They may get some sort of walkthrough training on the building and its fire protection features and equipment, but they are often expected to document or perhaps just remember the building functions and performance in a fire or other emergency situation.
Things were simpler when building construction and fire protection features typically followed prescriptive codes and firefighting tactics could be standardized. As the performance-based design concept has grown in popularity, and building design and fire protection features have become more tailored to the specific building, there are increasing expectations on fire department performance when responding to these buildings. Even prescriptively designed buildings can present challenges to firefighters, such as pressure vessels that may relieve upon exposure to the heat from a fire, or doors that may have alternative locking mechanisms. Firefighters also have concerns that lightweight construction elements may be subject to early collapse.
Engineers are designing structures, stadiums, transportation facilities, and a host of other venues, using sophisticated tools that allow them to more finely tune the fire protection and safety features of a building to its specific construction and occupancy. Some firefighters and building officials understand those sophisticated tools, but some do not.
Firefighters are taught to "size up” the building or facility where an emergency is occurring based upon any prior knowledge they may have, and their observations of the building when they pull up to an emergency. This look may be skewed depending upon if it is day or night or if smoke or something else limits their full view of the building. They may make general assumptions about the building and its construction based upon this assessment, and these assumptions directly translate into fire attack tactics.
If they have little or no preincident knowledge of the facility, they are at a disadvantage when they develop their tactics. Buildings with unusual features are not just limited to city environments; even in the suburbs, small medical office buildings can hold sophisticated medical equipment that uses gamma radiation requiring concrete shielding walls and doors – with a building exterior that looks like any other office building.
The gap in knowledge of a facility and its protection/safety features may, at the least, result in one or more of these features being ignored or used incorrectly, potentially leading to a more damaging fire than what might have occurred if that gap did not exist. If no or ineffective preplanning is done, the responding personnel will have little to no knowledge of the building’s protection features and they will not have been properly prepared to use those features properly.
For example, one common fire service generalization is that if a building is sprinklered, the sprinkler system will handle a fire, making their efforts in that building easy. Many firefighters may not be aware that different densities are needed for different heights of storage, and be unable to differentiate between different commodity classifications when viewed in the field. There are many communities where code enforcement and inspections are limited, or even non-existent, which then limits the oversight to verify that the installed protection will work properly when it is needed.
There are many obstacles to effective preplanning, which can include a lack of interest by both the emergency responders and the building owner, and limited technical knowledge in completing the preplans. This is where fire protection engineers can help.
A firefighter’s world changes regularly. Companies may be out-of- service due to staffing issues, training, or on another emergency. It is not unusual in city departments for companies to respond to 10 or more runs per day. Even if resources are adequate and available, traffic jams and severe weather events can impede the provision of rapid service.
Severe storms can topple trees and power lines, completely blocking roads that provide access to various buildings. EMS responses and training can be a major focus of a fire department due to the demands of providing that service effectively, but this can limit the time available to study buildings and the protection features, provided in them along with how those features work.
Not only does custom building design present new challenges, but building operation and management concepts have changed over the years as well. No longer does a facility manager stay with one building for the life of that building. This responsibility is often contracted to a third party, and these facility managers often deal with multiple buildings across a wide area. It is difficult to expect them to know about every intricacy of every building they cover.
During evenings and weekends, the experience and knowledge level of those facility managers may further deteriorate from that which is available during normal working hours. Buildings also may change ownership, which may cause a change in the facility manager, thus losing the institutional knowledge that is so critical when an emergency occurs. Essentially, the fire service can become the de facto historian of buildings in their response areas, and the facility managers might find the fire service preplan information quite useful as well.
From a design engineer’s perspective – will that valuable work during the design phase be for naught when something happens in that building years later? Will someone really know the intent of how that building was designed to perform when the emergency occurs? Preplans can prepare firefighters for success.
