A new training initiative at the Philadelphia Fire Department aims to help firefighters sharpen their ability to assess building conditions – and the potential for a collapse – while responding to fires.

All of the PFD’s nearly 2,200 firefighters will take a two-day course on building construction that includes lectures, props, videos, computer simulations, and group activities.

The PFD created and customized the curriculum with information about the unique array of buildings in Philadelphia, from Colonial-era rowhomes and industrial warehouses to solar-paneled residences, 21st-century skyscrapers, and everything in between.

It also features case studies of local tragedies: At least nine Philadelphia firefighters have lost their lives in fire-related building collapses since 1976.

“Members get more out of it when they can directly relate to the scenarios,” said Battalion Chief Drew Pluguez, who is managing the grant and course delivery. “More importantly, it sparks classroom discussion that educates other students as well as the instructors.”

Firefighters arriving at building fires perform quick visual inspections to see if there are signs of structural deterioration, such as a cracked cornice or missing masonry. But they need to continually assess a building’s condition – on the interior and exterior – as the firefight continues.

The course also addresses building collapses not caused by fire, which are not uncommon in Philadelphia neighborhoods with deteriorating housing stock. Collapses can happen in various ways depending on how structures are built, the materials involved, and the stresses put upon them.

This critical training program, which is funded by a $3 million federal grant, was recommended in after-action reports on the death of Capt. Matthew LeTourneau, who was killed in the line of duty when the interior of cluttered rowhouse collapsed during a fire in 2018.

“The training really hit home for those of us who knew Matt,” said Lt. Joe Ryan, who serves at Ladder 6 in West Philly. “The course material is strong and the instructors kept the class involved and discussions alive. It gets members thinking about the potential hazards we should be looking for.”

The class is being taught in the community room of Engine 38 in Tacony. Funding comes from FEMA’s Assistance to Firefighters Grant, which previously supported the PFD’s training initiatives on fire dynamics and incident command.