Commercial Building Fires

May 2, 2003
Since my last article there have been quite a few fires in commercial building fires throughout the country.
Since my last article there have been quite a few fires in commercial building fires throughout the country. One New Jersey fire department lost an apparatus when the fire blew out the front windows, nearly incinerating a couple of firefighters working on the opposite side of the apparatus. FDNY had a fifth alarm the other day and almost lost a probationary firefighter who became separated from his company. A "Mayday" transmission was issued and the lost firefighter was found severely overcome by smoke.

In light of these recent fires, I felt obligated to write about commercial fires. In this month's article, I have given you a real fire situation that was faced by responding units a few years ago. See if you can identify some of the size-up warning signs.

At approximately 4 a.m. engine company 63 responded to an alarm reporting smoke seeping from a building located at 352 Third Ave. The engine officer had been working in the company for 5 years and knew the building was an ordinary construction building that sold furniture and bedding material. It was an early Monday morning and our area was experiencing a severe rainstorm accompanied with strong gusty winds.

Upon arrival the engine officer was faced with heavy smoke issuing from five of a seven-store taxpayer (strip mall). All of the stores were secured closed with heavy rolled down security gates making it extremely difficult to determine the exact location of the fire. Heavy smoke was now visible over the roof area and other units were now arriving. The engine officer, realizing the importance of calling for additional help early, quickly transmitted an additional alarm.

Photo Courtesey FDNY Archives

The officer ordered the engine chauffeur to hook up to the nearest hydrant and had his three firefighters stretch a 2 ?" hose line. At this time the roof firefighter determined the location of the fire and began to vent the roof. Once the door to the fire occupancy was opened, the 1st to arriving ladder company began there vent enter and search procedures. Now knowing the location of the fire, Engine 71 positioned their hose line in front of the store, off the sidewalk and charged it. Before entering the store, the nozzle man bled the air out of the line. The Incident Commander ordered all front windows of the building to be vented.

The engine team momentarily hesitated before entering the store, allowing the products of combustion to exit through the front door. They entered low and to the side of the doorway putting themselves out of the path of the venting combustible products. Once inside, the engine company got themselves oriented which direction was the rear of the store and the approximate width.

The truck company located the fire in the rear basement area and relayed the information to the engine. The entrance to the basement was through a trapped door located 75 feet from the front door. A wooden open tread stairs provided access to the basement. Crews encountered heavy heat but were not able to see any visible fire. There was no possible ventilation in the rear and all openings into the basement had been bricked up. Crawling toward the rear basement entrance, the engine company team started to experience extreme heat but still was unable to see any visible fire. Still at this stage of the incident, no water had been applied to the fire.

The entire taxpayer was unoccupied and had been closed since 9 P.M. Saturday night. Approximately 50 feet from the entrance the engine officer removed one of his gloves and extended above his head. He immediately withdrew his hand due to the severe heat condition. At this point in the advance one member of the attack team's SCBA vibralert started to go off. The Engine officer made a command decision and radioed to the incident commander that conditions were deteriorating and his team was running out of air.

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 [email protected]

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