Self-storage Facilities: Part 1 - Lightweight Metal Storage Buildings

Joseph T. Berry discusses how firefighters operating at self-storage facilities can be at great risk of being exposed to dangerous objects and hazardous materials.


Self-storage facilities are a booming business nationwide. Consumer demand for storage units can be found everywhere, from cities and suburbs to rural areas. In April 2006, The New York Times reported that there are 45,365 self-storage facilities in the U.S. They cater to the storage needs of...


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Principal concerns for firefighters are fire, collapse and hazardous contents.

Light-gauge metal partition walls separate units from one another on the sides and back. The partitions do not extend to the underside of the roof, leaving an opening at the ceiling level between each unit. This lets fire travel horizontally and unimpeded throughout the building. A fire in one unit could extend to the neighboring units once the metal partition wall heats up and conducts to the contents of adjoining units. Firefighters can expect to find fire in numerous units upon arrival.

Two of the most important pieces of information that the incident commander should know about a commercial building fire are the type of construction of the building and what are its contents.

During a fire, command must be aware of a lightweight metal building’s construction and the potential for collapse once the fire communicates from the contents to the structure, which will occur quickly. Then there is the unknown factor: for example, chemicals and ammunition were being stored in the building shown in photo 1. At other sites, units were found to contain automobiles, propane barbeque grills, and hazardous materials and chemicals.

Although some self-storage facilities may have better screening processes than others, for the most part they are dealing with transient clients. No one oversees or takes inventory of what is being stored. No Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) are attached to the buildings. Few of these buildings are heated and no sprinkler system or automatic alarm will be present. Self-storage buildings are usually located in commercial zoned areas, so delays in detecting and reporting fires must be expected.

Do firefighters take an aggressive offensive interior attack or a cautious defensive attack? The choice is obvious. Conditions on arrival will dictate. But get the big guns ready.

RECOMMENDATIONS FOR OPERATORS OF SELF-STORAGE FACILITIES

A. Install a fully automatic sprinkler system throughout the facility.

B. Connect the automatic alarm smoke detector to a central alarm.

C. Keep a detailed inventory of what is being stored. If any hazardous chemicals or materials are stored, provide a placard on the outside of that particular unit.

D. Keep an updated transcript of what is being stored in a lock box for the fire department use.

E. In light of terrorism today, owners of self-storage facilities must be more vigilant of who is using their service.

F. Require all hazardous materials or chemicals to be stored in a separate building.

G. Conduct a detailed screening of what is being stored within.

H. Improve the design of building units to limit fire travel and provide a fire rating for exposed metal structural members.

I. Arrange 24/7 telephone availability for the response of the proprietor or an agent familiar with the facility.

FIREFIGHTING TACTICS AT SELF-STORAGE FACILITIES

A. Consider stretching a 2½-inch hoseline with a solid stream tip. This will give you 250 gpm of driving power and reach. You don’t want to get too close.

B. Get down. If something inside blows out, you have a better chance of not wearing it if you’re down low versus standing up.

C. Some facilities may have narrow access driveways between storage buildings. Do not commit apparatus between the fire building and another structure; you may lose it.

D. Start thinking heavy-caliber streams, elevated platform tower ladders, ladder pipes or apparatus deck pipes.

E. A fire in these units will travel fast. It might be beyond the capabilities of a handline on your arrival.

F. You do not know what is being stored. Expect the unexpected. A fire may turn into a hazmat incident. Operate upwind.

G. A well-advanced fire may call for evacuation of exposures and areas downwind.

H. Always wear your mask.

I. Overhead doors in the retractable open position can threaten the safety of firefighters. All the weight of the door is in the open position directly overhead. Fire can weaken lightweight door framing and securing brackets, causing the entire door assembly to collapse.