A special type of commodity fire departments may encounter in industrial-type operations is roll paper. Roll paper can be found in occupancies such as envelope makers, newspaper printers, box plants and corrugators, large-scale printing operations such as commercial printers, and manufacturers of paper products.


There are four generally accepted types of roll paper: tissue, lightweight, medium weight, and heavyweight. Tissue-type paper usually includes the broad range of papers characterized by gauzy texture. Tissue paper is normally thought of as soft and absorbent regardless of basis weight (weight per 1,000 square feet) and specifically includes crepe, wadding, facial tissue, paper napkins, bathroom tissue, and towels. Tissue-type paper is the fastest burning of the rolls.

Lightweight paper includes all papers having a basis weight of less than 10 pounds. Examples include cigarette papers, onionskin, fruit wrap, and carbonizing tissue. Medium-weight papers include the broad range of papers having a basis weight of 10 to 20 pounds. This is perhaps the most prevalent paper type. It includes newsprint; bond and reproduction paper; computer paper; envelope, book, and magazine stock; tablet, bag, and butcher paper; and vellum.

Heavyweight papers have a basis weight in excess of 20 pounds. This type of paper includes linerboard, kraft roll wrappers, milk carton board, folding carton board, and similar paper.


As the name implies, these papers are stored in very large rolls. The rolls can be anywhere from two to six feet in width and up to six feet in diameter. The weight of one of these rolls could easily crush a person. The rolls may be secured with metal bands, although today most are wrapped in heavy-weight paper or are simply taped to prevent unraveling.

Depending on the job requirements, these rolls may be stored on their sides or on end. The overall height of the storage is more often a function of available space than of fire protection requirements. But, make no mistake: The greater the height of storage, the greater the demand on fixed fire protection. Current market conditions often push roll paper users to purchase more rolls than they can use to obtain better pricing. Little thought is given to the fire protection ramifications of increasing storage height beyond what the sprinkler system can protect. Of course, this can always be justified by classifying this as a temporary condition, right? Wrong! We are all well aware that a fire doesn`t know the difference between normal storage and temporary storage. And, all things being equal, the greater likelihood is that the fire will strike when conditions are at their worst.

Storage Array

The other major storage consideration in roll paper is the type of storage array. The three industry-accepted designations are open array, standard array, and closed array (see illustration on page 20). Although the three designations are common, Factory Mutual Engineering (FM) and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) use different definitions. FM uses its own data sheet (Data Sheet 8-21) based on its years of historical experience, research, and testing in dealing with roll paper. The NFPA uses its consensus standard 231F, Standard for the Storage of Roll Paper–1996.

Any of the three storage arrays can and should be protected by automatic sprinklers. However, the sprinkler design requirements for each are quite different and are not necessarily interchangeable. From a fire protection viewpoint, the preferred method of storage is closed array. This type of storage arrangement reduces the greatest amount of available flue space between the rolls, which in turn reduces and impedes the fire`s ability to spread. Some hold the mistaken belief that it is better to have some space between the rolls to allow firefighters to go in between the rolls to manually fight a fire involving roll paper. Aside from the tactical difficulties doing this presents, the more important consideration is firefighter safety. Simply stated, placing firefighters in this position exposes them to danger unnecessarily and should be avoided.

A roll of paper will exfoliate as it burns–that is, it will peel away layer by layer. The fire will also burn deep into the roll. If the roll is stored on end, the fire will rapidly reach the ceiling and communicate quickly to adjacent rolls. The lighter the weight of the paper, the faster the fire will burn and spread. A fire in heavyweight paper will take slightly longer to grow. But once established, it will spread just as rapidly as if automatic sprinklers were not containing the fire. Containment will happen only if the sprinkler design is matched to the type of paper and the storage arrangement. If the sprinkler density is not adequate, the fire will most likely extend beyond the sprinkler design area and could overwhelm the sprinkler system.


One of the first-arriving engine companies should be assigned to pump into the fire department connection and reinforce the automatic sprinkler system. This assignment should also include checking the sprinkler control valve(s) to ensure that they are open and are not closed prematurely. Because a fire involving roll paper requires copious volumes of water, the engine supplying the sprinkler system should not be on the same main as the engine assigned manual firefighting with hoselines.

Hopefully, the sprinklers will be holding the fire in check when you arrive. By re-inforcing the sprinklers, you are taking the upper hand in combating the fire. The next part of the operation is the most difficult and demanding. You must remove the in-volved rolls to an area outside of the building if you are to extinguish the fire. Make sure that the sprinklers remain on during this removal operation. Stretch hoselines into position to knock down surface fire while the rolls are being relocated. These rolls will need to be moved by mech-anical means. More than likely, a forklift or clamp lift capable of moving these rolls will be available. Do not under any circumstances attempt to move them by hand.

Several critical factors must be considered during a fire at-tack involving roll paper:

•Roll paper will absorb water from sprinklers and hoselines. As the water is absorbed, the rolls may begin to ex-pand. If a firefighter or civilian were to be caught between an expanding roll of paper and another object (such as a wall or another roll of paper), there is a strong likelihood that the individual would be crushed. The other point to be realized from water absorption is that the piles of paper will become unstable and most likely will collapse. This has occurred during large-scale fire tests, and there is no reason to believe that anything different would happen on the fireground. Attempts to hold these rolls in place with hooks or pike poles during a firefighting operation are futile and most likely will lead to firefighter injury from a falling roll. Do not be misled into thinking that one or two firefighters would be able to “direct” a falling roll of paper weighing several tons. They will not.

