Extremely Dangerous Large Enclosed Structure Fires

The tragic event that unfolded in Charleston, SC, on June 18, 2007, marked the worst case of firefighter disorientation ever recorded in the United States. Since the details surrounding the deaths of nine firefighters have a direct and immediate impact on...

The National Institute of Standards and Technology, (NIST), has recently described the hazard associated with wind driven fires in high-rise structures. With exterior winds of 10 to 15 mph, temperatures measured in hallways adjacent to room fires exceeded 1,100 degrees F in the flow path of fire gases and heat. This represented an environment in which full personal protective equipment would not provide a firefighter required protection for safety. Additionally, there is sufficient evidence to show that the hazard can involve structures of opened or enclosed design not only in high-rise structure fires but in structure fires taking place on grade level as well.

Wind driven fires occurring in structures not categorized as high-rise structures have taken place on grade level in residences in Prince William County, VA and Baytown, TX, and others including a restaurant in Carthage, MO, a church in Lake Worth, TX and most recently in a millwork warehouse in Salisbury, NC. In these scenarios, and after factoring in the possible life hazard present, the recommendation offered by NIST which calls for attacking the fire with the wind at your back can be applied to prevent line-of-duty-deaths in these grade level wind driven fires, whether they occur during an opened or enclosed structure fire.

Enclosed Structure Tactics Needed Now
The consequences of using a fast and aggressive interior attack from the unburned side into a large enclosed structure are well documented. Study has shown that an offensive strategy used at these structures, without the wind hazard, will typically end in defensive operations and firefighter disorientation which leads to line-of-duty-deaths. In order to manage the risk on the fireground, all incident commanders, officers and firefighters must learn to recognize and appreciate the extreme danger associated with enclosed structures of all sizes. They must also understand that traditional initial size-up factors are being misinterpreted and that the use of a fast and aggressive interior attack from the unburned side may result in firefighter disorientation.

Therefore, the use of Enclosed Structure Standard Operating Guidelines, unique to the resources of each department, and which are programmed to avoid the risk during large enclosed structure fires must be developed and implemented. In light of the fact that traumatic Firefighter fatalities are continuing to occur in enclosed structure fires, tactics dedicated to enclosed structure fires are immediately needed on the fireground. These tactics, which are completely understood by all responders and incorporate all nationally recognized policies and practices including use of the incident command system and an accountability system, methodically ensure that:

  1. An enclosed structure is involved
  2. Life hazard is not present
  3. Accurate size-up including a 360-degree walk around is completed
  4. A cautious interior assessment of conditions is conducted
  5. A safety based decision is reached
  6. One of three tactics is selected including:
    • An attack from the point of entry
    • An attack from a different side of the structure which is closer to the seat of the fire (short interior attack)
    • A defensive attack is initiated
  7. Adequate support is provided, including establishment of a supply line, back-up companies with handlines or interior master streams, Rapid intervention teams, safety officers, thermal imagers, coordinated ventilation which controls the inlet and vent points of air and provides ventilation which will not cause a flashover or backdraft while crews are on the interior, forcible entry and breaching of exterior or interior adjoining walls.
  8. A risk management statement describing the acceptable risk is followed.

Firefighters have always adapted and overcome when confronted with significant problems on the fireground. The large enclosed structure fire is the latest challenge. However, with progressive leadership and commitment from all levels of the fire service including local, state and national, it can and must be done again.

Note:The preceding article implements the National Fallen Firefighters Foundations' Life Safety Initiative # 3: Focus greater attention on the integration of risk management with incident management at all levels, including strategic, tactical, and planning responsibilities.