"Taxpayer" Fires: 20 Tips for Safety & Survival - Part 1

July 1, 2008
Curtis S.D. Massey talks about refining the way fires are fought in one-story commercial buildings.

Curtis S.D. Massey talks about refining the way fires are fought in one-story commercial buildings.

In light of recent one-story commercial building fires that resulted in multiple firefighter fatality incidents, I felt compelled to write something outside of my normal venue -- high-rise fire operations educational articles. Since much of my firefighting experience was in residential, industrial and low-rise commercial buildings, often called "taxpayers," I feel qualified to offer insights into why we keep losing people in these buildings in the hope of reducing the risk to firefighters when tackling fires in these occupancies. I also aim for this article to create an open forum throughout the fire service, establishing an exchange of ideas between departments not just on a regional level, but a national one as well.

Some of what I say here is just a reinforcement of existing methodology in many departments, but there are also things that are somewhat new and a bit "cutting edge" that may be worth exploring in the fire service's never-ending pursuit of safer and more efficient ways to attack these risky and challenging fires. Whether you as a firefighter or as a collective department agree with the tips to follow or not, my goal is to get everyone motivated to focus on ways internally (individually and as an organization) to reduce the risk margin on the fireground in buildings which most departments just don't get enough experience fighting fire in to become truly proficient in managing the threat exposure to their personnel while still getting the job done.

Fire crews typically arrive on the scene in front of a one-story grocery store, restaurant, auto-parts store, nightclub or similar occupancy (stand-alone or in a strip-mall setting) and do a brief size-up from the front entrance (side 1/A) while stretching the first line into the front entranceway with heavy smoke and/or fire showing. They venture deeper into the building, knocking down fire as they go (or searching for the seat of the fire) while other units are either just arriving on scene or still responding, when suddenly things go terribly wrong -- the building collapses or a flashover or backdraft occurs and the crew is lost. The incident commander outside (if even on scene at this point) has no idea where precisely the firefighters are located or how deep they've gone, much less what caused the calamity to even occur.

This tragic scene is played out over and over again, year after year across the country. Funerals are planned, brothers and sisters are mourned by their colleagues and the community, and everyone wonders how it could have happened. Let's step back and look at what we can do to prevent these constantly reoccurring tragedies:

Tips for Firefighter Safety and Survival

After hours, expect an advanced fire and probable delayed alarm. As the company officer, try to perform a brief, yet thorough exterior size-up before entering -- not just from the front, but a 360-degree "walk-around" if a relatively small stand-alone building. You should have already seen three sides when you approach the scene as the first-due engine and drive past the entrance, leaving side 1/A to the first-due ladder. The 360-degree walk-around should be a mandatory part of size-up and should occur very early. Set aside the urge to immediately get a line on the fire and display the necessary discipline to perform a proper size-up, which will probably be the most critical factor affecting firefighter safety during the entire duration of the fire.

Treat this scene as a "hazmat" scene (of sorts). You don't just enter into a hazardous materials situation without proper recon/size-up, and the same should hold true in this type of building fire. Put the ego/macho thing aside of being the first crew to put water on the fire and be professional and in control of your emotions and thought process. Recon your enemy before going into battle. "The building (on fire) is your enemy," said the late, great Frank Brannigan. No truer words have been spoken. Study the building like a general studies his battlefield before the fight. Use that thermal imager early on and scan all four sides as you're doing your walk-around, especially the front mansard area (see photo 1). Many a fire has ignited from a short circuit in illuminated signage, then extended into the building -- typically, the cockloft area, which is unsprinklered. Note wind conditions, which can play a big role in how fast the fire advances and impacts fire behavior/conditions.

In a strip-mall setting, if it is obvious the fire is confined to the unit of origin, another assigned officer or crew can easily walk through an adjoining business (while ordering an evacuation during business hours or after forcing entry after hours) to the rear and gain a quick size-up of the conditions relative to side 3/C (and even noting conditions in the unit they are walking through), saving valuable time traveling around the entire complex to the rear. If the situation precludes the time necessary to accomplish this before the second ladder arrives, have the dispatcher send a police unit (which should be on-scene by now or close by) to go to the rear for you and report general conditions found, which at this point is more important than traffic/crowd control.

Many fires start in the loading dock trash compactor or dumpster, typically located in the rear of the building (see photo 2). Refuse in these compactors can provide a tremendous fire load and energy that will extend into the exposure/building. This fire must be controlled quickly from the inside (if possible), keeping the fire from gaining access to the building, pushing it back toward the exterior. With a line advancing in through a rear entry point, if using an overhead door of any type, it is important to prevent the door from coming back down after entry is made by securing the chain, clamping the track with a gripping tool, placing a pike pole in the track, etc. A second line can manage any outside fire.

