By David DeStefano
The engine glided down the wide street of the city’s retail district with ease at just after two o’clock in the morning. A chill in the air was a reminder that late fall would soon surrender to the onset of winter. The captain strained against his seatbelt to peer ahead as the rig turned the last corner just before the address reported for the automatic alarm activation. The engine company would be the first-arriving unit at one of the many “big box” retail centers that lined both sides of the boulevard.
The driver/operator eased the truck to the curb beyond the large set of entrance doors leading to the darkened super-store. Just ahead of the engine, both occupants of the front seats could hear the sprinkler bell and see water rushing from the drain under the bell, near the base of the wall. As the captain reported the company’s arrival at the scene, he noted the water flow in his transmission and a “nothing showing” condition on side A of the huge store. Dismounting and getting their assigned equipment together, the three-person company began to look more intently at the wide automatic doors in place behind their pumper.
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The firefighter in the officer’s side rear position spoke first. “Hey Cap, is that a smoke condition in there?” The officer looked more closely as the two approached the darkened doors. As they peered into the back-lit store, a moderate smoke condition began to fill their field of view, with gasps of grey now making their way between the double doors. The captain immediately transmitted a revised report indicating current conditions and actions. Simultaneously, the firefighter began to unlock the key box to access the building. As they began to push apart the main doors, the first due truck company rolled into position just past the A-D corner of the building.
The captain sized up current conditions at the doorway. A blanket of cool smoke was invading the foyer from the ceiling to his waist. The coloring was greyish, with little velocity. Combining the elements of his siz- up, the captain surmised that his members were confronted with a deep-seated fire in the maze-like layout of the big box store. Although the fire might have been held in check or even well-controlled by the sprinklers, firefighters would need to advance lines to find the seat of the fire, ventilate, and handle any possible extension.
The aforementioned scenario is a likely situation for many company officers across the country. Arriving after hours with a water flow and met with cool, slow-moving smoke at the door is an unsettling situation at a store that may boast more than 100,000 square feet of floor space. This incident will involve searching for a fire that is likely contained by the sprinkler system but has created near-zero visibility conditions in an enormous area within the aisles of the store.
Foremost among the thoughts of the captain in this scenario would be air supply and orientation for his company. Additionally, he would need to consider several factors in stretching a hoseline. Among the considerations, the potential length of the stretch and the fact that exact location and extent of the fire is undetermined.
Initial actions before stretching in should include a review of the fire alarm control panel (FACP), if possible. The panel will likely be located near the entrance door. If it is readable in the smoke, it will indicate the location of the sprinkler riser that is flowing. If a diagram is posted at the panel, or if the department maintains a database on the occupancy, the general location of the sprinkler activation may be determined and companies can stretch in from a point closest to the sprinkler flow. The first-arriving engine should avoid stretching off the rig until the point of entry has been determined. Many times, another access point may provide a more direct stretch to the seat of the fire. If access is to be made from another side of the building, the company at the front door may relocate to that position or may change roles with a pumper staged in a more convenient position.
Although the engine officer may suspect that the fire has been contained by the sprinkler system, he can’t afford to take the chance of stretching a small attack line deep inside this large commercial building with the location and extent of fire as yet unknown. A 2 ½-inch handline is the correct choice under these circumstances. Even with cool smoke at the door, there is a potential for a large fire deep inside the building. After finding the seat of the fire, if a large flow is not warranted, the 2 ½ can be reduced down or wyed off.
The first-arriving truck company officer must also operate cautiously. A natural reaction to open overhead doors and other access points on multiple sides of the building may have unintended consequences if an adequate sized line has not yet begun to attack the fire. Assigning a team to operate with the engine company to provide forcible entry and search as the line is stretched will also aid in coordinating ventilation efforts once the size and location of the fire is determined.
For all members operating in the building, orientation and air management are key components to avoiding a Mayday situation. Disciplined use of a hoseline or mainline search rope is critical in an occupancy of this size. Long after the fire is contained, deadly concentrations of smoke and gases will linger in remote areas of the structure. The practice of air management and constant orientation with an egress point cannot be overemphasized. Firefighters who find themselves low on air must transmit a mayday immediately to reduce the time a rapid intervention team will take to find them and provide assistance.
Firefighters and officers must always consider that any routine alarm has the potential to result in a deadly fire. High-frequency calls to large retail occupancies may be the “norm” in many communities. However, even with “nothing showing” while pulling up to the curb, a large fire may be lurking in the huge square footage within the occupancy.
David DeStefano is a battalion chief for the North Providence (RI) Fire Department (NPFD), where he has served for 28 years. He is also the NPFD’s chief of safety and training. He was previously the captain of Ladder Co. 1, where he also served as a lieutenant and firefighter. Additionally, he was assigned as a lieutenant in Engine 3. DeStefano is an instructor/coordinator with the Rhode Island Fire Academy and lectures on fire service topics throughout Southern New England. He was also an FDIC International 2017 presenter. DeStefano can be reached at [email protected].