Tools For Your Firefighting Tool Box: Commercial Building Fires

I'm writing this article with a heavy heart. Once again the FDNY lost another brother fighting a fire in a commercial building. As is well known this is an occurrence that is happening more and more. This past June Memphis Tennessee lost two experienced Engine Company firefighters fighting a commercial building fire. Each year the list keeps growing.

During the 1960's the FDNY lost 12 firefighters fighting a fire in a commercial building located in Manhattan on 23 street. In the 1970's the FDNY lost 6 brother firefighters fighting a fire in a supermarket fire. The 1990's brought the death toll to 5 firefighters from Hackensack New Jersey in an auto dealership fire.

In 2001, the FDNY lost three brother firefighters on Father's Day in a commercial building fire. What's going on here? How can we possibly prevent or have a chance fighting these types of fires.

One of my last articles dealt with a commercial building fire where I explain the sequence of events that followed my arrival. I want everyone who reads my articles to get a copy of this article and share it with your brother and sisters. For those of you who may have forgotten what I had to say or those that feel it could not happen to them, pay attention to what I have to say. "IT MAY SAVE YOUR LIFE OR THE LIFE OF ONE OF YOUR FIREFIGHTERS!"

First let's get something straight, our chosen profession is not a game, it is life and death every time that alarm sounds. You have to be on top of your game at all times, for you just don't know what the big guy upstairs has in store for you. All too often I hear, "boy I wish we would get a good job (structural fire) tonight chief. Watch out what you wish for, I have been to too many funerals and don't want to attend any more.

So what can we do to better understand what's happening? Well, start at the beginning.


Ask yourself the following simple questions:

  • Is the building occupied or unoccupied
  • What time of the day is it
  • How big is the building
  • How advanced is the fire
  • Who I'm I working with
  • Who are the bosses

These are just some of the questions you should be asking yourself before entering the building. I will explain each one in detail and how each one could affect the outcome of your survival.

1) Upon arrival you have to access as quickly as possible the life hazard. If told that everyone has gotten out by a reliable source then this should immediately change the focus of your attack. Remember this is not a residential structure where you can formulate a standard layout attack. The commercial building has probably been renovated numerous times and it will be impossible to formulate a standard advance. Just think about the furniture stores in your area and how the floor is laid out. Now, picture yourself trying to make an advance during heavy smoke and heat. Pretty scary. Probably the first ten feet into the store will led you into numerous furniture lay outs. Now try to find you way out in total darkness when a mayday is transmitted and then ordered out. If you are an officer, do you have all your men with you? Probably not. The big clock on the wall is ticking and time is running short. You should have paid attention, the building is unoccupied so you know the term," Risk a little to save a little, Risk a lot to save a lot." This was not the time to extend yourself.

2) Time of day should dictate how aggressively you should attack the fire. Remember most times when a fire occurs during business hours the fire should not be that advanced and the fire should be attacked aggressively but cautiously. Listen, most of these building are built to create large open spaces without supporting columns causing a large fire front without boundaries. No dividing walls to compartment the fire area. If you could just remember your basic residential fire usually involves one or two rooms measuring 10' x 12' each. Now compare this with a commercial fire front of 150'x 150' uncompartmented. Not a chance in hell are you going to put this fire out. So the point is, if the fire occurs after hours be cautious. I know what you are saying because it is closed does not mean there is no one there. Your right, tell that to the deceased members families.

3) If you can see the fire that probably means it is advanced and you are going to need a lot of water for an interior attack. That 1" ? line with a task force nozzle is not going to do it. Big fire, Big water. Don't try it.

4) You have just received a detailed firefighter from another company and have given him his assignment. Could you remember his face when you have been ordered out of the structure and the Incident Commander has order a roll call? Probably not. So what do you do? Make sure that this firefighter stays with you and not to leave your side. If you are the firefighter make sure someone in that company knows who you are.


  • Respect commercial buildings they are killers.

  • Size-up the structure, I don't care if you are a probie or the Incident Commander everyone must size up the building

  • If heavy smoke exits the entrance after you have forced the front door be careful a back draft might occur

  • If you are going to conduct a search use a search rope. I don't care who makes fun of you or says we don't need that. I always carried 75' of 3/8 webbing with clips at each end rolled in my pocket. I used it as a firefighter and kept it in my pocket until I retired as a Battalion Chief using it numerous times. Take care of yourself.

  • As you enter the building try to remember how far you have gone from the front door. If you use your rope have knots tied every ten feet so it will give an indication as to how far you have gone.

  • If you start to feel heat thru your bunker gear its time to put on the brakes. Remember it's not an exposure suit it can and will heat up and the only way to relive the heat is to take it off which you can't or get out which you can. The further you go in the longer it will take to get out.

  • When the line or lines are charged and ready to advance all personnel must be ordered out of the building. At this point the incident commander should order the front glass to be removed and than wait a few seconds to see if it lights up or back draft occurs. Now advance as an attack team, truck and engine together no free lancers.

  • Listen to the radio, if you hear the incident commander requesting additional alarms it means the fire is advancing and you could be in its path.

  • Try and keep a mental time frame as to how long the fire has been burning and how long you have been operating

  • If you get in trouble don't wait until you are out of air to let someone know. Give the brothers a chance to get you . You know when you are in trouble, tell someone early. I would rather be embarrassed then dead.

  • If you are on the roof conducting roof cutting operations and you feel the roof getting spongy immediately notify the incident commander. The Incident Commanders next transmission should be all firefighters of the roof followed by a second transmission all firefighters back out. Remember if it is too dangerous to be on the roof than it is to dangerous to be operating under it.

Well I hope I haven't offended anyone, I could keep going on and on but I will leave that until another article. So stay safe keep the troop's safe and pay attention to detail. Don't become complacent, don't become a statistic's and don't forget the basics. Keep Training