If a small dumpster fire cannot easily be extinguished and is impinging on the building, it can be pulled away from the exposure with the line protecting the building and then extinguished in the open-air lot. This can be accomplished by attaching a chain to the front of the rig some distance away. Personnel should stay clear of the chain under tension and a salvage tarp can be laid across the chain to rapidly deaden the whip-lash in case it should snap. Ideally, though, it is best to keep the dumpster where it is for safety reasons and to avoid possible damage to the rig if the dumpster's weight is excessive.

Know your building construction -- this cannot be over-emphasized. With a bowed roof or flat roof on new construction, suspect a presence of trusses and act accordingly (see photos 3 and 4). Beware of inverted roofs and low-quality construction on "taxpayers." Have the first-due aerial ladder do a rapid assessment of the roof by ground or aerial ladder prior to venting, noting standing water due to clogged drains and scuppers (added weight). Note ice, snow, heavy air conditioning equipment and its location (center, center rear, etc.), dips in roof due to fatigue/slow failure. Note the presence of cell transmitters (RF radiation hazard) and avoid being near them. Use a thermal imager as part of the recon process to detect fire beneath the roof deck. This can quickly and easily be done from the aerial ladder or platform. Ensure everyone going inside is aware of conditions and dangers above them, preferably prior to entry. The entire operation is indeed a team effort.

If fire is already extending through the roof, then the roof is already beginning to fail, so advancing interior lines with no apparent life hazard may not be worth the possible sacrifice, especially if heavy fire is present. If the first line has already been advanced, the interior crews need to be notified immediately of the hazard. In case they are not making headway against the fire, they know they will have to withdraw very soon. If the vent team is accessing the roof when fire is found extending through, report to the incident commander and attack crew the location where it is occurring, then vacate the roof -- your job is already done. The interior crew should be ordered out as well if water is not being applied directly to the fire and rapid progress being made. If a ventilation hole is to be cut in the roof and trusses are suspected, avoid cutting over the suspected seat of the fire (use thermal imager). Sacrifice 10 feet or more, and make a safer cut farther away from the danger/collapse point (see photo 5). Remember that the fire is steadily attacking the supports directly beneath you and you have no idea how long the fire was burning prior to arrival. Once the hole is cut, vacate the roof as soon as possible instead of standing around admiring your handiwork as so many of us have done. There is no reason to stay up there any longer than necessary.

It is possible that heavy air conditioning units may have been added after the roof was already built and when it was designed to carry a much lighter load, thus straining the load-carrying capacity to its limits even without a fire being present (another reason to check for other added weight -- water, snow, etc). You would be amazed (or not) at what gets by the building inspections department. Air conditioning units can weigh one to two tons each (see photos 6 and 7), not including the air-handler usually mounted below inside the building just beneath the roof deck. The roof itself may have even been re-roofed, with the original roof below the existing one, further adding to an already strained roof.

Roof recon should include the use of thermal imagers to "see" hot spots. Extreme caution should be exercised when venturing onto the roof over a working fire in this type of building when doing recon or ventilation. Beware of front parapets, which can easily rise 15 feet or more above the roofline for aesthetic purposes (see photos 8 and 9). That first step off the aerial in thick smoke could result in serious injury if the roof is well below you. With the collapse hazard these parapets present, if the fire is burning in this vicinity, the sidewalk below must be cleared of members and equipment and a collapse zone established. Observations of the fire building, of course, can also be made from adjacent roofs of similar height. Also, check conditions in the rear (check for forced entry, primary or secondary points of fire origin) and note the locations of service entrance and secondary exits and transfer info back to incident commander and interior crews. Should things go awry inside with the attack crew and its escape route is cut off, they will immediately know where an alternate route of escape is -- "Ladder 2 to all units, be advised there is an alternate exit in the right rear corner/3-4 side of the store." These doors should be ensured to be unlocked or forced very early on, just in case there is no panic hardware (and the door may have a deadbolt opened by key only), which would preclude its use as an emergency exit for interior crews. Most service entrances tend not to have exterior hardware for security purposes (see photo 10). If the trapped firefighters are in a tenable position, they may be best served by staying put and letting a rapid intervention team locate and remove them to the exterior. If conditions are not tenable, then the endangered crew should try to find their way to the alternate exit working in conjunction with a rapid intervention team coming toward them from that location.

Proper apparatus placement is vitally important. On larger buildings where the potential exists for defensive operations to develop, it is best to position apparatus as if the building was already fully involved. This affords an advantage for the eventual use of master streams from deck guns and ladder pipes in a highly strategic manner, should it become necessary. Try to save the front of the building for tower ladders or TeleSqurts. A properly placed tower ladder or TeleSqurt with sufficient sweep can deliver horizontal streams through the large front openings of commercial buildings with greater mobility, depth and penetration than the standard deluge gun or 2½-inch handline. These streams can also be directed upwards towards the ceiling space to attack the metal deck roof "frying pan fire."

