Construction for the Fire Service Thesis

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Building Construction and Building Collapses Due to Fire

This paper reviews building design issues and construction issues in terms of whether or not certain codes and standards will prevent building collapses during a fire. This is a worthwhile topic because according to an article in the journal Professional Safety (, many firefighters are killed due to "unanticipated structural collapse." In fact about 20% of firefighter deaths in structural fires over the past 10 years were the result of "structural collapse" (

The matter of code changes and structural safety is hotly debated among experts and engineers, and there is no apparent consensus as to what measures should be taken to make structures less apt to collapse during a fire. For example, at a workshop of safety design and retrofit of structures in Bethesda, Maryland, sponsored by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), it was acknowledged that there "is no standard practice for the design of structures to resist failure under extreme fire loads" (Post, 2003). Writing in the journal Engineering News-Record, Post said there were "as many opinions" as to what role structure plays in fire resistance "as there were building research and practice disciplines represented" (Post, 2003).

Jonathan C. Siu, an engineer with Seattle's Department of Design, Construction and Land Use, who gave the keynote speech, said that design that is "performance-based" in terms of structural fire protection "does not rise to the level of importance one might think" (Post). In fact Siu went on, engineered solutions for buildings that are being constructed with fire protection in mind represent "less than 1% of the volume" of all buildings constructed in America (Post).

And so, given that there is a relatively "low number of collapses initiated by fires" that fact suggests that present codes are adequate, according to structural engineer Ronald O. Hamburger, Post's article explained. Indeed, Hamburger even said, "The level of protection provided to many buildings was probably excessive given the risk." But another attendee, Barbara Lane, with a company called ArupFire in London, England, disagreed with Hamburger. Just because major fires in tall buildings are infrequent, and that are a very few death rates to firefighters in those fires, does not justify the statement that codes are currently satisfactory, she explained.

"The basis of current codes is either forgotten or not well understood," said Lane (Post). "A lot of us are pushing for a review of codes with respect to fire and for [better design] tools, not just for signature buildings but for all types of buildings" (Post).

At another seminar, this one sponsored by the federal government, some attendees didn't seem the least bit interested in upgrading codes to meet the threats of building collapses during fires. Arden L. Bement, director of NIST, suggested that delaying research into the problem and cutting staff -- "to absorb budget cuts" -- was more important than discussing new codes for buildings (Post, 2004). Another unnamed participant quoted by journalist Nadine Post said: "If you want to do advanced fire engineering, you need to show the need and economic basis for it and the real increase in safety. If not, the effort is doomed to fail" (Post, 2004).

Still another participant at the 2004 seminar in Gaithersburg, Maryland, Robert J. Wills, a regional director in Birmingham, Alabama with American Iron & Steel Institute, claimed, "…Society has a finite amount of resources to devote to improving overall building safety" (Post, 2004).

Meanwhile, writing in Today's Facility Manager, Roy Pachecano (a New York architect) explains that there are "new realities" with regard to building codes following the collapse of the World Trade Center (WTC). In fact, Pachecano asserts that "disasters spark change" in codes for building construction, and of course the collapse of the WTC on September 11, 2001, is one of the biggest disasters in U.S. history so it is reasonable to expect engineers, construction professionals and public leaders to call for changes in codes during those times. The two seminars alluded to earlier in this paper happened 2 and 3 years after the 9/11 disaster.

Prior to the 9/11 events, Pachecano states that there were three variables that could cause a government entity to change building codes (making buildings more resistant to collapse in the event of a fire). Those three were: a) strong public opinion (an outcry that politicians could not ignore); b) pressure from public and private sectors (this suggests the "ultimate willingness" of cities, counties, agencies, corporations and institutions to spend the money needed for code upgrades and possible retrofitting); and c) "market forces" and the "reality of building economically in light of new code mandates that may suppress development" (Pachecano, 2004).

Following the collapse of the WTC, the question is raised: are steel frames better than concrete-covered. Pachecano writes that "most experts agree that a reinforced concrete core offers greater fire protection" than steel beams and wallboard. Pachecano goes on to explain that a concrete floor offers more fire resistance than steel "…if only because the fireproofing spray on steel tends to fall off over time as new tenants reconfigure spaces" (Pachecano, 2004).

Another view of the concrete vs. steel building structure emerges from NIST's survey of 17 buildings (reported by Post, 2004). Of those 17 buildings (over 4 stories and not associated with terrorist activities) that collapsed, NIST research shows that "only two had steel frames" (Post, 2004).

That said, Pachecano mentions that when a B-52 bomber crashed into the Empire State Building in 1949 the building itself "was not severely impaired." Older skyscrapers like the Empire State Building are bolstered by a "complex network of steel beams wrapped in concrete," Pachecano continues. That particular design limits the amount of open space on the floors of the building, but the design also "compartmentalized the floor to create barriers that could serve to impede the spread of fire," Pachecano explained.

"You know the building is going to hold" when it's constructed like the Empire State Building was built, said Neil P. Winberry in Pachecano's article. And when New York City adjusted the fire code in 1968, said Winberry, a retired New York City fire captain, that adjusted code allowed a "widespread shift from masonry fireproofing to a light, spray-on product, we could not understand how this was going to work. We had no faith in it," Winberry is quoted as saying.

Meanwhile, the aftermath of the WTC collapse has shown that the World Trade Center Building #7, which collapsed in the afternoon well after the north and south towers had fallen, was not due to the failure of trusses, girders and cantilever overhangs "that were used to transfer loads from the building superstructure to the columns of the electric substation and the foundation below" (Stein, et al., 2008). The most critical factor that led to the collapse of Building #7, according to the NIST, was "thermal expansion of long-span floor systems at temperatures 'hundreds of degrees below those typically considered in current practice for fire resistance ratings'" (Stein).

As a result of the above-mentioned study, the NIST recommendation for future code adjustments include: a) more "robust connections and framing systems" which could help resist thermal expansion on the structure of the building; b) systems put in place that are specifically designed to "prevent progressive collapse" (present building codes don't require that buildings be designed to resist progressive collapse); c) increased thickness and overall stronger thermal insulation which can limit the overheating of the structural steel, and prevent weakening of the steel as occurred with the WTC; d) "improved compartmentalization in tenant areas to limit the spread of fires"; and e) window assemblies that are "thermally resistant," resist breaking, and limit fresh air supply to retard fire expansion" (Stein).

In fairness to the discussion of why the WTC #7 collapsed it should be mentioned that… [END OF PREVIEW]

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APA Format

Construction for the Fire Service.  (2009, October 18).  Retrieved February 18, 2019, from

MLA Format

"Construction for the Fire Service."  18 October 2009.  Web.  18 February 2019. <>.

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"Construction for the Fire Service."  Essay.  October 18, 2009.  Accessed February 18, 2019.