The Building Stage

A number of recent large fires at wood buildings under construction have resulted in substantial fire department responses and significant damage. (Photo by Bill Tompkins.)
A number of recent large fires at wood buildings under construction have resulted in substantial fire department responses and significant damage. (Photo by Bill Tompkins.)

A number of recent large fires at wood buildings under construction have resulted in substantial fire department responses and significant damage to not only the building being built but exposures as well. These fires have occurred in the following:

  • Oakland, California (2017).
  • Boston, Massachusetts (2017).
  • College Park, Maryland (2017).
  • Maplewood, New Jersey (2017).
  • Raleigh, North Carolina (2017).
  • Overland Park, Kansas (2017).
  • San Francisco, California (2014).
  • Los Angeles, California (2014).

A fire that started in a building under construction but damaged or destroyed several large, occupied exposure buildings that were also wood construction occurred in Conshohocken, a Philadelphia suburb, in 2008. There certainly have been others, as well, but these are a good list of notable recent occurrences.

In the past two years, I have traveled to 20 states, maybe more, from North Dakota to Maine, Florida, New Mexico, California, and Oregon. Almost everywhere that I have traveled, I have seen four-story wood buildings being built: hotels, apartment buildings, condos, and even “taxpayers” with a floor or two of commercial construction on the bottom (a “pedestal”) with four floors of wood above. It reminds me of the boom of construction of garden apartments when I was rather young; they were going up all over, and the fire service saw the results starting a decade or so later - and still going today. One does not need a costly study to see that we will continue to see wood construction persist into the foreseeable future, presenting considerable challenges for firefighting efforts during the construction phase of these buildings.

According to the United States Census Bureau, construction spending has gone up about 40 percent since 2011 (www.census.gov/construction/c30/historical_data.html). Although a number of the communities where these fires have already occurred were “big cities,” Maplewood is a suburban township of about 23,000 people, and Conshohocken is a suburban town of about 8,000 people. Construction is happening across the board, in communities of all sizes. In all of the examples listed above, the fire department arrived on scene with what truly was “heavy fire” showing, and many of the fires occurred during the work day, not in the wee hours of the night. In almost every case, the fire was spreading rapidly with exposures threatened. How ready will you be if this scenario comes to your community?

Let’s help to be sure that you are ready. Every fire department needs to be connected to development plans in their community. You must understand not only what is being built now but what is or can be coming to your fire district in the future. Will you even have one or more fire stations in the area to cover the new development? Is the water supply infrastructure there now or will it be built BEFORE construction starts? If there is a supply there, will it be sufficient to handle a fire involving the planned buildings while they are under construction? If there is no nearby water supply, you need to figure out alternatives. You need to figure this out during the planning stages; when dirt is being moved for the project, it will be too late. Be sure that you have found numerous sources with large-flow capacities.

TACTICS

On arrival, you will need to quickly triage the scene and determine what you have a chance of saving and what is gone or will be gone soon. If only studs are up, there may be little chance of saving much, if any, of the original fire building. Even if walls are in place but not finished and fire protection systems not yet installed, fire will be moving quickly both vertically and horizontally through the building and the void spaces. The fire may likely transmit to the attic space very quickly. Some interior firefighting may be possible, but you will not have the protection of the egress paths and spaces below you that you might normally have to give some time to operate above the fire. Command must have eyes and ears all around and inside the building; everyone must be working with their “heads on a swivel” to maintain situational awareness if any crews will be operating within the fire building. The building has not been accepted by building inspectors and cannot be assumed to have the same fire resistance that a finished building would have. Incident commanders should be prepared to not allow the same operational time leeway that they might in a finished, occupied building.

You may simply need to protect exposures, and initial efforts should be directed to savable properties to prevent spread, often downwind. Be sure you have evaluated these exposures during preplan walk-throughs. During a major fire, apply large-caliber cooling streams directly on the exposure building as you likely won’t have the gallons per minute (gpm) to make much of a dent on the fire building itself if it is well-involved. Try to avoid breaking windows on exposure buildings, as they will help to provide some minimal protection against radiant heat. You may have limited resources at the onset of the fire attack, so do a quick size-up as best you can to find the optimal location for first-arriving units. As quickly as you can, establish divisions on at least two sides of the building so that you have someone with eyes on all exposures for what can be very rapidly changing conditions. Be careful placing apparatus; taking normal position near the fire building can result in severe damage or loss of the apparatus and even hoselines. Just ask the firefighters who have been early in on these fires.

