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

Curtis S.D. Massey continues this series discussing the way fires are fought in one-story commercial buildings.


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...


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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.

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