"Taxpayer" Fires: 20 Tips for Safety & Survival - Part 1

Curtis S.D. Massey talks about refining the way fires are fought in one-story commercial buildings.


Curtis S.D. Massey talks about refining the way fires are fought in one-story commercial buildings. In light of recent one-story commercial building fires that resulted in multiple firefighter fatality incidents, I felt compelled to write something outside of my normal venue -- high-rise fire...


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Curtis S.D. Massey talks about refining the way fires are fought in one-story commercial buildings.

In light of recent one-story commercial building fires that resulted in multiple firefighter fatality incidents, I felt compelled to write something outside of my normal venue -- high-rise fire operations educational articles. Since much of my firefighting experience was in residential, industrial and low-rise commercial buildings, often called "taxpayers," I feel qualified to offer insights into why we keep losing people in these buildings in the hope of reducing the risk to firefighters when tackling fires in these occupancies. I also aim for this article to create an open forum throughout the fire service, establishing an exchange of ideas between departments not just on a regional level, but a national one as well.

Some of what I say here is just a reinforcement of existing methodology in many departments, but there are also things that are somewhat new and a bit "cutting edge" that may be worth exploring in the fire service's never-ending pursuit of safer and more efficient ways to attack these risky and challenging fires. Whether you as a firefighter or as a collective department agree with the tips to follow or not, my goal is to get everyone motivated to focus on ways internally (individually and as an organization) to reduce the risk margin on the fireground in buildings which most departments just don't get enough experience fighting fire in to become truly proficient in managing the threat exposure to their personnel while still getting the job done.

Fire crews typically arrive on the scene in front of a one-story grocery store, restaurant, auto-parts store, nightclub or similar occupancy (stand-alone or in a strip-mall setting) and do a brief size-up from the front entrance (side 1/A) while stretching the first line into the front entranceway with heavy smoke and/or fire showing. They venture deeper into the building, knocking down fire as they go (or searching for the seat of the fire) while other units are either just arriving on scene or still responding, when suddenly things go terribly wrong -- the building collapses or a flashover or backdraft occurs and the crew is lost. The incident commander outside (if even on scene at this point) has no idea where precisely the firefighters are located or how deep they've gone, much less what caused the calamity to even occur.

This tragic scene is played out over and over again, year after year across the country. Funerals are planned, brothers and sisters are mourned by their colleagues and the community, and everyone wonders how it could have happened. Let's step back and look at what we can do to prevent these constantly reoccurring tragedies:

Tips for Firefighter Safety and Survival

After hours, expect an advanced fire and probable delayed alarm. As the company officer, try to perform a brief, yet thorough exterior size-up before entering -- not just from the front, but a 360-degree "walk-around" if a relatively small stand-alone building. You should have already seen three sides when you approach the scene as the first-due engine and drive past the entrance, leaving side 1/A to the first-due ladder. The 360-degree walk-around should be a mandatory part of size-up and should occur very early. Set aside the urge to immediately get a line on the fire and display the necessary discipline to perform a proper size-up, which will probably be the most critical factor affecting firefighter safety during the entire duration of the fire.

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