Training Days: Big-Box Stores

Part Nine

Article and photos by Tom Kiurski

As the training coordinator for Livonia (MI) Fire & Rescue, my focus is on providing meaningful training opportunities for our firefighters. During a conversation with one of our fire inspectors, I learned that one of our big-box stores was going to be demolished and replaced by another store that was to be built from the ground up. Seizing on the potential for a training opportunity in this structure, I asked about using the building for training.

I was put in contact with someone who was handling the tearing down of the building. There were plenty of timelines going on simultaneously, but I hoped to train without disrupting the work schedule. We were given permission to use the building for two consecutive days. The building was to be demolished the next day, so timing was important. What could we do in only two days while honoring a few restrictions of the demolition company, such as not flowing water into or around the building?

I decided to do some outside work; the company wanted us to stay on one side of the building. Construction equipment was operating all around us, and training on this was the side of the building would be the approach least disruptive for the construction company. The training day objectives were set–the crews would come and do some roof operations on the building and then breach an outside wall.


(1) Preparing for the initial cut on the roof of a big-box store. Click to enlarge

The building was laddered, and crews headed up with some tools and equipment that would be used for the drill. Once on the roof, we discussed the construction features of the big-box stores and what we would typically find on the roof of such buildings. Some of the features could be used for access and ventilation; others just provided a large dead load.

We discussed the “Kerf cut” and “inspection hole” from the Essentials of Firefighting book and how they can be used to help determine where to put the ventilation hole. The roof was covered with a plastic membrane to allow for water movement, and insulation sheets were put under that membrane and over the corrugated metal decking. The metal decking sat on the open metal trusses. Crews cut an initial inspection hole to determine the location of the trusses underneath the roof. The ventilation hole would be cut inside the trusses, which were placed four feet apart. We would then make the ventilation hole as long as we needed for effective ventilation.


(2) The roofing materials were spot welded to the roof supports. In this case, it is best not to try to span any trusses. An inspection hole will let you know how far apart the trusses are. Click to enlarge

We looked at how the metal decking was attached to the metal trusses, and we found that they were welded in many places. This made for a very lengthy and labor-intensive operation if the trusses were spanned, so we chose the option of staying inside the trusses. The cuts were made, the roofing material was removed, and the pike pole was inserted to remove any drop ceilings below the roof that may hinder smoke and heat removal.


(2) Breaching the side wall of the building didn’t pose too much of a challenge. The brick veneer didn’t prove to be much of an obstacle for the crews. Click to enlarge

Once all members had a chance to do some cutting with the circular saw, we headed down to do some work on the outside wall. We found sheets of brick veneer attached to vertical structural supports. Since many big box stores have windows on only one side, access through the wall is a possibility. We took out the old-fashioned battering ram and had crews breach the outside wall. To our surprise, it took between one and two minutes to make a hole large enough for a firefighter to enter. We then went at the wall with hand tools and found them to be effective as well, but it took a bit longer to make the same size hole. We explained that once the hole was made and the crews entered or exited, the hole could be enlarged as needed.

Overall, the training day was very worthwhile. All members present learned from the exercise. One firefighter put it best when he told me that someone can explain flat roof ventilation all day, but until you are on the roof and make the hole, it doesn’t make complete sense.

Tom Kiurski is training coordinator, a paramedic, and the director of fire safety education for Livonia (MI) Fire & Rescue. His book, Creating a Fire-Safe Community: A Guide for Fire Safety Educators (Fire Engineering, 1999), is a guide for bringing the safety message to all segments of the community efficiently and economically.

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