Blog by Joseph Pronesti
Captain with Elyria Ohio Fire Department
If you work in an older community with TYPE III (ordinary construction) buildings, do you pre-plan those buildings in case of a fire? Typical mixed-use occupancy buildings will usually have some type of mercantile establishment on the ground floor with multiple apartments above on the upper floors. Many smaller departments have these types of buildings in their respective towns they protect. It’s important to think about and train on these career defining fires before they happen.
This article is the first in a two-part series breaking down these types of buildings, so you can effectively game plan before you’re faced with an incident at 3 a.m. on a cold night.
What exactly is Ordinary Construction?
Ordinary construction is a building featuring exterior masonry walls and combustible interior beams or trusses. Although it’s not the most often used building type today, Type III construction has been used a great deal for commercial buildings built in the last 100-plus years. Most of these buildings will be two to at the most four stories in height.
A typical mixed-use ordinary construction building, these two buildings were once separate. They now have interior walls on the second and third floors and house apartments have been removed, making a single continuous structure above the separate businesses on the first floor.
Typical Concerns When Combating a Fire in Mix-Use Ordinary Construction Buildings
While not an all-encompassing list, the following three items should be on an all incident commanders checklist when arriving at a fire in one of these buildings:
1. Life Safety: As shown in the photo above, most ordinary mixed-use buildings will undergo some type of renovation in their lifespan. Large apartments that served 40 or 50 years ago may be divided into several smaller units to meet the needs of a landlord who wants to provide cheap affordable housing. Arriving firefighters can find a plethora of safety hazards, including single-room occupancies, heavy-fire loading of apartments, and run down fire escapes in need of maintenance.
2. Void Spaces: When renovation takes place, void spaces are usually created, allowing for hidden fire travel. These include horizontal voids created by dropped ceilings, and vertical voids through new utility chases. The large open cockloft areas are also a concern for rapid fire spread.
3. Collapse Issues: The age and continuous renovation cycles of these buildings make them prone to rapid fire spread and structural collapse. In today’s economy, many times you will find vacant store fronts and occupied apartments on the upper floors. Don’t be tricked into thinking the entire building is vacant. The best way to determine this is to be familiar with your response area.
This article is not meant to cover everything related to fires in ordinary construction, as the late Francis Brannigan stated: Beware the building the building is your enemy. Firefighters need to have a sound knowledge of building construction. There are many great pieces of literature available for further study. A well respected chief on the east coast once said no one has any business inside a burning building without proper knowledge of building construction and fire spread. I totally agree and it would behoove every firefighter to make this his/her career objective.
Learning to B.A.G. the Fire in Mixed Use Ordinary Constructed Occupancy
There are several well-known acronyms firefighters utilize when sizing up a fire one that will serve you well is B.A.G.where did the fire BEGIN, where is it AT currently, and where is it GOING?
Where did the fire begin? As a rule, the worst-case scenario a firefighter or incident commander can face in these structures is a basement fire. As stated earlier many buildings go through renovations just as upper story walls are removed and single structures are merged together to form larger ones, basements can undergo the same renovations making an underground cockloft, where fire can spread from building to building, taking out an entire block.
A good rule to remember is if you are called for a smell of smoke in an ordinary constructed building in a continuous block of similar type buildings, and cannot find anything, check surrounding buildings especially the basements.
Accessing the basement can be difficult under smoke and heat conditions. The hazards can be tremendous to firefighters crawling over top of a raging basement fire. Many of the store fronts on the ground floor will have multiple basement entrances, especially if there is a service alley to the rear of the structure.
Many basements will have an exterior entrance which will make for a much more effective attack on a basement fire.
Basements in continuous ordinary construction occupancies could be interconnected. This photo shows a flimsy piece of wood paneling covering an opening between two basements.
Missing or damaged tiles on this basement ceiling will severely expose the first floor rafters in the event of a basement fire.
The left half of this image shows an interior shot of the exterior basement door. After you force these doors you are faced with another fortified door. These are two common security obstacles you may face. The key is to get into your buildings prior to the fire and see what you will face when the fire call comes in.
A first floor fire will cause just as many headaches as a basement fire with the lone exception of easier access to the building. This by no means eliminates hazards to occupants above the fire in living areas. When confronted with a working fire on the first floor with apartments above, consider using a big line. The power of the 2 -inch hand line with a 1 -inch tip will put out a ton of fire in a short period of time. Many small departments say the 2 -inch line is too manpower intensive, but that is an excuse. Those departments need to train on its deployment. There are a ton of excellent training websites available to help your department train.
Consideration should even be given to pairing up companies to get the big line in service. Remember, once you get water on the fire things should get better. Even if taking the second engine away from another assignment, such as a backup line to assist in stretching the original 2 -inch attack line may pay dividends to those whose lives are in peril above the fire.
Be aware that just as in modern strip malls, the rear of the ordinary mixed-use will probably be heavily fortified. Regardless, these must be opened up for safety of interior crews. This particular building has a locked gate on the interior side of the rear door.
Editor’s Note: In second part of this two-part series, we will look at fires on the upper floors of these buildings. If you have any questions for the author, contact TargetSolutions at email@example.com.
About the Author
Joe Pronesti is a 24-year veteran of the Elyria Ohio Fire Department. He currently serves as a shift captain. He is a certified fire instructor and teaches at the Cuyahoga Community College Fire Academy near Cleveland. He is also a graduate of the Ohio Fire Chiefs Executive Fire Officer Program Class VI.