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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Treat this scene as a "hazmat" scene (of sorts). You don't just enter into a hazardous materials situation without proper recon/size-up, and the same should hold true in this type of building fire. Put the ego/macho thing aside of being the first crew to put water on the fire and be professional and in control of your emotions and thought process. Recon your enemy before going into battle. "The building (on fire) is your enemy," said the late, great Frank Brannigan. No truer words have been spoken. Study the building like a general studies his battlefield before the fight. Use that thermal imager early on and scan all four sides as you're doing your walk-around, especially the front mansard area (see photo 1). Many a fire has ignited from a short circuit in illuminated signage, then extended into the building -- typically, the cockloft area, which is unsprinklered. Note wind conditions, which can play a big role in how fast the fire advances and impacts fire behavior/conditions.
In a strip-mall setting, if it is obvious the fire is confined to the unit of origin, another assigned officer or crew can easily walk through an adjoining business (while ordering an evacuation during business hours or after forcing entry after hours) to the rear and gain a quick size-up of the conditions relative to side 3/C (and even noting conditions in the unit they are walking through), saving valuable time traveling around the entire complex to the rear. If the situation precludes the time necessary to accomplish this before the second ladder arrives, have the dispatcher send a police unit (which should be on-scene by now or close by) to go to the rear for you and report general conditions found, which at this point is more important than traffic/crowd control.
Many fires start in the loading dock trash compactor or dumpster, typically located in the rear of the building (see photo 2). Refuse in these compactors can provide a tremendous fire load and energy that will extend into the exposure/building. This fire must be controlled quickly from the inside (if possible), keeping the fire from gaining access to the building, pushing it back toward the exterior. With a line advancing in through a rear entry point, if using an overhead door of any type, it is important to prevent the door from coming back down after entry is made by securing the chain, clamping the track with a gripping tool, placing a pike pole in the track, etc. A second line can manage any outside fire.
If a small dumpster fire cannot easily be extinguished and is impinging on the building, it can be pulled away from the exposure with the line protecting the building and then extinguished in the open-air lot. This can be accomplished by attaching a chain to the front of the rig some distance away. Personnel should stay clear of the chain under tension and a salvage tarp can be laid across the chain to rapidly deaden the whip-lash in case it should snap. Ideally, though, it is best to keep the dumpster where it is for safety reasons and to avoid possible damage to the rig if the dumpster's weight is excessive.
Know your building construction -- this cannot be over-emphasized. With a bowed roof or flat roof on new construction, suspect a presence of trusses and act accordingly (see photos 3 and 4). Beware of inverted roofs and low-quality construction on "taxpayers." Have the first-due aerial ladder do a rapid assessment of the roof by ground or aerial ladder prior to venting, noting standing water due to clogged drains and scuppers (added weight). Note ice, snow, heavy air conditioning equipment and its location (center, center rear, etc.), dips in roof due to fatigue/slow failure. Note the presence of cell transmitters (RF radiation hazard) and avoid being near them. Use a thermal imager as part of the recon process to detect fire beneath the roof deck. This can quickly and easily be done from the aerial ladder or platform. Ensure everyone going inside is aware of conditions and dangers above them, preferably prior to entry. The entire operation is indeed a team effort.
If fire is already extending through the roof, then the roof is already beginning to fail, so advancing interior lines with no apparent life hazard may not be worth the possible sacrifice, especially if heavy fire is present. If the first line has already been advanced, the interior crews need to be notified immediately of the hazard. In case they are not making headway against the fire, they know they will have to withdraw very soon. If the vent team is accessing the roof when fire is found extending through, report to the incident commander and attack crew the location where it is occurring, then vacate the roof -- your job is already done. The interior crew should be ordered out as well if water is not being applied directly to the fire and rapid progress being made. If a ventilation hole is to be cut in the roof and trusses are suspected, avoid cutting over the suspected seat of the fire (use thermal imager). Sacrifice 10 feet or more, and make a safer cut farther away from the danger/collapse point (see photo 5). Remember that the fire is steadily attacking the supports directly beneath you and you have no idea how long the fire was burning prior to arrival. Once the hole is cut, vacate the roof as soon as possible instead of standing around admiring your handiwork as so many of us have done. There is no reason to stay up there any longer than necessary.