Why Firefighters Should Remember Every Building Is in the Process of Falling Down

Building Behavior Under Fire Conditions
Firefighters can increase their safety by being prepared for potential structural collapses and understanding how to make predictions on how buildings will behave under fire conditions.

Blog by Richard B. Gasaway, CFO, EFO, Fire Chief (ret.)

When responding to a building on fire, does it make sense for firefighters to just assume the building is in the process of falling down? Is that a realistic expectation?

You bet it is!

You don’t have to study Newton’s law of universal gravitation to understand gravity is pushing down on the earth at all times with constant force. This means, in essence, gravity is trying to make every building fall down, including the one you are sitting in right now.

The only thing holding the building up against the force of gravity is the components of construction. Pretty simple stuff, right? The components of construction will work, as designed, for so long as they are not acted upon by an outside force (there’s a little Newtonian physics language for our scientific readers).

For the sake of this discussion, that outside force is heat. Heat degrades the ability of the building’s components to stand up to gravity. At some point, unless action is taken to stop the degradation, the components of construction will lose out to gravity and the building will fall down.

Let’s tie all of this in to situational awareness. The first level of situational awareness is perception – being aware of building construction and fire conditions. The second level of situational awareness is comprehension – being aware how the former is being impacted by the latter. The third level of situational awareness is projection – being able to make accurate predictions about how soon a building is going to lose its battle with gravity.

If you look at every building on fire as if it is in the process of falling down, it can change your entire perspective about your safety. As you conduct your size up, consider the components used to make the building. This takes some training and some knowledge of building construction. There are many different types of construction and each have benefits and detriments, most of which are a factor of strength and cost of materials.

Dwellings made with lightweight construction are going to lose their battle with gravity much sooner than dwellings with legacy construction. Buildings with fire suppression systems and fire resistive construction are going to fare better than those without.

The important point I want to make in this article is about your mindset. Be of the mindset that heat is degrading the component of construction and the building you are working in is being pushed to the ground by gravity. There may be little to no warning to indicate when gravity is going to win the battle.

I’m reminded of an experiment one of my kids did for school in which they built a toothpick structure and then loaded weight on top of it incrementally until it collapsed. Until that last unit of weight was added there was no warning signs of impending collapse. But when the final unit of weight was added, the entire structure came smashing down. There was no warning whatsoever. And while we were expecting it – in fact, we were trying to create it – we were still surprised with the speed it happened.

Here are several firefighter training items to discuss:

1. Discuss the training you have received on building construction and how those lessons apply to being prepared for potential structural collapse.

2. Discuss how you can improve your safety by making reasonable predictions of how buildings will behave under fire conditions.

3. Discuss what you can do to ensure you will not be inside a structure fire when gravity wins and the building (or some portion of the building) falls down.

About the Author
Dr. Gasaway is widely considered one of the nation’s leading authorities on situational awareness and the human factors that complicate first responder decision making. In addition to his 30-plus years in the fire service, including 22 years as a fire chief, Dr. Gasaway has a second passion: Uncovering and applying research in brain science for the benefit of first responders. His website, Situational Awareness Matters (www.SAMatters.com) welcomes 50,000 visitors a month from 156 countries. He can be reached via e-mail at [email protected].

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