Improving the Health & Safety of all Emergency Responders

Billy Hayes
FDSOA SafetyGram Editor

Back in July, I penned a SafetyGram titled, “Managing by Driving Around.” Essentially it was my suggestion that safety officers could learn a great deal about the safety risks and hazards that their firefighters could face just by getting out of the office and looking at their response area when it’s not an emergency or crisis. This month, while the recent new construction collapse of the Hard Rock Hotel in New Orleans, I offer another suggestion in tagging along with your fire marshal’s or inspectors on new construction sites to see the potential hazards as they are being built. While the New Orleans incident is still new and there is much to learn from it, I felt this a good time to bring this topic to light.

While having been in this profession for almost three decades, I’ve tended to see buildings in their existing stage as my experience in new construction was limited. Over the last two years with my roles as the Fire Marshal at the University of South Alabama and now as the Fire Chief in Onalaska, WI, I have become more intimately engaged with construction and the importance of contractors following the code and building it to the code. Unfortunately, it has been an eye opener in seeing the safety shortcuts that some builders are willing to take. In the end, this presents a safety hazard to responders.

During new construction stages, firefighters have an ideal opportunity to learn about building construction, and to identify hidden dangers they may face when responding to an incident. Seeing first-hand how floor and roof trusses are designed, and the materials they are built from, can help their on-scene decision-making during an emergency. Understanding how load bearing walls are formed and placed, will help them identify potential collapse situations when conditions may be compromising. Just as important, they can see how fire protection systems are installed, and can offer suggestions during construction stages that may offer advantages to them, if contractors are open to it.

Most firefighters don’t know how or what to look for, so this is where the safety officer can work with contractors, work-site superintendents, fire marshals, training officers, and building inspectors to get on the construction sites to see a building literally come out of the ground to completion. In most cases, I have found that many contractors learn from the fire service and are open to ideas and suggestions (as long as it meets code). Remember, once builders and contractors are done with their job, they leave town in most cases and the building will be yours to respond to during your career at your respective department.

A motto that I developed, and use every day is, “Never let the minimum standard be your maximum performance.” Unfortunately, there are contractors and builders that fail to even meet the minimum, much less exceed it. Again, what happened in New Orleans is still too early to tell despite the reports and early videos prior to the event occurring. We all can assume we know, but I am not one to pass judgement until all the facts are presented. However, I have personal experience where I have seen multi-story, multi-family properties being built that not only fail to meet code, they fail to meet the architects and engineers design plans. Every short-cut and cover-up that can be taken, will be taken for the sake of saving a dollar with no regard for losing lives.

Further, construction sites are dangerous. While efforts should be taken by the general contractor to have a safe construction site for their workers, we as emergency responders are often called to these sites for accidents and incidents without any knowledge of the dangers. This again is incumbent upon the fire marshal, building inspector, and safety officer to get responding crews onsite often to survey what is happening. Construction sites are evolving and change on a regular basis; thus, it is important to monitor conditions and hazards as often as possible.

Remember, our profession is a dangerous one. We should take advantage of every opportunity to identify and reduce risks and safety hazards whenever we can. Not only should we manage safety by driving around, we should be safety officers from the ground up!

Take-Aways:

  • Work with your fire marshal, building inspector(s), and planning departments where applicable, to identify new construction occurring in your jurisdiction.
  • Visit new construction sites during various stages to see how the structure is built and by what.
  • Pre-planning should be considered from ground-breaking to certificate of occupancy.
  • Safety is always a priority, not just during an emergency.

National Association of Home Builders https://www.nahb.org/

Association of General Contractors https://www.agc.org/