Big Box Basics

Article and photos by David DeStefano

So-called big box stores housing warehouse clubs, home improvement centers, and supermarket occupancies are a common sight in cities and towns of all sizes across the nation. These buildings, their contents, and systems may be one of the larger hazards in a small community. Even in metropolitan cities, firefighters don’t routinely engage in firefights in these occupancies. Considering several factors before and during an incident will help enable firefighters to operate safely and successfully at these buildings.

Preincident familiarization is an important part of ensuring a safe and effective operation. District fire companies should take advantage of any opportunity to visit sites during the construction process and continue to keep their knowledge of the occupancy fresh by making periodic stops after the store has opened to gain an overview of storage, general housekeeping, maintenance of building systems, and any change of use or occupancy. 

Big box stores generally built to be occupied by major tenants are often based on template-style blueprints used for specific square footage needs on particular lot layouts. Many corporations use the same general contractor for each site within a certain geographic area. These buildings are constructed to be adequate and safe for the tenant for which they are designed. However, they are often constructed with a short lifespan in mind. Big boxes are basically disposable shells to cover merchandise for a relatively short period of time since retail cycles are volatile and retailers may need to change location or undergo major renovations to remain competitive. Firefighters need to understand how construction methods, building systems, and content will play important roles during any firefight in these buildings.

(1) District companies should visit big box construction sites often to view construction methods and monitor progress.

(2) This occupancy features a mezzanine level containing offices, an employee lounge, and computer rooms.

(3) Firefighters should be aware of access and egress points as well as standpipe locations.

(4) Many big boxes provide an outside ladder to access the roof for maintenance. Knowledge of this feature may provide firefighters an emergency means off the roof during a fire.

(5) The sales floor of big box stores may contain high rack storage as well as large displays suspended from above.

(6) This view from above the sales floor shows piping that supplies in rack sprinklers in the paint department.

(7) The large area occupied by big boxes often requires a complex fire alarm system with many zones for detection and suppression devices.

(8) These occupancies often feature a dedicated pump room with multiple risers fed by the stationary fire pump.

The hazards of lightweight construction combined with a heavy content load will dictate an abbreviated (if at all) interior firefight should the automatic sprinklers fail to contain a fire. Mixed goods including hazardous materials, high rack storage, materials handling equipment, and computer rooms may complicate potential fires. Many of these stores feature employee kitchen and workout areas that may catch firefighters off guard if they haven’t preplanned the location. 

Even if the sprinkler system functions as designed to contain a fire, first-arriving companies may be faced with a large volume of cold smoke at the front door. Searching for the seat of a fire now quelled by sprinklers in a building of this size may present an unusual challenge to many fire companies accustomed to operating mostly in smaller structures. Maintaining proper air management and using large area search techniques are a must when operating in the big box environment.

Engine company officers must be sure to stretch a 2 ½- inch line for operations in these buildings. When there are few members on scene, two companies may need to combine to stretch and operate a single line. In addition, the fire suppression system must be augmented, preferably by a unit on the first-alarm assignment, to be sure the sprinklers and standpipes are supplied to their fullest.

The key rules of engagement when operating at big box stores are:

  • Know before you go: Preplan and revisit the site regularly.
  • Consider the lightweight “throw-away” construction before engaging in interior operations during a fire in these structures.
  • Take into account the fire load and type of contents, including hazardous materials.
  • Stretch a big (2 ½ ) line for attack.
  • Maintain air management discipline. It may be a long distance to egress. 
  • Don’t become complacent in the “cold smoke atmosphere.” The sprinklers may have contained the fire but cold smoke can still kill firefighters. Additionally, because of the great size of these buildings, cold smoke at the door may not reflect conditions deep in the building.
  • Always augment the building’s built0in fire protection systems as soon as possible.

Considering these points and maintaining the proper frame of reference for the size and content of the structure will help keep firefighters safe in the big box environment. 


David DeStefano is a 22-year veteran of the North Providence (RI) Fire Department, where he serves as a lieutenant in Ladder Co. 1. He previously served as a lieutenant in Engine 3 and was a firefighter in Ladder 1. He teaches a variety of topics for the Rhode Island Fire Academy. He can be reached at   

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