Working Safely Around Commercial Structures

It is early morning and your shift has just begun when the alarm comes in. It could be a warehouse, the corner grocery store or maybe even the local hardware store. Upon arrival, you see some smoke. You don't know the source yet, but it doesn't appear too bad. You don your self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), stretch your attack line and prepare to make forcible entry.

The above scenario can be quoted almost verbatim on many of the fire-related firefighter fatalities after action reports. The question arises, why?

From the beginning of our careers, we are ingrained with the behavior that we will do impossible feats to save a life. Change the type of structure and this is valid. A residential structure, early in the morning, with no unlocked doors means there are people inside. Back to the dilemma we are talking about, commercial properties. The chances of someone being inside are remote. So time is not that critical.

Some will offer that the longer we wait, the greater the fire will become. This is true in theory. But look at your toolbox on wheels and tell me you don't have all of the tools to keep this thing at bay. No, the problem is our aggressive culture. We want to get at this thing no matter what.

Here's the what: The large warehouse or anything over 2,500 square feet with ceilings over 15 feet in height. How long does it take to search with deteriorating conditions? How long does YOUR SCBA last? If you make entry with a 11/2-inch or 13/4-inch attack line, do you routinely also stretch a 21/2-inch line? What is the length of your pre-connected attack line? The 11/2-inch or 13/4-inch line has a reach of about 40 feet. Does that reach plus your length give you total reach to all walls of the building and the reaches of the attic space or plenum?

What is stored within the building will it contribute to the fire when exposed? How high are the racks? Can you get caught if they collapse onto your line or you? How soon will adequate water get to you to sustain an operation or are you ready to "dump the tank" as you would at your average room-and-contents fire?

Firefighters get into trouble because they treat this commercial structure just like that bedroom fire. In this structure conditions can change drastically. Just continue to add oxygen as you open doors to ventilate. The fire grows and the visibility goes to zero. You can get lost. What can be done?

Develop your SOPs so that a team can go in to recon only. They use the closest access door. They are immediately backed up by larger lines. This must be done routinely. Accountability is an absolute. The chief must get complete reports from the initial size-up throughout the job.

The corner grocery store seems harmless. About 15 years ago, John Norman of the FDNY told me, "If you have to step up to get into the store, there is a good chance that concrete has been poured over existing wood floors to support the weight of the stock and the freezers. A fire in the basement will cause a collapse without you ever feeling the heat of the floor."

Most of these establishments are about 100 feet in depth. If the initial size-up reports a possible fire in the basement, then take out the front window and use a 2 1/2-inch line to reach the entire store from the front.

In new buildings the danger, of course, is trusses. Same line again. A team can make entry to recon only, but must slow down and watch conditions closely. The key here is how well the first-arriving units read the cues and make good and safe decisions.

The hardware store becomes easy. There is bad, bad stuff in there. Treat it like a hazmat incident from the beginning. The weight on the floor or floors will contribute to collapse at a much quicker rate. The amount of flammables and other chemicals make for a dangerous combination. The size-up will set the stage for all activities afterward. The heat generated by the contents within this occupancy will compromise masonry, steel or wood in a short time. The need for larger lines very quickly is essential. Accountability, safe practices and a good rapid intervention team will make the job safer.

These are but a few of the many occupancies that don't require speed as much as good judgment. Initial size-ups that are complete and accurate protect firefighters as well. Finally, incident commanders who are concerned for the welfare of their troops can make these jobs ones that everyone comes home from. Stay Safe.

Michael L. Smith, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 29-year veteran of the District of Columbia Fire Department, currently deputy chief/suppression and shift division commander, commanding all fire, EMS, hazmat, special operations and special events activities in the District on shift. He is a 30-plus-year fire service veteran and is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officers Program at the National Fire Academy. Smith is a Certified Municipal Manger (CMM) from George Washington University; has degrees in fire science, construction management and labor law; and he holds a journeyman's card with United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners.