magnitude of this problem, and the severity of the injuries sustained by firefighters that critically reduce their chances of survival.
The use of lightweight construction is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it significantly reduces building costs and maintenance costs that would otherwise accrue due to decay and termite infestation (Thompson, 2006). However, such materials are less resistant to fires and are highly flammable. For instance, the lightweight steel begins losing its strength at 4000 F and typically buckles at temperatures above 10000 F (Thompson, 2006). Despite this deficiency, lightweight steel is a common construction material used in reinforcing walls, floors, and roofs of residential and non-residential buildings. The use of lightweight wood in building roof trusses, thin boards and I-beams has its origins in the 1960s. The engineered wood is mainly plywood and other softwoods that ignite readily. Fire tests conducted on unprotected wooden I-beams indicate that such materials fail in approximately 6 minutes (Joerger, 2014). These tests estimate a window period of only 20 minutes, after which firefighters must evacuate a burning building. The poor workmanship that accompanies such construction contributes to the quick weakening of the structural support. These errors include loose screws, weak joints and connections, and unnecessarily large attics and vents that allow the air that propagates fires.Risk Assessment
Structural collapse is an apparent danger in every fire scenario. Most fires occur within the “first 8 hours of the day, typically between 12 a.m. and 7.59 a.m.” (Brassell & Evans, 2003). These are the periods when the majority of the population are asleep, and are, therefore, likely to overlook the safety precautions of appliances that can cause fires. It is also possible that the firefighters on duty may doze off a few times, causing them to be sluggish when responding to and combating fires. Slow motor reactions to unusual sounds or vibrations in a burning building are a recipe for a fatality. Firefighters usually reach the scene after the onset of the fire. Hence, they do not take necessary steps to approximate the time the fire started and become trapped in the building when the standard 20-minute window elapses. Furthermore, those who attack the fire from the outside get so engrossed in their work that they fail to keep a safe distance from burning buildings. As a result, they get injured by the objects thrown in the air when the buildings collapse. Fatality risk is further aggravated by the increased usage of lightweight construction materials. For instance, most residential buildings use lightweight wood that acts a fuel for the fires. Non-residential buildings widely use lightweight steel. Statistics approximates 81% and 47% use of lightweight steel on interior walls and exterior walls respectively (Thompson, 2006). Its large-scale use lowers the probability of rescuing victims or salvaging property from such buildings. Moreover, lightweight steel buckles in less than half the time approximated for the collapse of lightweight wood.Recommendations
Fire departments can significantly reduce fatalities by implementing a comprehensive risk management training program that focuses on the unique aspects of the structural collapse. These individual factors include detection, characteristics, and hazards of lightweight construction. The training manual designed by fire departments should include the classifications of buildings as enumerated by the International Codes Council (ICC). These classes are arranged from Type I to Type V buildings. The distinguishing criteria is the degree of fire resistance and flammability of the construction materials (Coffey, 2011). The knowledge of the hazards to expect when combating fires in such buildings will enable firefighters remain vigilant to be able to detect any unsafe conditions or unusual vibrations that might indicate a looming collapse. Moreover, fire personnel requires training on how to establish and maintain collapse zones on the scenes. Collapse zones cover the immediate perimeter areas around a burning building within which the debris are likely to fall when the building collapses. Brannigan, Smits, Corbett, and the NFPA (2008) recommend a safety distance of “at least the full height of the wall” of a building (p. 303). These zones should be clearly demarcated using flashing beacons and colored tapes. However, vigilance is still mandatory to ensure personnel do not get carried away with their duties as to creep up near the fire. Secondly. The fire departments, in association with local authorities such as the mayoral offices, should develop and implement regulations that require contractors to mark buildings built using lightweight materials distinctly. These visible, symbols will make it easy for firefighters to identify lightweight construction and assist them in creating accurate scenario plans and situational analyses that will significantly reduce fatalities.Conclusion
Firefighter fatalities stemming from structural collapse can be mitigated or eliminated by adopting proper fire management tactics. Most of these deaths occur because firefighters often lower their guard when combating fires. The decreased level of situational awareness means unusual sounds or collapse signals go unnoticed until it is too late for the firefighters to escape from the burning buildings. This inattention also affects firefighters operating from the outside because they fail to adhere to the collapse zone restrictions. However, the implementation of an all-inclusive training program, combined with the adoption of building marking regulations will prevent injuries and deaths.
