There are two main ways in which fire fighters currently receive information about fire protection features and construction types of a building they are responding to. The first is from a pre-incident plan (see NFPA 1620 for information about pre-incident planning) which is available as a result of prior building inspection and the second is through signage on the building. The most widely adopted signage which most fire fighters are familiar with is the NFPA 704 hazard diamond, which provides information about hazardous materials present and the fire, health, instability and special hazards which they pose. However, there is a lesser-known marking system that has been developed and incorporated in Appendix C of NFPA 1, which if utilized can provide fire fighters the basic information about fire protection features and building construction quickly and concisely as they’re arriving on scene of an emergency. Let’s look at why this type of marking system is important to fire fighters.
Modern buildings are designed with fire protection features to protect both occupants and the building itself. Some of these features provide active protection, such as fire suppression systems, while others provide passive protection such as fire resistive construction. The required protection level is dictated by the codes incorporated by reference into law by the authority having jurisdiction at the time the building was designed and constructed, or under a retroactive requirement after the building is occupied. The specific fire protection features in a building, combined with the construction type will play a role in the tactical approaches to suppressing a fire in that building. So, having this information quickly and concisely displayed on the exterior of the building can enhance the fire department’s effectiveness.
Although some states have adopted signs identifying construction type and location of truss construction, the fire fighter safety building marking system (FSBMS) in Appendix C of NFPA 1 goes further to include the hazard level of the contents, presence of fire sprinkler and standpipe systems, occupancy and life safety issues and other special designations.
What does it look like?
The Maltese cross, which draws its origins from the Knights of Malta, has been widely adopted as a symbol of the fire service. The eight-pointed cross can be easily identified by its curved arcs between the points which all converge on a center circle. The FSBMS utilizes a rating system in each of the arms of the cross and the center circle to concisely display the hazard level, fire suppression systems, occupancy life safety issues and special hazards of a given building. The image above is an example of a FSBMS symbol. These signs should be located “in a position to be plainly legible and visible from the street or road fronting the property or as approved by the fire department.” To aide in visibility the signs should incorporate a white reflective background and black lettering. Now let’s look at what each of the letters in the four sections of the cross identify.
The construction type is identified utilizing letter combinations in the top section of the Maltese cross as follows:
FR — Fire-resistive construction
NC — Noncombustible construction
ORD — Ordinary construction
HT — Heavy timber construction
C — Combustible construction
These construction types provide firefighters a general understanding of how well the building will resist collapse under fire conditions. Fire resistive construction would theoretically resist collapse the longest and combustible construction has the potential for the earliest collapse.
Hazards of Contents
The hazard of the building’s contents as it relates to fire conditions will be displayed on the left section of the Maltese cross as follows:
L — Low hazard. Low hazard contents shall be classified as those of such low combustibility that no self-propagating fire therein can occur.
M — Moderate hazard. Moderate hazard contents shall be classified as those that are likely to burn with moderate rapidity or to give off a considerable volume of smoke.
H — High hazard. High hazard contents shall be classified as those that are likely to burn with extreme rapidity or from which explosions are likely.
The hazard level will provide fire fighters with a general idea of how rapidly a fire will grow and spread through the building contents. This information can be used to anticipate the amount of water and firefighting resources needed to effectively control the fire.
Automatic Fire Sprinkler and Standpipe System
The presence of automatic fire sprinklers and standpipe systems will be displayed in the right section of the cross as follows:
A — Automatic fire sprinkler system installed throughout
P — Partial automatic fire sprinkler system or other suppression system installed
S — Standpipe system installed
N — None
The general understanding of what active fire suppression systems are located in the building will guide firefighter’s tactics including apparatus positioning and hose line selection.
Occupancy/Life Safety Issues
The occupancy and life safety issues will be displayed in the lower section of the cross as follows:
L — Business, industrial, mercantile, residential, and storage occupancies
M — Ambulatory health care, assembly, educational, and day care occupancies
H — Detention and correction facilities, health care, and board and care occupancies
This information about building occupants/occupancy type will allow firefighters to gauge the difficulty in evacuating occupants from the building. The L occupancies representing those where the occupant load is lower, and occupants can most effectively evacuate unassisted. The M is of moderate concern where the occupant load is higher and/or the occupants may need additional assistance due to age or health conditions. The H is of high concern where the occupants may not be able to self-evacuate and considerable resources will be needed to evacuate the building.
The center circle has been left empty to allow the inclusion of special hazards or provisions. This may be a location to include such things as truss type construction or even the hazardous materials information for example an NFPA 704 diamond, as long as the provisions for size of 704 are met.
Having the information on construction type, hazard level of contents, presence of sprinkler and standpipe systems and occupancy/life safety issues has the potential to enhance the effectiveness of firefighters arriving on scene. These responders would be equipped with the knowledge needed to best address an emergency in the building. States which have incorporated NFPA 1 into law should take the extra step to specifically name Annex C in the incorporating ordinance, thus incorporating a national standard the firefighter safety building marking system into law in their jurisdictions. Unless specifically incorporated by refence the FSBMS in Annex C would be a recommendation rather than a requirement. A national system has the potential to increase firefighter effectiveness while decreasing the number of fire fighter injuries and deaths by providing important information quickly and concisely as they arrive on scene.
Important Notice: Any opinion expressed in this column (blog, article) is the opinion of the author and does not necessarily represent the official position of NFPA or its Technical Committees. In addition, this piece is neither intended, nor should it be relied upon, to provide professional consultation or services.