Commercial Building Fires

Since my last article there have been quite a few fires in commercial building fires throughout the country.

The incident commander ordered all firefighters off the roof followed by a second transmission for all interior firefighters to withdraw from the building.

The fire operations had now become an exterior operation and required the response of additional special units. Tower ladders were setup around the perimeter and heavy-duty appliances were setup in front of the fire building. The safety officer evaluated the operation and ordered all firefighters off the sidewalk. This included not only the sidewalk in front of the fire store but the entire length of the building's sidewalk.

Five minutes after removing all firefighters from the fire building and ordering all firefighters off the sidewalk, the entire parapet wall collapsed. Followed immediately by the collapse of the rear floor of the original store. Due to decisive leadership no injuries were reported.

Photo Courtesey FDNY Archives

The fire that I have just described was a fire that I operated at as the first due engine officer. What were the lessons learned? Most importantly what was the common factors that helped make the decision to withdraw the troops?


  • Perform a proper size-up; including firefighters, officer, and incident commanders

  • Get additional units sooner than later

  • Properly identify type of construction fireproof or non-fireproof

  • Evaluate conditions on arrival- Ask yourself this question, can I really extinguish this fire with hand lines, if so, stretch the proper size line

  • "Big fire big hose" "Little fire little hose"

  • Big building = Big fire load potential

  • Remember "Risk a little to save a little" "Risk a lot to save a lot"

  • Before committing your first line know the location of the fire

  • Vent the roof before entering sealed buildings, will prevent a back draft

  • If unoccupied re-think your advancement procedures. Occupied multiple dwelling buildings require a fast advance, unoccupied commercial buildings requires a slower more deliberate advance

  • If high heat and a heavy smoke condition is found on the first floor with no visible fire, the fire is most likely located in the basement

  • Stay off the sidewalk for as far as the parapet wall extends

  • Once advancement has been started try to monitor the heat conditions

  • Officers don't be afraid to make a decision

  • Incident Commanders if you feel it is time to pull the troops out don't wait.

  • Remember how far you have advanced into the interior of the building because as far as you have gone in is as far as you have to get out.

  • FDNY rule of fighting commercial building fires reads "If a fire has been burning uncontrolled for 20 minutes or more or there has been no advancement within 20 minutes all interior firefighting shall stop and all firefighters are to be ordered out of the building."

  • If ordered out of the structure, stay off the sidewalk. The sidewalk is always in the collapse zone.

Most importantly, wear all your gear, pay attention to your surroundings and constantly monitor handie-talkie communications.

FOOTNOTE! When I write these articles I offer my personnel opinions and my experiences. I don't expect your department to change their procedures, but I would hope that maybe you will re-evaluate your Sop's. The reason I write is to generate discussion, re-thinking and maybe somewhere a firefighter's life may be saved. We should never think we know everything. Everyday I receive e-mail from readers all over the country that offers their opinions and I learn something. So keep your mind open and try to learn something new each day. Keep asking questions!

John Keenan is a 33 year veteran of the FDNY and currently holds the position of Battalion Chief 15 in the Bronx. Chief Keenan is a frequent lecture and instructor on fire service topics with a specific interest in Engine Company Operations. You may contact Chief Keenan at