COMMERCIAL BUILDING FIRES

COMMERCIAL BUILDING FIRES

BY BOB PRESSLER

Photo 1. As companies arrive at the scene, smoke is visible from several areas of this tightly sealed commercial building. The building is two stories in height and appears to be of ordinary construction. It is approximately 40 feet wide, and from the front it is impossible to determine how deep the building runs. Steel rolldown gates cover the first floor, and apparent energy-efficient replacement windows line the second floor. The signs over the stores indicate a type of meat market or provisions company resides there, which appears closed at the time of the fire. Exposures are a street (#1), a 312-story frame building of unknown occupancy (#2), unknown (#3), and a three-story frame building (#4). Exposure 4 is attached, and exposure 2 is only separated by a small alley. The first engine, equipped with a water tower, positions in front of the building after ensuring a positive water supply. The first-due ladder company noses toward the front of the building from in front of exposure 4.

As the first-due officer, what factors should you consider in your size-up?

Photo 2. With no visible entrance to the first-floor occupancies or an apparent stairway to the second floor, forcing the gates becomes the priority for the truck company, in this case assisted by a rescue company. The smoke condition is worsening as crews use power saws to open the locks. When forcing rolldown gates, the first place to look is at the locks. If the locks are of a cheaper variety, you can force them using a halligan and axe or a lock breaker. If the locks are of a more substantial type, use the metal cutting blades to cut the hasp or locking mechanism (left and right storefronts). Once you cut and remove the locks, remember to remove the pin that secures the lock to the rail, or you won`t be able to raise the gate. If the locks are protected (shielded) or of an unfamiliar type, do not waste time trying to figure out a way to cut them. Go right for the gate itself (middle storefront).

When cutting the gates, you can use one of several methods. One method is the inverted “V” cut. Starting in the middle of the gate at the highest point you can reach, make the first cut at an angle toward the ground. Make the second cut toward the opposite corner of the gate. This results in an opening shaped like an upside-down “V.” One advantage of this cut is that when you are done with the two cuts (usually six to seven feet each), there will be an opening in the gate. Most other cuts require more cutting or the sliding of individual pieces of the gate to make an opening. Brand-new gates usually slide fairly easily, but older gates may require you to drive individual slats with a flathead axe or maul to slide them out.

As the truck company continues forcible entry operations, the engine companies are readying handlines for operation. What size handline would your department stretch for a fire in this type of occupancy?

A forgotten weapon in the fire department arsenal is the 212-inch handline. Even with reduced staffing on the engine companies, this building fire is one of the six situations in which you should consider using a 212-inch handline as the initial attack line.

The acronym ADULTS can help you identify the six types of incidents at which you would use a 212-inch line as the initial attack line:

A–advanced fire conditions.

D–defensive operations.

U–unable to determine the fire area.

L–large, uncompartmented fire area.

T–tons of water (large amounts needed to cool a superheated area).

S–standpipe operations.

Most commercial building fires fall into more than one category. At this fire, the operating forces are unable to define the fire area; are most likely facing a large, uncompartmented area; and, as conditions deteriorate, will be confronted with an advanced fire condition. The 212-inch handline will give the engine companies greater reach, penetration, and water flow than the smaller 134-inch line. Using a 212-inch line as the initial attack line will prevent needlessly playing “catch up,” which is usually the case when smaller (112-inch or 134-inch) lines are stretched at all fires regardless of fire conditions.

Photo 3. The companies have finished opening the rolldown gates. The middle storefront shows the inverted “V” cut section of gate lying on the sidewalk. A further attempt to enlarge the opening by sliding out individual slats has had limited success. Portable ladders have been raised to the second floor so companies can perform horizontal ventilation. The truck company also has laddered the roof, and the roof team has ascended the ladder to perform vertical ventilation. A false front on the building requires the use of a portable ladder so the roof team can climb down onto the roof itself from the aerial ladder. This will delay the vertical ventilation operation.

Photo 4. From their vantage point on the roof, firefighters can see that there is a heavy fire condition in the rear of the building and that it is spreading rapidly toward the front. Fire is venting through the roof and is threatening exposures. The firefighters` position on the roof is rapidly becoming untenable, so they retreat to the ladder. Master streams are prepared to go to work on the exposure 2 side to darken down the fire that is visible on the first and second floors and to protect the wood-frame exposures.

Photo 5. Conditions in the front of the fire building continue to deteriorate as the fire advances toward the front. Firefighters are ordered down from the roof. The front of the building is cleared of tools, personnel, and equipment as units prepare for master stream operations. The building is a total loss, and a defensive operation is called for. The firefighting effort is now concentrated on protecting exposures.

Fires in commercial buildings almost always tax fire department resources. Preplans of existing structures will help prepare companies for some of the obstacles they will encounter at the fire scene. If renovations are taking place in a building in your district, companies should stop by and observe what is being done. Notice any changes in floor plans, entrances, and exits. Many times a larger business will take over several separate storefronts, creating one large, open area.

Engine company officers should consider the following:

Stretch the 212-inch handline when confronted with any of the “ADULT” situations described above. After the fire is knocked down, you can advance a smaller (134-inch) line into the fire area to complete extinguishment.

Position apparatus for maximum use, including possible use of master stream appliances. Leave room for any aerial apparatus assigned to the incident.

Ensure an adequate water supply. Large lines and large buildings require large water supplies.

Truck company officers should consider the following:

Familiarize yourself with the types of locks and gates prevalent in your district. This will help solve forcible entry problems.

Identify any buildings that have special ventilation problems, including roofs that have steel plating, newer rubber membranes, and truss construction. Be aware of replacement energy-efficient windows or windows protected by bars or wire grilles.

Be prepared to use search ropes to help locate the fire or missing members in large commercial buildings.

Be prepared to switch to a defensive operation, possibly using master streams.

Help the IC get a complete picture of the fire problem by sizing up the building, identifying exposures, supplying reports on fire conditions from interior and exterior teams, and providing any other information that may have an impact on the operation.

All members working on the fireground should constantly monitor conditions in the fire building. As the fire burns, it is attacking the building`s structural components. Be aware of collapse indicators and the length of time that companies have been operating in the building. If companies are not making progress, a change in tactics is required. n



Photos by George A. Fen.



BOB PRESSLER, a 22-year veteran of the fire service, is a firefighter with Rescue Company No. 3 of the City of New York (NY) Fire Department. He created and produced the video Peaked-Roof Ventilation for the Fire Engineering video series “Bread and Butter” Operations. Pressler has an associate`s degree in fire protection engineering from Oklahoma State University, is a frequent instructor on a wide range of fire service topics, and is a member of a volunteer department.

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