These buildings are most vulnerable when the wood only is constructed and no interior or exterior walls have been finished with drywall or other material that can provide some protection against unimpeded fire spread. Understand that fires occurring during this time period may resemble a wildland fire, with extremely hot temperatures, high radiant heat, and exponential fire extension beyond what many firefighters can comprehend. If the building is mostly unfinished, it will likely collapse into itself faster than you think, and once that occurs you are facing essentially a large rubbish pile fire. You must be prepared to have all companies go in service with what the Philadelphia (PA) Fire Department calls your “heaviest water lines.”

Every fire department needs to be connected to development plans in their community. (Photo by Pixabay.)

Hopefully, you have the water supply available, and deck guns and portable deck guns will likely be the order of the day. Aerial master streams can also be important but, as already discussed, be very careful where you place your apparatus and aim your stream. What wasn’t on fire just a few minutes ago may now be on fire, and bringing the aerial down and relocating the apparatus may not happen that quickly. Be sure that your water stream is actually helping accomplish an objective, not aimlessly directed into the main body of fire where you may make minimal headway. You can easily require 4,000 to 5,000 gpm on a fire involving a good-sized building under construction and need to have someone coordinating water supply. Know where high-flow hydrants are located, and assign large-diameter hose companies to lay from them with hookups on multiple hydrant outlets and dual supply lines if the hydrants are capable. Get as much as you can from each water supply.

There may or may not be buildings exposed to radiant heat from a fire like this, but you can be sure that embers will be a critical problem. This can be worsened during dry and windy conditions. Many of these fires have resulted in exposure fires downwind from embers. If the only downwind exposure is brush, using brush trucks for ember patrol may be sufficient. However, any potential for downwind structure exposures will require deploying one or more engine and ladder companies to ember patrol. Don’t skimp on this responsibility - the original fire building may be a lost cause, but don’t lose downwind exposure buildings as well.

PREPARATION

Both National Fire Protection Association 1, Fire Code, and the International Fire Code call for building representatives to develop preplans for buildings under construction, and fire departments should work closely with developers to see that this happens. The preplans should evolve as the building construction moves forward, identifying water supplies, access, utilities (temporary for construction or once permanently installed), temporary standpipes when provided, progress on any fire protection systems, and occupancy of construction workers and any others. If fire department connections are present, what do they supply and are they hooked up?

Regular walk-throughs of the site (at least weekly) should be conducted by all shifts of first-due units or as many volunteers as can be mustered. Fire inspection personnel should be doing walk-throughs as well and watching out for ignition sources such as smoking and burning/cutting/welding. Use your local code requirements, but point out fire hazards that could result in serious fires and educate the construction team as to what has happened in the cities mentioned early in this article. Preventing fires in these buildings during construction will require constant vigilance.

OPERATIONAL PERIODS

These incidents will be highly labor intensive; do not hesitate to strike additional alarms quickly. Some of these fires have burned for days, so a planning chief will be vital to plan for ongoing operational periods. Lots of long line stretches and heavy duty truck work will be needed if you will mount any type of interior attack. If going defensive only, use of heavy streams and significant efforts to obtain water supply will be needed for success. Remember that applying 1,000 gpm into a fire building using a master stream is applying more than four tons of water per minute into the building - not something that the building under construction was necessarily designed to handle. Discipline to stay focused on assigned tasks, such as staying out of the initial fire building, protecting exposures, and staying on ember patrol, cannot be overemphasized.

Commanding one of these incidents will require a good team; no one individual will be able to accomplish this task alone. There is no doubt you will need to bring your A game across the board when faced with one of these incidents and need to have some good colleagues helping you. Take the time to study these buildings while they are under construction - you just might need every bit of intelligence to have any level of success at these fires.

Current Issue

August 2017
Volume 12, Issue 8
1708FR_C1.pdf
Pennwell