"Taxpayer" Fires - 20 Tips for Safety and Survival: Part 2

Refining the Way Fires Are Fought In One-Story Commercial Buildings -- Part 2

If thermal imaging capability is available, use it early for interior operations. A camera should go in with the first entry team, being careful that the member using the unit is disciplined enough to stay close to his or her unit, as it is easy to stray away or ahead of your team when you are the only one with "glasses on" in dense smoke. Check for the presence of hidden fire above (or below, if a basement is present) as you enter the unit or building, regardless if smoke is present or not. On countless fires, including fatal ones, crews were confronted with nothing more than a slight haze of smoke and little to no heat when entering the building only to discover there was a hidden raging cockloft fire above them or a roaring basement fire below them.

If no camera is available, probe drop ceilings with a pike pole by lifting tiles out of the way as you advance or make a small inspection hole in non-drop ceilings every 20 feet or so. Always suspect multiple drop ceilings, as old ones are rarely removed when renovation occurs -- it's common to find two or even three false ceilings between the occupiable space and the roof deck in buildings that have changed tenancy. Metal (copper is quite popular) ornamental ceilings can easily obscure the presence of heavy fire above. If a drop ceiling is present on an obvious working fire, consider using your hose stream to blast away a few ceiling tiles to check for fire as you go if a pike pole is not readily available. Don't ever let the fire get behind you, blocking your escape. Again, try to know where an alternate exit is before panic mode sets in should the ceiling or roof collapse behind you.

Always use search ropes when conducting a primary search. There are new ropes out now that illuminate, making them easy to see and they even come in two colors to indicate which way the rope is being stretched. This way you always know which way is out if you lose contact with the rope and regain it under high-stress conditions, or if another member strays, becomes disoriented and comes into contact with the line, trying to find his or her way out as their air bottle expires. No room for errors here, so no 50/50 chance that you go the wrong way, deeper into the fire area. If debris is blocking your route and covering the rope, transmit a Mayday immediately and stay at your location, if tenable, then let the rapid intervention team find you.

If the fire begins to involve a metal roof deck with tar and gravel, there will be two independent fires that must be controlled -- the initial structure fire and now the gases burning between the metal decking and the petroleum-based roofing compounds above serving as a weather barrier for the building. Once initiated, the second fire becomes self-sustaining and is difficult to extinguish. Cooling the underside of the roof deck with a hose stream is important in reducing the flammable gases being generated in this secondary fire. Plus, you are creating a sprinkler system to possibly assist with extinguishment of the interior fire.

Case study: The Atlanta Fire Department recently worked a single-story commercial building fire where flaming, dripping tar from an independently burning metal roof deck fire started three separate fires in an adjoining/exposure building. The rapidly spreading roof deck fire was not obvious at floor level with heavy smoke banking down to near chest level with a 20-foot ceiling above in the exposure property. On the exterior, there were only two small areas of flame visible from above. An aerial ladder was positioned above this area and the ladder pipe with a smooth-bore tip opened up on the fire. The stream blasted away the entire burn area, extinguishing all the flames as the burning roof deck became completely exposed. The three interior fires in the exposure were quickly controlled when crews re-entered the building.

The lesson learned from this unusual fire is that a presence of multiple spot fires is a possible indication of a metal deck roof fire. The fire will spread in the roof and drop tar in separate locations. You may conclude you have an arson fire at first glance, unaware of the danger lurking above. Don't be deceived by "the obvious."

Multiple false ceiling grids, overhead lighting and wiring can present serious entanglement issues for crews below should they come down. Look for the absence of interior columns, which could indicate the presence of trusses above you -- again, avoid the center, which is the weakest area. If visibility allows you to see a "doubling up" of trusses -- either by way of an exposed roof deck/no ceiling or by probing the ceiling plenum area -- that is an obvious indication they are carrying an increased load (i.e., an air conditioning package unit on roof).

