Warehouse Fires: An Easy Checklist For An Offensive Operation

Editor’s note: Warehouse fires are common across the country. This story was written before the Worcester, MA, fire; it is not being included here to upstage Worcester or any other fire, but to educate our readers as to the problems and hazards associated with these serious types of incidents.

Companies responded to reported fire in an old, vacant furniture factory located in the mill district of the city. As the first engine arrived, members observed fire showing from two windows on the third floor of the six-story mill building. The building measured approximately 400 by 600 feet.

The fire was in the front of the building, which faced a four-lane street. The first-arriving captain ordered an aggressive interior attack by the first-alarm companies.

The first-due chief had fought many a fire in the city’s old, vacant mills, factories and warehouses. While responding to this fire, he knew from his experience that several critical factors had to be in his favor if the offensive operation was to be a success.

As the chief arrived, he observed the first-due ladder making forcible entry to a door at the street level about 15 feet to the left of the burning windows. The first-due engine had taken a hydrant approximately 100 feet up the street. The company began stretching a mobile 21¼2-inch hoseline and was preparing to enter the building.

operational factors

When the ladder completed entry, the members notified the chief that there was an interior stairwell right inside the door that they had forced open. From the street level, the fire appeared to be close to the top of the stairwell.

The chief knew that, with a little bit of luck, the companies could safely and successfully contain this fire with their offensive attack. How could he be sure? What factors had to be identified and ascertained?

  • Building access. The companies had to be able to access the structure in a relatively short period. Any delay in getting into the building could cause the fire to grow beyond their ability to handle it with an aggressive offensive attack. Even in vacant buildings, many of the doors are very well secured. Although one door may be open and provide access to the building, it may be remote from the area of the fire and provide no advantage for an offensive operation.

  • Floor access. Once in the building, the companies will have to locate an interior stairway to stretch their hoseline to the fire floor. If a stairwell is close to the door that the ladder company has opened, the offensive operation is still a viable option. However, if the fire is in a remote area of the floor or a great distance from the stairwell, myriad problems and issues will have to be anticipated and considered. What are the smoke and heat conditions? How far is the hoseline stretch? Do we have sufficient hose on the floor? How long will it take us to get the hoseline operational? Do we have sufficient personnel to complete the task? Most importantly, can we operate safely?

Once we have gotten to the fire floor, are the smoke and heat conditions severe? This may be an indication that the fire has progressed beyond our ability to handle it offensively. If we are not able to put water on the fire quickly because of a lack of hoseline, insufficient personnel to get the line in service or the fire being located remote from our access point, the delay may force us into a defensive operation.

  • Location and extent of the fire. As the chief observes exterior conditions, he notices the fire has spread to a third window while the companies are getting in service. He has a good idea of the location of the fire, but cannot be certain how far into the building the fire is or what the total area of involvement is. Based on the volume of the smoke, his experience tells him that the area is probably not very big, but he realizes that the size of the fire will be critical if the offensive operation is to be successful.

  • Fire load. The chief knows that the mill has been out of business for several years and that when it closed, much of the material in the structure had been removed. However, he does not know what is burning or how much fire load is on the floor. He realizes that he will not know this information until the companies can establish their attack on the fire and provide him with a report on their progress.

  • Water supply. In most cases, there are plentiful hydrants with good water supply in mill and factory districts, but having a hydrant close to the attack point is critical for the success of the offensive operation. If there is a long distance between the hydrant that the engine company takes and the access door from which the offensive attack will be launched, the lead time necessary to get the attack line in service may permit the fire to grow beyond the ability of the firefighters to operate in an offensive mode.

  • Firefighter safety. The issue of firefighter safety is without a doubt the most important. Unfortunately, firefighters have been injured and killed in this type occupancy. Firefighter accountability and safety are crucial for establishing and maintaining an offensive operation.

It is very easy for firefighters to become disoriented or wander into an area where the fire may get between them and their way off the floor. This often occurs in the initial phases of the operation, when companies are attempting to determine the exact location and extent of the fire. All company officers and firefighters must realize the initial minutes are perhaps the most vulnerable time for conditions to change and firefighters to become lost or trapped.

Fortunately, there is seldom a life hazard in vacant structures such as these. If there is no life hazard, there is no reason to be above the fire until you are absolutely sure the original fire conditions are controlled.

Firefighter accountability is an absolute must when operating in this type of occupancy. Officers must know where their members are and chief officers must know where their companies are operating. Too often, firefighters confuse “taking initiative” with “freelancing” on the fireground. Very simply, if the chief doesn’t know where your company is or your company officer doesn’t know where you are, you are “freelancing.”

arson: points to consider

We know that arson is usually the cause of fires in vacant buildings. When we consider an arson fire, we have to remember the possibility of multiple points of origin. If we observe smoke or fire conditions on an upper floor, DO NOT FORGET the seat of the fire could be in the basement, another fire could have been started in a remote area of the floor on which you are operating, or another fire could have been started on a lower floor.

Multiple points of origin on various floors can create a major safety concern for firefighters. When proceeding to the upper floors of the structure, check the floors that you are passing to ensure that no fire condition exists. If the arsonist sets fires on multiple floors, a fire on the ground floor will probably be the last one set and the smallest on your arrival. With sufficient fire load, it will grow and possibly cut off your way out of the building. NEVER, NEVER, let the fire get between you and your way off the floor or out of the building.

  • Floor compartmentation. Another necessary factor for the successful offensive operation is the integrity of the fire floor. Any vertical opening such as an elevator shaft, conveyor system, stairwell or even holes in the floor will permit fire to spread upward to exposed floors. Early multiple-floor involvement will almost always dictate a defensive operation and abandonment of the offensive operation. The only possible exception to this rule could be a minimal fire load on the fire floor and the complete lack of a fire load on the upper floor.

  • Transition to a defensive operation. Even the most experienced fire chief must remember that fireground conditions can change very quickly. Any chief officer who has served as an incident commander knows that, although we try to operate in an offensive mode when we are safely able to do so, the transition to a defensive operation must be anticipated. For this reason, we cannot lose sight of the “big picture.”

If there is potential for fire spread within the structure or to other exposed structures, request additional alarms and prepare for the transition to a defensive operation. Anticipate the lead time required to get companies and apparatus in position to cut off fire extension. Identify and prioritize the areas of the fire which need to be covered first.

Most importantly, COMMUNICATE to ALL interior companies that a transition to a defensive operation is needed and ensure that all interior personnel have been withdrawn and are accounted for.


The keys to the successful offensive operation are gaining access to the building, gaining access to the fire floor, determining the exact location and extent of the fire, ascertaining the amount and type of fire load, having an adequate water supply and being aware of floor compartmentation.

By identifying these critical factors early, a fireground commander can quickly determine whether an offensive operation in a mill, factory or warehouse has a chance for success. Firefighter safety and accountability are crucial for your success.