Strip malls and taxpayers can be found nearly everywhere in Anytown, U.S.A. These occupancies provide various commercial goods and services, and at times include residential living areas above the commercial areas. These structures possess an array of hazards that can injure and even kill firefighters working inside these occupancies. This month, we will take a look at some of the characteristics of these buildings, some construction issues regarding these structures, and some size-up considerations regarding operations in these buildings.
Over the years, the terms “taxpayer” and “strip mall” have be used interchangeably. However, there are specific, distinct differences regarding each type of building. A taxpayer is a mixed-use building that normally has commercial occupancies on the first floor, and living accommodations on the second floor. It is possible that the Taxpayer can have commercial occupancies on both floors, but for the most part, the upper-floor occupants may be mostly residential in nature (see Photo 1). It is called a “Taxpayer” because the owner of the main storefront occupancy rents out the areas in the additional stores and the upper floors to pay for the taxes on the lot the building rests upon.
These dwellings can possess a heavy fire load on the first floor with a severe life-hazard issue on the residential floor, directly in the path of least resistance for fire and smoke travel. Entrances to both units can be found in different locations, and can even be stacked right on top of each other. In many cases, the entrance to the commercial floor will be in the front of the building, while the residential access is in the rear of the building. Many times, these units are grouped together in clusters, and can share a common cockloft between units. Without some sort of fire separation or gap, each unit can be affected by a significant fire in one unit. These units may have cellars, and they may also be intertwined into these occupancies with no separation in between.
The strip mall can be broken into two groups, new-style and old-style occupancies. New-style strip malls have large open areas on the main floor, which can lead to significant fire loading of the building (see Photo 2). Construction will most likely be non/limited combustible, with the roof usually constructed of lightweight construction, including steel bar joists. In some cases, these bar joists can be wood chord metal web (WCMW) dual trusses, being located in areas that handle a significant loading on the roof, such as the HVAC system location (see Photo 3). There usually isn’t any cellar storage, with most of the storage in the rear of the unit, or in a large overhead storage area, almost a full story in height. This large cockloft will most likely run the entire row of stores, and possess a large artery for lateral fire spread. Drop ceilings will most likely be in each unit, causing an entanglement hazard to firefighters making entry into the unit.
Old-Style Strip Malls are the predecessor of the non/limited combustible strip malls. In these cases, the owner would buy a stretch of land, and construct a single building that may house a row of occupancies. With multiple occupants, the owner would maximize the rent to pay the taxes on the building and the land. These units are constructed of Ordinary Construction, with each unit separated by a masonry wall and a wood floor and roof assembly in each unit (see Photo 4). Unfortunately, this construction type will add a significant amount of fuel to the fire load. There will also be a cellar for material storage, and can possess a significant fire load with limited separation between occupancies. Finally, the drop ceilings in these buildings may hide a tin ceiling overhead, resulting in a void space for fire travel. Drop ceilings in old-style strip malls and taxpayers can be constructed of a wood frame, with sheetrock or plaster hung from this frame. The weight of this ceiling assembly falling on an advancing engine company can seriously injure and entrap these firefighters, requiring multiple resources to free them.