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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 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.

Hydrants, Sprinkler Valves and Fire Department Connections
The location of fire hydrants, sprinkler valves and fire department connections (FDCs) can also cause headaches for firefighters attempting to locate and connect to these devices. Often these devices are considered non-aesthetically pleasing and they are hidden, blocked or placed in areas out of the line of sight. In other cases hydrants, valves and FDCs are placed in the parking lot and are blocked by crash protection devices or access is obstructed by parked vehicles.

In both of these cases the fire code requires a clear area of three feet in all directions around these devices in order to provide access. The code also allows for the installation of fire lanes, complete with pavement markings and "no parking" signs, for the enforcement of no parking restrictions.

As for the locations of these devices, pre-planning must be conducted in order for firefighters to know the locations for quick deployment and establishment of water supplies for fire operations.

Business And Property Contacts

With the present economic conditions businesses and shopping centers can come and go rapidly. Firefighters often have problems with gaining access to businesses or contacting business or property contacts during false alarms and other incidents. This holds especially true after normal business hours or on holidays when businesses are closed. Even with routine and periodic fire inspections there are still times when business contacts are not correct.

A solution to inadequate or incorrect occupancy contacts is to require pre-occupancy inspections in conjunction with zoning and business license requirements. The implementation of local ordinances requiring pre-occupancy inspections can ensure that any business opening in a shopping complex is code compliant prior to opening and current contact information can be collected. In order for this program to be successful, the inspection process should be required to be completed prior to having utilities such as water, sewer and electrical power turned on to the space.

Problems with gaining access to businesses during holidays or non-business hours can be rectified by instituting ordinances requiring key vaults to be installed on the exterior of buildings. However, for this requirement to be effective business keys must be consistently inspected for accuracy during pre-incident surveys or periodic and pre-occupancy fire inspections.

Incident responses to strip malls and shopping complexes are a common, every day occurrence for fire departments throughout the country. Construction features, along with changing occupancy types and other hazards associated with these facilities can pose a great risk to firefighters during these incidents. Only through the diligent completion of pre-incident planning, pre-occupancy and periodic fire inspections will the fire department be prepared to implement incident strategies and tactics to safely mitigate incidents occurring at these complexes.

MARK A. BROWN, a Contributing Editor, serves as Fire Prevention Bureau Chief for the Concord, NC, Department of Fire & Life Safety. A 20-year veteran of the fire service, he is an appointed board member of the North Carolina Fire Marshal's Association and possesses an Associates Degree in Fire Protection. To read Mark's complete biography and view his archived articles, click here.