Beware of high shelving or storage in stores or warehouses and heavy objects on them that can do great harm should they fall on you. Beware of heavy storage in possible attic areas above you in older buildings. Mezzanines or above-grade storage systems may not be constructed to building code standards and can quickly fail when exposed to fire, crushing firefighters or blocking their escape.

Even if the building is sprinklered, the water coming out of the heads may not be reaching the seat of the fire due to obstructions such as shelving, storage and ornamental ceiling or light fixtures. Heads may even be positioned between exposed ceiling joists in restaurant-type occupancies, blocking their spray pattern range. The flowing heads will indicate you are near the seat of the fire though. Although this goes against everything you've been taught, if the sprinklers are not doing their job, then locate the valve and shut the system down once lines are in place and flowing. This also reduces further damage and the waste of precious water.

In a strip-mall setting, remember that these heads are pulling water from the same fire main as your attack lines and at that point all water should be directed toward the fire units operating on scene for both their safety and meeting flow demand. The majority of these mains, many times on a "loop," typically run six to eight inches in diameter -- barely enough for one good master stream or two or three handlines, so if non-performing sprinklers are competing for the same water as attack lines, they should be isolated.

Always have your second-due engine tap into a hydrant on the main thoroughfare running by the building/complex if you're using the proprietary one. You'll need the water for additional lines or aerial streams and you won't be stealing each other's water from the same main in the scene area. Have the police protect those lines from vehicle traffic. Try to ensure the sprinkler system is put back in service before leaving the scene, if it can be done.

Be aware of possible basements and their related hazards below you. Also, constantly be aware of the drawback to modern firefighting encapsulating gear -- the thermal protection is so good now, firefighters can easily penetrate too deep into a serious fire without knowing it (if the fire is beyond the control of a single attack line).

Be sure to get the power company on scene early into the fire and remove all electricity to the building (the same goes with the gas company), eliminating the risk to firefighters being exposed to hazards while operating inside; i.e., pulling ceilings, opening walls, operating around collapsed ceilings with dangling wires, etc. Suspect the presence of auxiliary power generators in occupancies that use large refrigeration units, such as grocery stores. Having the power company remove the primary load will only result in transferring some of it over to on-site generators. On the exterior, be aware of overhead power lines possibly hidden in smoke.

When personnel are going to the roof to ventilate, another ladder should always be raised to the roof (preferably in the rear), providing an alternate means of rapid egress for the roof team should the path back to the aerial ladder in the front of the building become obstructed. A hose should be stretched to the roof for protection as well whenever possible. Although cumbersome, self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) should be worn, with personal alert safety system (PASS) devices on. If you and/or your team falls through the roof, rescue crews can quickly locate you and you may need that airpack, if still intact.

Speaking of rescue, do not just have one rapid intervention team on scene standing by at the front of the building. Even if it requires an extra call for the necessary manpower and one more station back-fill/mutual-aid request, put one in the rear as well after all critical initial assignments have been given. This one act may save the lives of an interior crew trapped and in danger near that location.

Technically, each attack team and each point of entry should have a dedicated rapid intervention team standing by, not participating in any firefighting activities beyond feeding hose through a doorway. Team members should have with them all necessary tools to perform any task, including possible breaching of walls (saw, sledge hammer, irons, spare thermal imager, possibly even an extra hoseline) so if the roof collapses and interior lines are immediately severed with crew(s) operating close by to the entry point, the rapid intervention team can order the compromised/free-flowing lines shut down and make an aggressive entry with its line to knock down fire and protect trapped crew(s) until they can be extricated. Ideally, on a working fire in these occupancies, a heavy rescue unit (if one exists) should be dispatched as a primary rapid intervention team. These teams typically are well equipped and trained in structure stabilization, technical search, heavy lifting/moving/breaking/breaching and accustomed to working in collapse environments. Some of this equipment may include hydraulic cutters and spreaders; oxyacetylene torches; exothermic torches; and/or plasma cutters -- some capable of cutting structural steel greater than one-inch-thick; hydraulic concrete-cutting tools; high-pressure airbags capable of lifting 74 tons or more; and lumber and/or pneumatic shoring capable of shoring reinforced-concrete buildings.