Brannigan, F. L., Smits, D., Corbett, G. P., & National Fire Protection Association. (2008). Collapse. In Building construction for the fire service (4th ed., pp. 300-304). Retrieved from https://books.google.co.ke/books?id=iiBeqD7R6FkC&printsec=frontcover&dq= Building+construction+for+the+fireservice+%284thed.%29&hl=en&sa=X&ei=wicfVezaHMj1aqTzgIAK&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=Building%20construction%20for%20the%20firese rvice%20%284thed.%29&f=false
Brassell, L. D., & Evans, D. D. (2003). Trends in firefighter fatalities due to structural collapse, 1979-2002 (NISTIR 7069). Retrieved from http://www.fire.nist.gov/bfrlpubs/fire03/PDF/ f03024.pdf
Coffey, M. (2011). Building construction: How it effects your firefighting. Carolina Fire Rescue EMS Journal. Retrieved from http://www.carolinafirejournal.com/articles/article-detail/articleid/1465/building-construction-how-it-effects-your-firefighting.aspx
Fahy, R. F., LeBlanc, P. R., & Molis, J. L. (2014). Firefighter fatalities in the United States - 2013. Retrieved from NFPA website: www.nfpa.org/~/media/files/research/nfpa-reports/fire-service-statistics/osfff.pdf?la=en
Joerger, S. (2014, January 24). Modern Wood-Frame Construction: Firefighting Problems and Tactics. Retrieved April 4, 2015, from http://www.fireengineering.com/articles/print/ volume-167/issue-1/features/modern- wood-frame-construction-firefighting-problems-and-tactics.html
Thompson, K. K. (2006, June 1). The dangers of lightweight steel construction. Retrieved April 4, 2015, from http://www.fireengineering.com/articles/print/volume-159/issue-6/features/the-dangers-of-lightweight-steel-construction.html
Fire Service Safety Policy – Tucson Fire Department
Proposed April 5, 2015
Purpose: To enumerate the safety precautions against structural collapse when combating fire in residential and non-residential buildings.
Scope: All employees, both administrative and those actively involved in daily fire rescue missions. This policy extends to administrative employees because they may find themselves in the scenes of fire, especially when the fire is extensive and more foot soldiers are needed.
Structural collapse training
3.1.1. The fire department shall implement a comprehensive risk management training regarding structural collapse for all employees, including those in administrative and supervisory duties.
3.1.2. The training shall cover areas such as;
184.108.40.206. Methods for identifying lightweight buildings
220.127.116.11. Characteristics of lightweight buildings
18.104.22.168. Hazards associated with lightweight construction
22.214.171.124. The five classifications of building construction as listed by the International Codes Council (ICC).
126.96.36.199. Establishing and maintain collapse zones
188.8.131.52. Types of building collapses
3.1.3. The collapse zones shall be clearly marked using red flashing beacons and yellow tapes strung along the safety perimeter of burning buildings. This policy proposes a safety distance of about 1.5 times the height of such buildings.
3.1.4. The collapse zones shall be initiated by the incident officer, who shall appoint 2 to 4 firefighters to man the established safety perimeter.
3.1.5. The training shall be conducted annually, and shall encompass both in-house and on-site training methods for practical results.
3.1.6. Firefighters who shall fail to undertake the trainings shall be deemed unfit and unqualified to engage in any rescue operations. The department shall, therefore, relieve him/her of his/her duties.
3.1.7. Firefighters who shall not meet the required credit after undertaking the training shall wait for at least 6 months before trying again. If the employee cannot pass the training after the second attempt, the department shall assign him/her non-rescue tasks or relieve him/her of his/her duties, as it shall see fit.
Demarcation symbols for lightweight construction (Pending legislation)
3.2.1. If the Mayoral Council of Tucson city passes this legislation, the Tucson Fire Department shall have the mandate to develop unique symbols for marking lightweight construction buildings.
3.2.2. These symbols shall be adopted by all contractors operating in Tucson city. The contractors will be responsible for marking lightweight buildings after their construction is complete in a manner that makes the symbols visible from the street for easy identification.
3.2.3. All incident officers and supervisors in the Tucson Fire Department shall ensure that all employees or team members under their instruction are familiar with such symbols.
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