"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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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.