Talkin’ Trash


Let’s face it, we’ve all been involved in a little “trash talk” in our careers, whether we got “lippy” with another firefighter operating in “our space” on the fire floor or “mouthy” to a civilian who “pressed our buttons” on a call. It’s easy to talk trash when the adrenaline is flowing and we’re in work mode. Yet, do we really talk enough about trash fires, or do we wait for something out of the ordinary to happen before we drill on them?


Dumpsters come in a wide range of shapes and sizes. Some are placed on the ground by a large truck, known as a roll-off. We often find them on fire at construction sites and homes being renovated or demolished. Behind commercial occupancies, we may see dumpsters on wheels. These can be rolled around and placed out of the way or into a penned-in area. Whatever the situation, firefighters must be wary of one thing: We’ll never know exactly what’s in them when they’re on fire!

Another problem is their large fire load, causing an exposure problem from the radiant heat levels. The need for exposure protection may be where our first hoseline is dedicated. While that hoseline is protecting the exposures or wetting down vehicles parked next to it, charge the prepiped monitor on top of the pump panel. Start “lobbing” water into the dumpster and begin flooding it while other crew members establish a water supply. Doing so will help knock down the fire and keep members safe from the unknowns inside the dumpster.


Dumpster and Trash Fires

Firefighter Training: Responding to Dumpster and Trash Fires


If it’s a smaller rolling dumpster with metal-hinged lids, close the lids with a six-foot hook to try to smother the fire. Two firefighters with hooks may be able to pull the dumpster away from an exposure to prevent extension. Some departments advocate opening a lid slightly and sticking a hoseline into the dumpster. The nozzle is inserted in a fog pattern, acting as a sprinkler, while the members secure the hose a few feet away. Prior to applying water to these units with wheels, chock them so they won’t move if hit by a stream or on a grade. Note that some of these lids look like metal, but they are plastic, so this plan of action may not work. However, always consider hydraulic extinguishment and overhaul.

Another dumpster fire type involves a cardboard recycling unit in the rear of a large box store or supermarket. Often, such dumpsters are connected to the building with a chute, which allows fire to extend into the structure. There may be sprinklers near the unit or chute on the inside of the building, but the fire load inside may allow the fire to spread anyway. A simple dumpster fire can become a full-blown structure fire, and our tactics must change to fight it. Pulling a larger-size line or our “commercial stretch” will ensure we’re ready for a larger fire than a room-and-contents fire.


Large multiple dwellings often have a trash compactor, usually located in the lowest floor of the building, to assist in rubbish removal. Compactor fires can produce a huge amount of smoke on many floors inside the structure.

Located on each residential floor of these buildings is a chute door (hinged, pull-down style) where the occupants drop their trash into the unit for disposal. The chute door may be in the public hallway or inside a closet on each floor; hopefully, it is intact and closes properly.

The closet may be a more dangerous situation for firefighters because anything that doesn’t fit inside the chute may be left in the closet for maintenance workers to remove. Old furniture, couch cushions, recyclables, and dried Christmas trees can create a large fire load and fire extension outside the closet. Creating caustic smoke on numerous floors, a simple rubbish fire often turns into a multiple alarm.

Firefighters may also face a blocked chute with a large accumulation of rubbish stuck in it. When a fire occurs in the chute on an upper floor, stretch a hoseline to the floor above to extinguish the fire.

For a fire in the unit itself, our first concern should be to shut down the electrical power. We don’t need high voltage to interfere with our work, and we’ll eliminate the unit’s hydraulic piston from moving while overhauling the unit.

Hopefully, the installed sprinkler head has discharged and helped extinguish the fire. Sometimes because of a malfunction, however, the unit will fill with rubbish and insulate the head and it may not activate. If this is the case, an engine company operating from the floor above may be able to extinguish the fire by inserting a line into the chute.

A quick tip for engines: Use a bent tip on the nozzle and insert it into the chute door. This keeps firefighters from extending their hands into the chute, and they can direct the tip upward or downward.

Prior to shutting off the sprinkler’s OS&Y valve, let it saturate the smoldering rubbish. This may cool down a discarded aerosol can so it won’t explode when we open the unit’s hatchway door. Use a tool to unlock the latch and push the door open. Overhaul to ensure the fire is fully extinguished. Always use a tool to remove debris from inside the compactor; don’t insert any body part into it. A tenant on the upper floor may unknowingly insert trash into the chute, and it can fall and injure an unsuspecting firefighter. If the fire has exited the unit and extended to the room, the engine should stretch to the room.

Conduct searches of all floors; smoke conditions can become unbearable, and locating victims is a real possibility. Stretch, search, and operate wisely!

MICHAEL N. CIAMPO is a 35-year veteran of the fire service and a lieutenant in the Fire Department of New York. Previously, he served with the District of Columbia Fire Department. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire science from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. He is the lead instructor for the FDIC International Truck Essentials H.O.T. program. He wrote the Ladders and Ventilation chapters for Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II (Fire Engineering, 2009) and the Bread and Butter Portable Ladders DVD and is featured in “Training Minutes” truck company videos on

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