Are Architects,Engineers and Code-Writing Officials Friends of The Firefighter?
By: Vincent Dunn Deputy Chief FDNY (ret.)

After finishing a lecture at the FDNY Division of Training on why the World Trade Center collapsed, a fire chief who is also engineer came to me and said, "Chief, you were rough on architects and engineers." That night, I thought of what he said. I realized there is an edge in my voice when I talk about architects and engineers and even code officials since the World Trade Center tragedy. Perhaps he was right.

 

But then I started thinking about architects, engineers and building code officials, and building construction changes I have seen over the past three decades. I then asked myself, "Are architects, engineers and building code writers friends of the firefighter?" I had no answer.

 

I started asking that question of groups of firefighters during lectures I gave around the country. The answers I received quite often was no, architects, engineers and code officials are not friends of the firefighter. Some firefighters would say, "I don't know." Very rarely would someone defend these design professionals.

 

Based on this very limited sampling, it appears there is a small rift between the architectural, engineering and code‑writing communities on one side and the fire service community on the other side. This sentiment seems to be related to building construction methods and material and building code changes incorporated into buildings today. This is unusual because across the country engineering schools (not architects or building code officials) often team up with their local fire departments.

 

For example, Polytechnic University in New York City, an engineering school, for many years has teamed up with the FDNY and created a Center for  Fire Safety Engineering. In the 1970s, Polytechnic helped the FDNY conduct full‑scale tests of high‑rise buildings and row frame houses. Polytechnic engineers worked with us when writing building code changes for high‑rise office buildings and today they are helping the FDNY prepare for the 21 st century.  Also, fire protection engineers Glenn Corbett and Charles Jennings teach at John Jay College, the fire science institute, and are single handedly leading the way for an investigation of the World Trade Center collapse.

 

Twenty years ago, I was invited to teach a course on fire protection design by Manhattan College's civil engineering department. This was in response to the MGM‑Grand Hotel fire in Nevada. Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts is the premier fire protection engineering school in the nation. And the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), whose membership consists largely of architects and engineers, provides most of the fire protection literature and technical information to the fire service.

 

So why, with all this interaction, is there a misunderstanding between the firefighter and the architects, engineers and code officials of this country? What could possibly be bothering the fire service? Why is there an edge in my voice when I speak about safety and survival on the fireground?

 

Lightweight construction. One of the reasons for this rift between the firefighter and the engineering community possibly involves lightweight construction. One firefighter dies every 18 months in the collapse of a burning building constructed with lightweight wood construction. This widespread use of lightweight wood truss construction and especially the connecter used to fasten members of this light truss together are concerns to the firefighter.

 

Instead of standard‑size nails or bolts used to connect the trusses, so‑called "sheet metal surface fasteners" of random sizes and shapes are used. This sheet metal surface fastener only penetrates the wood surface only to one‑quarter to one‑half of an inch. Architects, engineers and code officials are looked on by some firefighters as promoting this deadly construction, At least very few architects engineers or code officials have spoken out against this lightweight construction.

 

NFPA misunderstanding. There are architects and engineers from an organization called the "NFPA" who go around the country lecturing on the fire departments' misconceptions and exaggerations of the dangers of lightweight truss construction. Firefighters, including myself, mistakenly think the initials NFPA stand for National Fire Protection Association. An official of the National Fire Protection Association informed me in no uncertain terms that this products association had no affiliation with their organization. The NFPA representatives who sometimes follow Frank Brannigan and myself around the country, saying we exaggerate the dangers of trusses, actually belong to an organization called the "National Forest Products Association." Hence the initials NFPA.

 

Wooden 1‑beams. Another new design in building construction unfairly blamed on architects, engineers and code officials is the wooden I‑beam. This lightweight beam is composition wood beam, constructed of a 2x4, as a top and bottom flange attached to a piece of particleboard acting as a web member. This composition floor and roof support is shaped as an I beam. A so‑called "silent floor beam" supported a structure where two firefighters were recently killed when a floor collapsed.

 

Steel bar joist truss construction. The lightweight steel bar joist was used to support floors in the World Trade Center. This floor support is another form of lightweight floor and roof construction used throughout the country that has the fire service alarmed and is mistakenly blamed on architects, engineers and code officials. When unprotected, lightweight bar joist beams can fail within five to 10 minutes of fire exposure. The World Trade Center, constructed by the Port Authority, was the only high‑rise office building in New York City to use lightweight bar joist construction in high‑rise office building construction.

 

* Sheet metal C‑beams. Another type of lightweight construction is the C beam. This floor and roof beam is a thin piece of sheet metal bent in the shape of a long, thin C. This steel beam uses the bent shape to give it an increase in load bearing capability while reducing the actual amount of steel used in the steel member. Firefighters are holding breath waiting to see how this new structure reacts to fire and collapse.

 

Fire protection of steel. Since the 1960s, builders have used fluffy sprayed‑on fire protection covering steel. Instead of the heavy concrete encasement as used in pre World War 11 fire‑resistive buildings,  a lightweight mineral fiber is sprayed on steel to protect it from fire. The change to spray‑on fire protection of steel has been fought by the fire service since its introduction in the New York City building codes. FDNY Chief John O'Hagan in 1976 outlined the problems in his book High Rise Fire and Life Safety

:

 

1. The spray‑on slurry is often not mixed properly.

 

2. The steel is not prepared properly to allow the spray‑on material to stick properly.

 

3. Workers do not apply the spray‑on material evenly.

 

4. Other workers doing subsequent work nearby easily remove the critically important fire protection.

 

Again, I believe the architects, engineering and code‑ writing community is being unfairly blamed for this inadequate fire protection.

