"Dollar Store" Dangers: Are Firefighters’ Lives Worth Only a Buck?

Joseph T. Berry details how dollar stores are a threat to firefighters.


They go by various names – dollar stores, 99-cent stores, bargain stores and variations of those. They can be described as “retail wholesale stores” offering bargains that delight children, teenagers and adults. Shoppers are visiting these stores as often as they go grocery shopping. The trend...


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They go by various names – dollar stores, 99-cent stores, bargain stores and variations of those. They can be described as “retail wholesale stores” offering bargains that delight children, teenagers and adults. Shoppers are visiting these stores as often as they go grocery shopping. The trend is so widespread that major retailing giants are opening their own “dollar departments.”

Both The Wall Street Journal and USA Today have reported dollar stores are one of the fastest-growing new businesses today. One national chain is opening a new dollar store every day. Some are part of large franchises, while others are independent “mom-and-pop” operations.

The larger franchise stores are better organized and can afford state-of-the-art purchasing systems to control inventory. In the past year, I purchased merchandise from various dollar stores in different states. The larger chain stores were well stocked with merchandise and generally had good housekeeping. On the other hand, some of the independently owned stores were overstocked with merchandise and the housekeeping was poor.

Because of overstocking problems, some store operators resort to extending the displayed merchandise to outside the front entrance. At the end of the business day, the displayed goods from the outside must be put back inside, usually near the front entrance. This merchandise blocking the entrance creates an obstacle for firefighters entering these establishments after closing hours. The obstructions must be manually removed by firefighters prior to entry. This causes a serious delay in getting water on the fire and creates a tripping hazard near the entrance.

Another problem occurs when merchandise is stacked against the front plate-glass windows. The stock can block ventilation and can cascade outward, striking a firefighter when the windows are vented.

Why else are these consumer-friendly bargain stores a concern for firefighters? Because they contain an abundance of items that contribute to very hot, fast-moving fires. My research found large quantities of the following merchandise in at least some of the stores surveyed: assorted paper goods, household products, plastic trash containers, bath and kitchen cleaners, bath and dish towels, insect sprays, nail polish, fragrances, concentrated soaps, shampoos, hairsprays, automotive items, rubber floormats, aerosol spray paints, cleaners, antifreeze, open bins of plastic toys, novelties, plastic storage containers, clothing items: polyester sweats, adult and children’s clothing, vinyl tablecloths and party goods.

The potential exists for overstocking of merchandise during the holidays. For that reason, the New York City Fire Department conducts special pre-holiday inspections that concentrate on public safety, blocked exits, inadequate aisle space, overstocking and merchandise blocking sprinkler heads.

Recent Fires

Over the past few years, numerous fires have occurred in discount stores. Listed below are three fires of particular interest:

  • Fire 1 – In the Bronx, NY, during daytime hours, two employees were rescued by firefighters from the rear storage area of a dollar store. A fast-moving fire developed in the front of the store, cutting off their primary egress.

Based on past fires, the concern for firefighters is the potential for very hot, fast-moving fires. The nature of the fire loading contributes to this. Firefighters have to “read” the smoke – is there a light haze smoke condition or is heavy smoke pushing out under pressure? With both scenarios, conditions can deteriorate rapidly.

Command Concerns

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