In newer strip-mall settings, consider the wisdom of choosing a hydrant that is on a sidewalk 10 to 15 feet from the structure (see photos 11 and 12). If the fire is in that particular unit or the adjacent one and gets out of control, that hydrant may easily be lost to the first-due engine as a viable water source by way of fire/heat exposure or building collapse. That engine itself or the ladder directly in front should be parked far enough away from the building frontage so as not to have to be shut down and repositioned in the event the structure becomes well involved. The engineer should cone off the immediate scene ASAP to protect the supply line and attack lines leading into the building from clueless drivers coming and leaving. This happens much too often on these fires.

If not done automatically when turning air on, have all personnel place personal alert safety system (PASS) devices in the "on" position before making entry, regardless of the lack of smoke, so activation will be automatic if needed. Consider using and deploying new-age locator devices that emit a loud chirp and blinking strobe light as you advance into the building for both search and fire attack crews, acting as "bread crumbs" for crews having to hastily retreat if things head south, expediting a possibly panicked withdrawal. Some are shaped as wedges (for use as door wedges) and those can maybe be placed where the wedge is always "pointing" toward the exit. Following a hose with numerous bends and loops in it can be confusing and disorienting, delaying your retreat (and that's only one hose). Ensure the incident commander knows where you are and what you are doing. Accountability tracking is a given, with frequent personnel accountability reports (PARs).

Avoid stretching "house-fire hose" into commercial building fires -- 1½-inch and 1¾-inch lines do not provide proper fire flows and protection for crews and cannot penetrate to the fire's seat as effectively as large-diameter hoselines. You are trading off your safety for speed of deployment and maneuverability. A 2½-inch line with a 1 1/8-inch smooth-bore tip delivers a greater "punch" to the seat of the fire than does the smaller lines with adjustable or fog nozzles. If you have to wait for another company's arrival (within reason) to deploy the bigger line, then do so. This really should be a standard operating procedure (SOP). Again, it's all a team effort and everything is based on safety.

If you decide to charge the initial attack line off the booster tank while the supply line is being established, use water judiciously unless you know you can accomplish a rapid, effective knockdown with a "blitz attack." Keep a timeline of the flow in mind (three minutes of actual flow time on a 2½-inch hose flowing 250 gpm with a 750-gallon booster tank, for example). Advise the interior crew when the hydrant is charged. If the supply line cannot be quickly established, advise the interior crew immediately. Many departments do not begin an assault on a commercial building fire until a supply line is flowing, while others may argue that you're increasing the "burn time," quickening building collapse potential and increasing flashover or backdraft potential while waiting for this to occur. So they use the booster tank to begin the assault. Arguments can be made both ways. Either way, though, a second line should be stretched as a backup.

Instead of advancing the initial attack line directly into the center of the building, add an extra length before charging and try to take a longer, but safer route by sticking to perimeter walls when possible. If possible, advance the attack line through the window on the far right or left after clearing all glass. This puts you close to the side wall and also leaves the front entranceways free for civilian evacuees. Wedge open automatic sliding doors in case power is lost. Avoid circling the fire and pushing it back toward your point of entry. Remember when advancing into the building, in the event of a collapse, you do not have the luxury of interior partition walls to protect you as you would in a house fire. Although certainly, trusses can be pulled off load-bearing walls (see photo 13) -- the center of the store still represents the greatest hazard because it is typically the least sturdy part of the roof, even without heavy air conditioning units resting above. If collapse conditions/potential is evident prior to entry, then entry should not be made.

Be sure the incident commander knows your general location as much as is feasible, whether you're on a search or attack team. Concentrate on being aware of your surroundings at all times. If the roof fails, even if just in a localized area, command will know where your last noted location was if there is radio silence from inside. PARs are very important, along with progress reports. The incident commander must be aware as to whether headway is being made or not, so he/she can decide if it is still safe to continue interior operations. Remember -- the clock is always ticking and the building is in failure mode.

Next -- Tips 11-20

Very special thanks to the following people for their input and expertise: FDNY Deputy Chiefs Roger Sakowich, Mike O'Keefe and John Bley; Atlanta Fire Department Battalion Chief Elbert Wilson; Houston Fire Department District Chief (ret.) Matt Stuckey; Los Angeles Fire Department Battalion Chief John Miller; Chesapeake, VA, Fire Department Captain Scott Hill; and Virginia Beach, VA, Fire Department Captain (ret.) Keith White.

CURTIS S.D. MASSEY is president of Massey Enterprises Inc., the world's leading disaster-planning firm. Massey Disaster/Pre-Fire Plans protect the vast majority of the tallest and highest-profile buildings in North America. He also teaches an advanced course on High-Rise Fire Department Emergency Operations to major city fire departments throughout the world. Massey also regularly writes articles regarding "new-age" technology that impacts firefighter safety.

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