 

Builders Or Designers?

 

Several months ago, I wrote an article about the fire vulnerability of lightweight building materials. I stated responsibility belonged to "builders." A contractor called me and said I should not blame "builders." Builders have to erect a structure the way the architect and or engineer directs. Architects and engineers state they are not responsible because they must build the structure the way the owner and building code directs. The term they use is "client driven."

 

Architects, engineers and code officials are not solely responsible for this revolution in construction methods and materials. There are building owners, designers and manufacturers, and product sales representatives who introduce these products, which are becoming deadly for the firefighters and occupants in a burning building.

 

Some other building code changes that have firefighters questioning the fire safety concerns of design professional are the following:

 

Fire‑resistive construction. The concept of a fire‑resistive building has been allowed to slip way. At one time, a fire‑resistive building was a structure that ‑ barring a collapse or explosion ‑ would confine a fire to one floor. This is no longer true. In the 1970s, New York had a two‑floor fire in I New York Plaza; in the 1980s, Los Angles had a five‑floor fire in the First Interstate Bank building; and in the 1990s, the I Meridian Plaza building in Philadelphia suffered a nine‑floor fire. So, today there is no longer a fire‑resistive building. If sprinklers or firefighters do not extinguish the fire, the building will not confine it.

 

Evacuation of occupants. Stair design and capacity still is based on the fact that a building is fire resistive and so fire will be confined to one floor; therefore, stairs need not have to have capacity to hold all the people of the building. Stairs are designed to allow only a limited number of people to leave a building. Remember the Titanic and the limited number of lifeboats? The rest must stay in place during the fire. This is a so called "defend‑in‑place" firefighting strategy, and it is based on the building being fire resistive, which many in the fire service (including me) believe is no longer true.

 

Large open‑floor‑area design. Client‑driven architects and engineers have constructed buildings of a size that is beyond the control of firefighters using hose streams. These buildings contain 30,000 to 40,000 square feet of open floor space. Designers did not know or care that a typical fire company can extinguish only about 2,500 square feet of fire. If these buildings are not protected with a functioning automatic sprinklers, firefighters cannot extinguish a fire inside these large‑area structures.

 

Floor  construction. The use of a four‑inch concrete floor over corrugated steel I‑beams has failed at every multiple alarm fire in New York City. Floor steel beam supports sag, warp and twist. The four‑inch concrete floor above sags with the steel cracks and heaves. Smoke and flames spread to the floor above. Floor beams and concrete floor surface must be replaced after every serious fire. This started at the 1970s fire in 1 New York Plaza, where 130 steel floor beams were replaced and 20,000 square feet of concrete floor was removed. It continues to happen today. For example, in a fire in 1993 at the Bankers Trust building on Park Avenue, floors were seriously damaged and had to be shored up before firefighters could enter, perform salvage and overhaul the smoldering offices.

 

Scissor stairs. The scissor stair is another innovation design recently incorporated in the building codes. The enclosing of two stairs in one enclosure is a cost saving item that the firefighter is concerned about, especially since the stair enclosures can now be constructed of two layers of sheetrock instead of masonry. Engineers now say they want to "harden" the construction of high‑rise buildings since the second terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Someone has been "softening" buildings for the past 50 years. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), in its investigation, stated that the stairways of the World Trade Center buildings were clustered together in the core area. In pre‑World War 11 buildings stair ways were required by law to be located on remote portions of a large floor area. This way, if fire blocked one exit, occupants could go to another remote area of the floor and find an exit. Exit stairways used to be at each end of a floor area. The New York City building code written in 1968 defined the meaning of the term "remote" when it applied to exit stairs. The building code defined exits "remote" if they were over 15 feet away from each other.

 

Controlled inspections. Another innovation in the 1968 building code was the "controlled inspection." Building or fire officials need not always go to a construction site to inspect a process or material. Rather, a‑called "controlled inspection" is allowed. This is accomplished when an architect or engineer sends a written affidavit to the building department that the material or process has been inspected and meets the building code requirements. The "controlled inspection" cuts down on the chance of bribery, but some say it is the fox guarding the hen house.

 

Shortcuts in construction. I was recently talking to a reporter about some of the above construction techniques and she interrupted with alarm in her voice. "Are you talking about shortcuts in construction?" I laughed and said, "Heck, no." They are legal. They are sometimes associated with terms like "the bottom line." "fast track," "client driven" and "affordable housing." They do not break any building codes. They are perfectly legal. They live up the "letter of the law."

 

The Voice Of The Fire Service

 

At a lecture, a firefighter asked, "Who speaks for the fire service? Where does the official voice for the firefighter come from?" He stated that when there is a large‑scale fire and collapse, the architect can look to the American Institute of Architects (AIA) for an official explanation as to what happened. The engineer can consult the Society of Civil Engineers (SCE) to obtain an official engineering explanation. Code officials, I am sure, have associations that provide an official view of a building disaster.

 

But to whom do firefighters look to for an explanation of a disaster? Where does the fire protection point of view come from? Someone suggested the fire protection point of view comes from the National Fire Protection Association. Another firefighters said no, they repeat the view held by architects and engineers, they do not speak for firefighters.

 

One firefighter said, "Chief, I know where the firefighter goes to for an official explanation when firefighters are killed. When firefighters are killed, we go to the widows of firefighters." The families of dead firefighters are the voice of the fire service ".