Situational awareness: Buildings that fail

Control Measure Knowledge

Evidence of a significant failure of compartmentation, external firespread or other building failures may not be obvious or may not be recognised immediately, either because its effects are hidden or because observers are unaware of how it should behave.

Situational awareness should be shared between internal and external personnel, to ensure that personnel develop an understanding of how the building is behaving. This increases the likelihood that failures are identified and can be investigated early.

Signs and symptoms of building failures may include:

  • Smoke issuing from gaps or joins in external facades
  • Delamination of panels on external faces
  • Charring or blackening of the edges of external facades with no visible flame
  • Flames or heat visible in areas away from the seat of the fire
  • Alarm systems sounding on multiple floors with no obvious cause
  • Calls from multiple people on different floors or in different areas, reporting signs and symptoms of fire or smoke with no obvious cause
  • Smoke visible on higher floors, or areas remote from the fire, with no obvious ventilation path
  • Low, failing or fluctuating pressure at the branch, with no signs of failure at the pump
  • Signs of water issuing or water damage from floors above with no known cause
  • Heat visible in thermal imaging at joins in partitions, edges of doors and other points of weakness of compartmentation
  • Flames, heat or smoke visible in voids above false ceilings, issuing from ceiling panels or other possible points of failure
  • Signs of wind driven fires internally or externally

For signs and symptoms of collapse or structural failure please refer to Assess the building for signs of collapse.

If personnel believe that the building is not behaving as expected due to a failure, incident commanders should assess how this failure is likely to effect the incident, review existing operational plans and revise them if required, and monitor the failure closely to ensure initial expectations of the extent of the failure are accurate.

Information of potential building failures may be contained within risk information or in secure information boxes. This should be considered and where appropriate safety officers or observers positioned to monitor potential failings.

Operational activities such as firefighting, evacuation and rescues will need to be constantly balanced; based on the impact of any building failure, the success of intervention and the objectives identified. All of these factors should constantly be monitored and where possible available time frames should be estimated to allow informed decisions about whether to continue to attempt to suppress the fire or change tactics or evacuation strategies. Time required to complete alternative tactical plans should also be considered when making decisions about continuing with existing options. Wherever possible these decisions should be made based on information from informed individuals or specialist advisers.

Fire control rooms perform a vital role in informing situational awareness, the number and location of calls will provide indications of development, information from occupants of live video footage visible in control rooms may provide information about internal or external conditions that are not obvious to those in attendance. They are also the first to receive information and will be able to provide an indication of the conditions on receipt of the call which can give information about the development prior to first attendance.

Evidence of building failures should be communicated with fire control rooms.

Specialist advice

Personnel may not have the relevant knowledge to assess building failures or the impact of building failures and should consider requesting specialist advice, such as USAR tactical advisors for information about structural failures, Fire Safety specialists for information about fire spread, or Communication Tactical advisors to provide advice about how to utilise existing communications systems effectively.

Strategic Actions

Tactical Actions