"Dollar Store" Dangers: Are Firefighters’ Lives Worth Only a Buck?

June 1, 2005
Joseph T. Berry details how dollar stores are a threat to firefighters.

They go by various names – dollar stores, 99-cent stores, bargain stores and variations of those. They can be described as “retail wholesale stores” offering bargains that delight children, teenagers and adults. Shoppers are visiting these stores as often as they go grocery shopping. The trend is so widespread that major retailing giants are opening their own “dollar departments.”

Both The Wall Street Journal and USA Today have reported dollar stores are one of the fastest-growing new businesses today. One national chain is opening a new dollar store every day. Some are part of large franchises, while others are independent “mom-and-pop” operations.

The larger franchise stores are better organized and can afford state-of-the-art purchasing systems to control inventory. In the past year, I purchased merchandise from various dollar stores in different states. The larger chain stores were well stocked with merchandise and generally had good housekeeping. On the other hand, some of the independently owned stores were overstocked with merchandise and the housekeeping was poor.

Because of overstocking problems, some store operators resort to extending the displayed merchandise to outside the front entrance. At the end of the business day, the displayed goods from the outside must be put back inside, usually near the front entrance. This merchandise blocking the entrance creates an obstacle for firefighters entering these establishments after closing hours. The obstructions must be manually removed by firefighters prior to entry. This causes a serious delay in getting water on the fire and creates a tripping hazard near the entrance.

Another problem occurs when merchandise is stacked against the front plate-glass windows. The stock can block ventilation and can cascade outward, striking a firefighter when the windows are vented.

Why else are these consumer-friendly bargain stores a concern for firefighters? Because they contain an abundance of items that contribute to very hot, fast-moving fires. My research found large quantities of the following merchandise in at least some of the stores surveyed: assorted paper goods, household products, plastic trash containers, bath and kitchen cleaners, bath and dish towels, insect sprays, nail polish, fragrances, concentrated soaps, shampoos, hairsprays, automotive items, rubber floormats, aerosol spray paints, cleaners, antifreeze, open bins of plastic toys, novelties, plastic storage containers, clothing items: polyester sweats, adult and children’s clothing, vinyl tablecloths and party goods.

The potential exists for overstocking of merchandise during the holidays. For that reason, the New York City Fire Department conducts special pre-holiday inspections that concentrate on public safety, blocked exits, inadequate aisle space, overstocking and merchandise blocking sprinkler heads.

Recent Fires

Over the past few years, numerous fires have occurred in discount stores. Listed below are three fires of particular interest:

  • Fire 1 – In the Bronx, NY, during daytime hours, two employees were rescued by firefighters from the rear storage area of a dollar store. A fast-moving fire developed in the front of the store, cutting off their primary egress.
Fire 2 – A fire in an upper Manhattan dollar store broke out during business hours and quickly escalated to a fifth alarm. The blinding smoke totally encapsulated the view of the building. The sidewalk in front of the building was littered with merchandise that was on display outside the building. Exposure 4 was an occupied multiple dwelling. The safety chief, using a carbon monoxide meter, received a constant reading of over 300 ppm in that building throughout the incident. Fire 3 – Two firefighters in Tennessee died at a fire in a dollar store. It is believed that a backdraft explosion may have occurred in the void space above the ceiling tiles. At that point, the roof system at the rear of the structure began to fail, sending debris down on top of the firefighters. The fire was arson related.

Based on past fires, the concern for firefighters is the potential for very hot, fast-moving fires. The nature of the fire loading contributes to this. Firefighters have to “read” the smoke – is there a light haze smoke condition or is heavy smoke pushing out under pressure? With both scenarios, conditions can deteriorate rapidly.

Command Concerns

In New York City, much information about buildings is entered on the Critical Information Dispatch System (CIDS). What is CIDS ? CIDS is a program that uses teleprinter dispatch messages to provide critical information about specific buildings to all responding units. Information provided by CIDS alerts units to dangerous or hazardous conditions or types of construction, interconnected buildings or any other pertinent information that could have an effect on firefighting and which are not apparent from the front of the building. It also provides accurate and consistent information for required fire, emergency and radio progress reports. The information is recorded by individual engine and ladder companies in whose administrative districts these buildings are located. That’s why building inspections are vital for recognizing hazardous and dangerous conditions and building peculiarities (it may also warrant a pre-fire plan).

Concerns for the incident commander include:

1. Type of construction

2. Type of roof system

3. Type of Ceiling

4. Multiple ceilings. Large hidden vertical or horizontal void spaces above a ceiling are important areas of concern. Heat conditions can go undetected. The thermal imaging camera is a valuable tool to detect heat conditions in voids. This information should also be entered on CIDS.

5. Does the building have a cellar? Is the fire in the cellar?

Can Firefighters Vent the Roof?

Vertical ventilation is the most important ventilation to relieve all the convected heat, smoke and gases to the outside. This ventilation can prevent a backdraft from occurring, provided it takes place prior to any horizontal ventilation. Vertical ventilation also reduces a violent flashover from below.

If firefighters cannot ventilate the roof, the incident commander must be notified immediately. Roof ventilation today is becoming more difficult to accomplish due to the unpredictability and quick failure of modern-day roof systems (wooden truss, open steel bar joist, laminated wood I-beams) used in commercial buildings.

Firefighting Factors

Firefighting considerations at dollar stores include:

B. Heavy smoke, high heat and fire conditions upon the arrival of the fire department can already be beyond implementation of an interior handline attack. The incident commander must inform all units on the scene, and additional units that will be responding, that there is no interior attack. This is an outside operation using high-caliber streams.

C. When smoke conditions totally obscure the fire building, the collapse zone in front and around the building’s perimeter must not be congested with manpower and equipment. Vertical height equals horizontal distance. This is the minimum distance for a collapse perimeter.

D. Search lines should always be used. Just because a hoseline is stretched does not mean it is the shortest distance between you and your egress. Try following a hoseline out of an area under a heavy smoke condition; if it’s a straight line, there would be no problem. But it’s not. The excess hoseline is usually flaked out in arcs.

E. Firefighters should never freelance or wander off by themselves. The two-in/two-out rule was set up for our safety.

F. Keep in contact via radio. Know where you are. Communicate with each other inside.

G. Carbon monoxide is a silent killer. Readings must be monitored in the fire building, exposures and below areas such as cellars.

H. Always wear all of your personnel protective equipment (PPE).

I. Remember, the path of entry is the path of egress.

Considerations for fires occurring after business hours in dollar stores:

Safety Issues

The buildings that house dollar stores could be made safer for firefighters if the following factors were taken into consideration:


The type of building construction and the occupancy/building contents play a major role in determining what can be expected to occur at a fire in a dollar store. The matrix of construction material and design added with building contents should be known prior to incident. That’s why pre-planning is important.

Joseph T. Berry will present “Dollar Stores” and “Suspended Ceilings” at Firehouse Expo 2005, July 26-31 in Baltimore.Joseph T. Berry served for 31 years with the FDNY, where he worked as a firefighter in Ladder Company 24 in midtown Manhattan before he was promoted to lieutenant and worked in the South Bronx in Engine Company 73 and Ladder Company 42. He worked on the Ladders 3 Bulletin: Firefighting Tactics Procedures in Tenements and Ladders 5 Bulletin: Private Dwellings and Brownstone Buildings. Berry served as a member of the Division 6 Safety Committee and on five line-of-duty death investigation committees. He also worked on the department’s lightweight residential construction and probationary firefighters manuals.

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