Frank Brannigan said the building is our enemy and we need to know our enemy. Some have amended that with the fire is our enemy but the building is our battlefield and we must know the terrain in which we are to do battle. Either way you put it building construction is important to everything we do. However just the subject of building construction is VAST and unending. Engineers, construction companies, contractors, developers, etc. are always trying to come up with cheaper, and more efficient materials to build structures. Sure these materials are sound from an engineering stand point as a lot of the current construction materials are very lightweight but very strong. However they rarely consider how they are affected under fire.
The big question is how do we become more educated in building construction. The IFSTA Manual has a chapter on it, and it covers the 5 types of buildings and some basic information but to be honest most new buildings meet a very loose definition of those 5 types, some are even hybrids which include multiple types of construction making its resistance to fire change based on the location. Needless to say the IFSTA manual and our initial firefighter training fail in one of the most important aspects of our training.
One might say research is the key, and while effective in some regards, as previously stated the subject is vast. Just taking a few glances at the local buildings code for your area will bring you thousands of pages, which can be confusing at best when you see all of the exemptions. Viewing my local building code was of little help as I quickly discovered there was very little off the table when it came to construction. Reading books like Building Construction For The Fire Service is great but it is hundreds of pages that at times can be dry and difficult to get through. There are also some great websites out there but like with anything else they can be laced with opinion instead of facts. In my opinion the best research comes from the testing companies such as UL and NIST. They are science based, and do not bring in personal opinion. They simply present what happens during the test.
Research may be great for some but it still leaves us with limited hands on experience and little tactical decision-making ability. My recommendation is a three-step process to ensure you can develop knowledge, hands on, and tactical abilities.
1. Information Gathering: Be plugged into your district. In my locality we have some local publications, and housing magazines that provide a great deal of information for the fire service. They have floor layouts of houses in new developments, where and when new developments are coming, etc. My department also has a plans reviewer that gets blue prints of every commercial and residential occupancy built so those documents are available when needed. If you do not have that simply ride in your district and if you see a new development stop, get out, and go to the construction office (probably a trailer) and ask the site boss for information.
2. During Construction: Make several visits to the site while it is being built. This will give you a view of what materials are being used, how they are being used, and the type of craftsmanship. If you have questions, get you code compliance folks involved, or ask the construction site boss or foreman.
3. Post Construction: Once the building is built go meet to occupant, ask them to do a walk through and preplan. While their talk about tactics with your crew, test the standpipe to see if the caps come off, bring something to measure hose line stretch lengths, locate and test the closest hydrants, find the electrical rooms, find the alarm panels, if elevators make sure your elevator keys work, etc. Basically look at everything to do with this building, and take every advantage the occupant will give you. If they offer to let you stretch hose in the building DO IT!
This may still be a daunting task especially if you have a dynamic and developing district. If the building is already built you can still do parts of step 1 (blue prints) and all of step 3 which will still give you a lot of information needed to be successful. Simply put it can not all be done from the computer!
As usual thanks for reading, spread the word, and STAY SAFE!