Tactical Considerations for Strip Malls and Shopping Complexes

While these complexes are being built across the county, firefighters need to know the hazards associated with their features, including flex-space, construction features and fire protection systems.Fire department responses to incidents occurring at...

While these complexes are being built across the county, firefighters need to know the hazards associated with their features, including flex-space, construction features and fire protection systems.

Fire department responses to incidents occurring at strip mall and shopping center facilities can present many challenges to firefighters. Issues such as site access, "flex-space" construction, fire protection systems, along with inadequate or incorrect business contacts can often cause operational delays and create firefighter safety concerns.

Facility Access
Road access into shopping complexes is the first challenge that responding firefighter's face. Development and construction ordinances often limit access to these facilities to control traffic flow and congestion. These limits often require fire apparatus to drive past the occupancy to in order to access the property.

Requirements for the installation of site screening materials, such as plants, trees, shrubbery and fencing, along the building perimeter for aesthetic reasons and beautification of the property can also hamper the ability of the company officer to perform a complete size-up of the building.

Both of these issues require firefighters to establish landmarks such as signs, trees and other objects when driving apparatus in order to anticipate when and where to turn their apparatus in order to safely access the property and allow for the company officer to conduct a thorough size up.

Shopping complexes are often built as "flex-space" meaning the building is built in a generic manner where practically any type of business can rent and occupy the space. Buildings are often built with multiple entrances and exits in order to accommodate the varying exiting requirements of different occupancies. Multiple doors needed or required for an assembly occupancy may not be required for a business occupancy. In the latter case, doors that are not needed may be locked, blocked or even removed.

Another characteristic of flex-space structures is for demising walls to be installed to separate one occupancy from another. These walls are non-load bearing walls and depending on the building code occupancy classification for the business type, they may be non-fire rated. These walls can be erected, breached or removed depending upon how much space potential tenants need in order to operate their business.

Fire operations in these spaces can possibly cause firefighter confusion, disorientation and create problems with ingress and egress from the structure. Where an aisle, door or wall may be found this week, you can find a totally different layout the next week. Pre-occupancy and periodic fire inspections along with pre-incident planning must be conducted in order to keep up with continually changing floor plans of these structures.

Fire Protection Systems
The installation of fire protection systems are required by the fire Code based upon the following criteria for the location: size, number of floors and occupant loads. Numerous fire protection systems, including fire alarm, automatic fire-extinguishing systems and fire sprinkler systems, can be installed throughout the entire complex.

The areas of the building protected by each system are often be difficult to determine. Fire alarm and sprinkler system zones can often cover multiple tenant spaces creating problems when attempting to locate alarms for water flow or detector activation. This basically results in each business having to be checked by firefighters for fire, smoke or water flow conditions.

Fire alarm detection devices installed with point identification that gives the exact location of the device on the alarm panel can solve many of these issues. While this solution will take care of most fire alarm detector problems, sprinkler water flow activation alarms can still present issues. The normal installation of water flow switches is on the main riser above the sprinkler valve. In this configuration, when water flows the switch transmits a signal to the alarm panel which often does not delineate where the flow may be. A solution to this problem is to install additional flow switches with point identification on cross-mains or branch-line locations in order to narrow down the area of sprinkler flow, but this may or may not be possible depending upon the systems design and layout.

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