First Due at the Strip Mall

Article and photos by David DeStefano

Communities across the country, from major urban centers to newly developed suburban towns, feature block upon block of strip mall occupancies. There are innumerable local variations of the basic strip mall format. However, several common characteristics are that they are quick, easy, and cheap to construct. We will discuss some of the hazards and firefighting tactics companies operating at these fires can employ.

CONSTRUCTION

Many of these occupancies feature exterior masonry walls with lightweight steel bar joist roof assemblies covered with metal Q-decking and tar and gravel or synthetic membrane roofs. The interior walls are often metal studs covered with drywall. Some have basements; others are built on slabs. Many of the newer strip malls feature large decorative soffits that cover the pedestrian walkway between the stores and serve as an anchor point for signage.

Companies responding to fires in these occupancies must be aware that the roof assemblies are an immediate weak point during a fire of any consequence. The lightweight steel bar joists will quickly lose their integrity and may fail rapidly. A thorough size-up and risk-benefit analysis should be conducted before committing members to roof or interior operations where heavy fire is present.

Firefighters should also determine if the occupancy has a basement, if it is common to the entire building, or if it is divided similar to the street level. You must access the occupancy and rapidly search for life and fire. 
Often, store owners expand their floor space by renting an additional storefront. This expansion may not be obvious from the exterior and can lead to disorientation and the communication of fire to a larger area through unprotected interior wall openings.

The decorative soffits overhanging the front of many strip malls pose a hidden avenue of fire spread, especially if fire has gained headway in the void between a ceiling and roof assembly. These large, heavy pieces may detach from the building and collapse on firefighters advancing lines in the front door.

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(1) The front of a strip mall.

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(2) The back area of a strip mall.

ACCESS

With America more crime conscious than ever, it is no longer unusual to see rolldown security shutters in suburban areas. These shutters not only delay access by firefighters, but they also mask signs of fire, creating a delay in notification, and seal up buildings, creating environments ripe for backdraft or flashover.

Another access issue common to strip malls is the heavily fortified door commonly found on side C of these buildings. Each store will almost always have a rear door used for emergency egress and delivery purposes. This door must be assigned as a high-priority objective to a forcible entry team. Whenever an interior attack is being made, the firefighters on the line and searching the occupancy will need the secondary egress point provided by the door on side C. Often, these doors are secured with locked drop bars or slide bolts after hours and will be difficult to force while working in a hot, smoke-filled environment.

FIRE ATTACK

Unless the fire can quickly be identified as manageable in size and localized at an easily reachable access point, the first-in engine officer may consider stretching a 2½-inch handline. The greater reach, penetration, and gallons per minute will allow the engine company to maintain a safe distance at the door while reaching deep into the occupancy to suppress large fires that may threaten the integrity of the roof system or potentially overwhelm a smaller line advanced deep into the building.

Extension into the attached exposures that may be on either side of the occupancy of origin is a major consideration. Interior walls are often breached with poke-throughs for electrical, plumbing, or HVAC service. Some interior walls may end at the height of a drop ceiling, leaving a common cockloft. It is important for truck companies to access and open up possible avenues for extension while engine companies stretch flanking hoselines to cover any potential fire spread.

The preceding is only a brief summary of some of the potential issues associated with modern strip malls. Becoming aware of the multiple hazards we face at these common buildings should prompt firefighters to spend time on the road viewing and discussing specific buildings for a more in-depth understanding of these problems. Know your district!  

 

David DeStefano is a 20-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 as a firefighter in Ladder 1. He teaches a variety of topics for the Rhode Island Fire Academy. He can be reached at dmd2334@cox.net.

Author

  • David DeStefano  is a battalion chief with the North Providence (RI) Fire Department, where he has served for 29 years. He is a shift commander in the operations division. He was previously chief of training and safety and has also served as a captain, lieutenant, and firefighter in Ladder Co. 1 as well as a lieutenant in Engine Co. 3. DeStefano is an instructor/coordinator with the Rhode Island Fire Academy and lectures on fire service topics throughout Southern New England. He was a presenter at FDIC International 2017 and 2018.    

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