•There must be an adequate supply of water to fight the fire. The sprinkler demand alone will be between 900 and 1,200 or more gallons per minute (gpm), depending on storage height and paper type. Water for hoselines will push the required supply to 1,500 gpm, 2,000 gpm, or more. This item should be evaluated as part of your preincident plan for high-challenge occupancies so that you can ensure an adequate supply of water during a fireground operation.

•A roll paper fire will give off vast quantities of smoke. All operations will have to be conducted while wearing self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). Some firefighters may be lulled into complacency concerning the dangers of smoke from burning paper. But make no mistake about the hazard: The carbon monoxide given off by paper smoke is just as deadly as that given off by any other burning substance. Additionally, there is always the possibility that you will encounter rolls of paper that have been treated. In that case, the smoke may include other toxins that will quickly render a firefighter without SCBA a fireground casualty. Visibility will be obscured for the most part. Because you will be dealing with a large open area in a roll paper warehouse or storage building, one or two small fans or smoke ejectors will not be capable of removing the large quantities of smoke from one of these fires. The ventilation plan should consider implementing positive pressure ventilation using gasoline-driven, high-CFM-delivery fans or large-caliber water streams (depending on available water supply) to effect hydraulic fog venting from a large overhead doorway. Regardless of the methodology employed, the key is to get the smoke out of the building.

•Keep in mind the impact the fire will have on the building`s structural stability. If the sprinkler system is adequately designed, the fire load hasn`t exceeded the design of the installed fire protection, and the permissible storage height hasn`t been exceeded, there is reason to believe that the sprinkler system will contain the fire. Unfortunately, compromising one or more of these factors can create an atmosphere in which the fire can intensify.


Many of the commercial operations identified as using roll paper are typically situated in small commercial and light industrial buildings of up to 100,000 square feet in size. It is equally common for these buildings to be relatively low-cost structures with steel deck roofs. The support system likely will be lightweight open-web bar joists. In areas prone to earth movement, the roof most probably would be wood decking with wood trusses to accommodate earthquake forces. Although both of these construction methods yield a building that is low in cost to erect, they are equally susceptible to rapid failure when exposed to an uncontrolled fire. As such, it is critical for the fire suppression forces to know if the design of the sprinkler system is adequate to protect this high-challenge occupancy. It is equally as important to know the construction type used when the building was erected and whether the structure has been altered by subsequent renovations.

As the rolls of paper are removed from the building, the arduous task of extinguishing the fire begins. Crews will have to cut open each roll exhibiting signs of burning to ensure that the deep-seated fire within is completely extinguished. Failure to adequately overhaul these rolls will allow even the smallest ember to reignite the roll of paper, sometimes hours following the initial alarm. The critical thing to remember is that this operation should take place only after the rolls have been taken out of the building.

Two other operations should be taking place while crews are actively engaged in dealing with the fire in the rolls of paper. First, suppression personnel need to be aware that as a roll of paper burns and exfoliates, large flaming embers could be scattered throughout the building. Therefore, teams of firefighters should be assigned to search throughout the building for small spot fires that could be started by these airborne embers. Second, it should be realized that roll paper is seldom stored in a building by itself. Manufacturing or finished product storage is likely to be in the same building.

Start salvage operations as soon as possible to protect manufacturing equipment and finished product. Often, this can be accomplished by closing fire doors that separate the different areas. If no walls are segregating these areas, cover the manufacturing equipment with tarps to prevent water spray discharging from sprinklers and hoselines from getting on and in the machinery.

A successful fire operation in roll paper storage depends on having a working knowledge of the challenges this unique occupancy presents. The presence or absence of an adequate water supply and a properly designed sprinkler system will strongly influence whether the fire will be confined and extinguished or grow to consume the entire building. But even if the fire is being successfully contained, fire suppression personnel need to be aware of the dangers created by fires in roll paper because of collapse and expansion resulting from absorption.

Click here to enlarge image

Storage arrays. (Top) Open array. Factory Mutual Data Sheet 8-21: Rolls on end are stacked separately in both directions, and the space is four inches or more in one or both directions. National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 231F, Standard for the Storage of Roll Paper–1996: A vertical arrangement. The distance between stacks is lengthy (more than two inches). (Middle) Standard array. FM Data Sheet 8-21: Stacked uniform-diameter rolls, on end, are butted in one direction and four inches or more apart in the other direction. NFPA 231F: The distance between columns in one direction is short (one inch or less) and in excess of two inches in the other direction. (Bottom) Closed array. FM Data Sheet 8-21: Uniform-diameter rolls, on end, are in piles of at least four stacks in both directions with spacing closer than four inches. NFPA 231F: The distances between columns in both directions are short (not more than two inches in one direction and one inch in the other).

GERARD J. NAYLIS is an account engineer with Factory Mutual Insurance Company, dealing with loss prevention and control engineering. He is also the training officer for the Bergenfield (NJ) Fire Department. Currently, he is serving as the first vice president of the International Association of Arson Investigators, Inc. and is a member of the New Jersey State Fire Safety Commission.

No posts to display