There are a variety of code requirements for preplanning. The International Fire Code1 (in Chapter 33 – "Fire Safety During Construction and Demolition”) places the responsibility for fire prevention on the owner, and the owner is required to designate a fire prevention program superintendent who is responsible for developing and maintaining a preplan in cooperation with the fire chief. There also are various requirements for fire safety and evacuation plans for a variety of occupancies outlined in Chapter 4 of the International Fire Code.
These plans have several required items, almost all of which are included in a pre-fire plan that meets the requirements of NFPA 16202. NFPA 13 – also requires pre-fire planning during construction, alteration, or demolition. There also are requirements for emergency plans for a variety of occupancies outlined in NFPA 1. NFPA 1620 encourages cooperation in preplanning between building owners, occupants, designers, insurers, and firefighters.
Besides preplans for buildings, other facilities and occupancies can be preplanned successfully. Confined spaces are a key interest to OSHA; the openings and access information can be preplanned, listed and provided for emergency responders. Rail, vehicle, and other types of tunnels with limited access and ventilation also can be preplanned. The rail lines and highways – particularly interchanges – can be preplanned, even accessing cameras and other tools to help provide intelligence for responders. Cameras in schools and other buildings can similarly be embedded into electronic preplans. NFPA 1620 provides a standard for the data that is needed for an effective preplan.
Once a preplan is developed, there are many schools of thought on how to disseminate it. Many find hard copy preplans to be reliable and effective under most conditions. However, these copies are only as accurate as the last time they were updated, copied, and disseminated. PDF or similar electronic systems also require an effective dissemination plan.
A cloud-based system allows changes to be made at almost any time. Cloud-based preplans also can be shared with users located almost anywhere – essentially everyone that might need to access the information will have it when needed. However, this requires each user to have a working connection to the cloud system.
An additional concern is change management in the preplans – i.e., who is authorized to make changes. It is important to balance the need to make the preplans as current as possible with the technical accuracy of the plans – making sure that changes are done correctly.
Preplans are most effective when they are used to train personnel before incidents occur. Facility managers can take them in the field and validate the information, and verify that shutoffs are correctly identified and located, and verify that any changes that may have occurred are addressed. Firefighters can take the preplans, and using different available apps, conduct simulations of various incidents and discuss options for handling those incidents. If they have handled the incident before, even virtually, it will make it easier when they are faced with it in real-time.
FUTURE OF PREPLANS
Preplans should be available to initial arriving company officers, as well as to incident commanders and planning chiefs at the command post immediately when needed. Preplans, when linked to wearable personnel tracking devices, will allow identification of the locations of firefighters operating in the buildings right at the command post or for the operations chief or safety officer. This concept is under development and may be available in the near future.
In the not-too-distant future, preplans may be provided in displays in the masks of firefighters – allowing them to identify where they are in the building, and what hazards, exits, or other concerns are around them. At some point, fire modeling of buildings that determine how long the environment is tenable in a fire situation could be tied to building sensors and alarms that will enable fire officers to more effectively predict how long firefighters can safely operate in buildings. In all of these cases, fire protection engineers can be a huge asset to firefighters by helping to develop and maintain preplans, as well as the tools necessary to facilitate these concepts.
Gregory Jakubowski is with Fire Planning Associates, Inc.
- International Fire Code, International Code Council, Washington, DC, 2012.
- NFPA 1620, Standard for Pre-Incident Planning, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, 2010.
- NFPA 1, Fire Code, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, 2012.
- Fire Suppression Rating Schedule, Insurance Services Office, Jersey City, NJ, 2013.
Fire Suppression Rating Schedule Requirements
The ISO Fire Suppression Rating Schedule4 (FSRS) has the following requirement – The fire department should make building familiarization and pre-incident planning tours of each commercial, industrial, institutional, and other similar building at least annually.
Records of the inspections (whether in electronic or other formats) should include complete and up-to-date notes and sketches, which must be available to the responding incident commander.
Building familiarization and pre-incident planning should be in accordance with the general criteria of NFPA 1620, Standard for Pre-Incident Planning.
Effective pre-incident planning of these buildings can secure ISO FSRS points, therefore having a positive effect on the insurance rating and insurance rates for an entire community.