First Due: Three Considerations for Warehouse Fires

July 3, 2023
Brian Gettemeier and Tim Frankenberg are adamant regarding cubic footage, consulting the preplan, commitment to the sprinkler system and appreciating the size of buildings that serve as hardware stores, big box retailers and distribution facilities.

As we look across the American horizon, we see warehouses. They serve as hardware stores, big box retailers and distribution facilities. Though the number of warehouse fires declined over the past 30 years, the dollar value loss rose drastically.

Significant U.S. warehouse fire losses occurred in 2022. Some businesses chose not to rebuild. These incidents are high stakes for the companies, the employees, firefighters and communities.

Cubic footage, not square feet

Warehouse facilities can range from a few thousand square feet, to several hundred thousand, to more than one million square feet. One issue that the fire service has when it comes to a warehouse facility is two-dimensional thinking, given that warehouses often are referenced by square footage.

We must think three-dimensionally in terms of these complex facilities. Look at cubic feet of space. That gives a better picture of the container, fuel packaging and space that products of combustion occupy.

Three considerations

A first-arriving company to a confirmed working fire must:

Reference the preplan. Preplans cover the building, its access points, water supply, fire protection systems and facility hazards. They must be easy to reference and read but aren’t a step-by-step manual for mitigation.

Fighting a warehouse fire isn’t scalable, as fighting a fire in residential structures is. Even though houses come in various shapes and sizes, our experience as firefighters allows us to quickly scale operations based on current conditions. This doesn’t translate to warehouse incidents. Pre-incident walk-throughs and pre-incident plans are imperative for succes.

Support the fire sprinkler system. The fire sprinkler system is our greatest chance at saving the structure. Initial efforts must support the system. This includes supporting the water supply to the sprinkler system.

Remember, the system knows the fire location and has been controlling the fire prior to your arrival. Visibility might be extremely poor, but members must resist shutting down the system too early. Yes, the system challenges interior firefighting efforts because of lazy smoke and sprinkler discharge spraying firefighters, but sprinkler impairments and premature shutdowns can result in catastrophic losses.

We aren’t doing damage-prevention by shutting down sprinklers. Smoke can create damage that goes beyond what’s caused by the water from the sprinkler system. Firefighters must remember that the fire department connection (FDC) is plumbed higher than the riser shut-off. Even when the sprinkler valve is closed, a pumper can supply water to the system.

Think big from the start. Initial response to a reported fire must consider facility size. For communities that have limited water supply, request the appropriate number of tankers to fulfill the water supply plan. Once a fire is confirmed, initial companies must request additional alarms to support firefighting efforts. Depending on how deep the fire is in the facility, it might take several companies to place a single line into service much less support sprinkler systems, establish water supplies, conduct search operations and provide roof reports. These incidents can go on for days.

Scene layout must allow for apparatus refueling.

Life safety

Warehouses often are challenging for occupant accountability. Nevertheless, they have a very small civilian fatality rate. However, there have been repeated instances of firefighter fatalities. Incident commanders must know that the life safety issue often is primarily firefighters who operate inside of the building.

The broadest of ramifications

A warehouse might be the core of the community’s existence, representing jobs and income. A loss of the facility might be more than a building; it might be the lives of the occupants or firefighters and the livelihood of the community.

Brian Gettemeier will present “Apparatus Operators’ Role in a Safe & Efficient Fireground” at Firehouse Expo. He and Tim Frankenberg will co-present the Pre-Conference Workshop “Big Buildings, Little Fires, Big Problems: Emergency Response to Big Box Stores, Large Warehouses & Distribution Centers.” To register, visit

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