Gas-powered saws likely will not work efficiently, if at all, in an immediately dangerous to life or health (IDLH) atmosphere. If your department expects its members to enter and operate in structure fires involving lightweight commercial buildings, then special resources should at least be dispatched to stand by at the scene as a rescue team. You are way behind in the game if a collapse occurs, firefighters are trapped, and your heavy-lifting and breaching tools are miles away in a station, with crews listening to the fire on a portable radio. A medic unit should also be on scene for all working fires in these buildings to render immediate care of fallen firefighters or injured civilians.

Monitor fire and smoke conditions closely for interior fire travel and a deteriorating situation. In a strip mall setting, if the fire is in the rear corner of the building well away from the front entrance point, consider relocating the engine to that sector (if it can be done quickly, or even by a second-due engine) and advancing in from the service entrance or emergency exit point instead of the front. While attacking from the unburned side is a noble tactic and has saved many lives, in these types of buildings, it may be inadvisable if making a long, dangerous stretch from the front. The shorter the path to the fire, the less the exposure to the "ticking time bomb" of roof failure. Always avoid opposing handlines or pushing the fire farther into the building.

It can also be deemed feasible to breach the party wall, if necessary, and advance the attack line in from there, again avoiding a long dangerous stretch from the front. In breaching any wall, bearing or non-load bearing, a triangular opening is best and safest -- never a horizontal one unless it is immediately reinforced. Extreme care should always be taken. Ideally, this should be done by a trained, equipped and qualified team, such as the heavy rescue unit.

Danger Zones

Look at newer lightweight buildings as a covered skeleton -- a "wolf in sheep's clothing." Don't hesitate to write off a building that's heavily involved and switching to an exterior attack since its going to have to be rebuilt anyway -- why risk life for property? The dozers will be out the next morning pushing it all down.

In addition to invaluable input from others, I write a great deal of my thoughts, ideas and scenarios here based on a fire I was involved in 12 years ago, where two colleagues were killed in a truss roof collapse in a burning auto parts store. The owners had moved two heavy air conditioning units to the center of the roof from ground level. The fire erupted in the ceiling void space above two drop ceilings and was fed by a brisk wind blowing in the rear entrance door, which was left open. The two-man attack crew stretched a 1¾-inch line into what appeared to be an overhead water heater fire as reported to them by the manager, when in fact there was a rapidly advancing cockloft fire above originating from another source, which was not evident to the crew. The truss roof quickly failed just as other units arrived on scene, taking both their lives. They were able to make on-air pleas for help after becoming trapped and prior to succumbing to thermal burn injuries. No civilians were lost.

Concentrate on the fire, its progression, your surroundings, the building under attack and most of all your safety at all times. Recon the building before venturing inside. Use those thermal imagers. Read everything you can find on building construction. What you learn may save your life and the lives of your comrades. Never, ever stop "tweaking" your standard operating procedures (SOPs)/standard operating guidelines (SOGs).

Very special thanks to the following people for their input and expertise: FDNY Deputy Chiefs Roger Sakowich, Mike O'Keefe and John Bley; Atlanta Fire Department Battalion Chief Elbert Wilson; Houston Fire Department District Chief (ret.) Matt Stuckey; LAFD Battalion Chief John Miller; Chesapeake, VA, Fire Department Captain Scott Hill; and Virginia Beach, VA, Fire Department Captain (ret.) Keith White.

CURTIS S.D. MASSEY is president of Massey Enterprises Inc., the world's leading disaster-planning firm. Massey Disaster/Pre-Fire Plans protect the vast majority of the tallest and highest-profile buildings in North America. He also teaches an advanced course on High-Rise Fire Department Emergency Operations to major city fire departments throughout the world. Massey also regularly writes articles regarding "new-age" technology that impacts firefighter safety.