There has been much discussion about fighting fires in protected buildings. The father of building construction Francis Brannigan insisted “the building is your enemy, know your enemy.” To this end we’ve looked at buildings and over time, most of us have come to realize that it makes an awful lot of sense to use the building for everything it can give us. While we know buildings can snatch us up, let’s take advantage of them as well. Commercial buildings tend to have more “built-in” active and passive protection systems than residential although when looking at high-rise or large area apartment complexes and similar occupancies, they have their share of these built-ins as well. When these devices are installed properly and maintained regularly, they do a great job of protecting the occupants, assisting firefighters and maintaining the building in an up-right position and I know we all like that!
Let’s take a look at some of these systems and see how we can put them to work for us strategically and tactically. You may even think about pre-fire planning or assisting the Fire Marshal’s office but don’t tell anyone about that. That’s waaaay too far out of the box, right?
Passive Fire Protection - Discussion:
Let’s look at something as simple as a fire door for example. It stands to reason it’s called a fire door for the sole purpose of holding back fire. I’ll go out on a limb and believe that fire ground strategists (incident commanders and company officers) would like to confine and contain the fire in its area of origin as would the line folks. Keeping fire doors closed or closing open ones will help you do just that that. The door and everything around it is known as a “rated assembly.” That includes the frame, hinges, door check, handle and latch, etc. When the door is tested at a nationally recognized laboratory, they put fire against the entire assembly and then rate it for time (1 hour, 1 ½ hours, two hours, etc.) Using doors alone will buy the occupants time to evacuate and will buy you time to organize your thoughts and do a size up while providing a safe haven. It is as important to close or keep closed these devices during a fire as it is to inspect them regularly and report them for repair. Don’t leave it solely to the Fire Marshal’s office. Take action and get it done as if your life depends on it because it might. Other things to look for while you are out and about:
• the integrity of spray-on fire proofing
• fire stopping where rated walls are penetrated
• smoke doors and barriers are working, self-closing, no obstructions
• fire barriers are undisturbed, integrity in tact
Passive Systems - Tactical Considerations:
• If a rated door, window or shutter is open, close it
• If a rated door, window or shutter is closed, leave it closed
• When checking for fire extension, insure complete fire control prior to opening rated walls, ceilings, etc.
• Incident Commanders should assume that the rated devices, walls etc. are only rated for half of what they were designed for, as a safety margin
• Pre-plan your target hazards showing passive systems, how they work and how to use them to your advantage
• Know that passive protection may the building’s only protection
Active Fire Protection - Discussion:
Sprinklers, standpipes, fire alarms, detection, special extinguishing systems etc. make up the world of active fire protection. (Things that move, flow, expel, sound and flash.) Like passive systems, they need to be installed correctly and maintained in order for them to be effective. Although they all seem similar, active systems are designed for the occupancy they protect. Some examples are: The number and type of sprinkler heads installed in a building depends on a few things like what is being protected (warehouse vs. office space), how high the ceilings are, available water supply and many other factors. Another example; smoke detection systems are installed with consideration of room configuration, ceiling height and configuration, occupancy type, etc. Special extinguishing systems are placed in areas for specific hazards and are engineered for that the hazard, like a clean agent system in a computer room or a foam system on a bulk storage tank.
When you’re pre-fire planning or doing inspections (you are doing these, right?), look for defects or impairments and get going. Again, you are urged to not shrug it off and leave it to the Fire Marshal. Work with your Fire Marshal’s Office. I hate to be the one to tell you but they are the most informed fire people in your district! Take action and get it done as if your life depends on it because it might.
Other things to look for while you are out and about:
• Go to the valve room. Insure all water supply valves are fully open.
• Go to the pump room. Make sure valves are open and everything is in service
• Insure there is power to fire alarm panels and there are no trouble signals
• Insure all special protection systems are in service. Check special panels
• Check water supplies on private properties (tanks, suction tanks, cisterns)
• Get the owner’s permission to play with fire alarms, voice communication systems, fire phones and smoke control systems. (You can’t figure these out at 0300.)
• Make sure there is a clear set of instructions in the fire panel that you can use and understand.
Active Systems – Tactical Considerations
• Assign a firefighter with a radio to the sprinkler control valves and/or pump room.
• Shut sprinklers only upon the order of the IC and insure a well-coordinated ventilation and suppression attack is ready. (Leave the FF at the valve to open it back up if needed!)
• If a fire is imminent, and a special hazard system is installed (range hood protection in a restaurant, clean agent in a computer room, etc.) discharge the system via pull station or activation button. Let the system do what it was designed to do and allow it to operate. You’ll be glad you did.
• It is always prudent to wear full PPE. It’s especially prudent to wear it in or near special systems. In the case of a total flooding CO2 system, the gas will bring the 02 level below 15%, not good for us. You also need to wear SCBA if you are checking adjacent spaces in case the media leaked into the next room especially the cylinder storage room.
• Use voice systems to give occupants instructions. If your radios are not working up to par (who’s do?), use it to give instructions to your firefighters. Remind personnel that they may be able to use a house phone to call a lobby command post or Fire Command Center.
• If there is a Fire Command Center, assign a company to staff it to assist the IC with operations.
• For large complexes, maximize the use of the smoke control system.
Get out in to your district and take a good look around. Find active and passive systems in your buildings and note them on your pre-fire plans. Learn to work smarter not harder. Fight the fire, not the building. Stay well, stay safe,
(The program “Fight the Fire, Not the Building” can be presented at your location. Contact the author at; MFDCAR1@COMCAST.NET for details on this and many other training programs offered by Gold Horn Associates.)