We received an alarm for a report of a fire early the other morning in a two-story self-storage facility. This building was originally a milk bottling plant. It is a 200 x 100-foot Type 4 building. I know this building well; I remember when it was in operation. Eventually, the company went out of business or decided to move out of the inner city to the suburbs. The building stood vacant for many years. We responded to a few nuisance fires over that course of time. The building was eventually bought by a self-storage company and converted to a 900-unit facility. The units inside range from 50 square feet to 320 square feet, all eight feet high (photo 1).
When we pulled up, the alarm for the sprinkler system was ringing and water was flowing out the relief valve. The building is two stories and 2,000 square feet in size; it was locked up tight with no indication of any type of fire inside. This does not mean that there’s no possibility that something may be happening inside. Many times we pull up to these types of situations and we don’t have anything going on other than an alarm going off. We call the dispatcher to find out from the alarm company to see if the alarm has hopefully reset. If it does reset, then we can take up. If not, then we need to investigate further. The best course of action is to see if we can put someone on the roof or find an unlocked window. Sometimes we can see inside the building and, if we are confident that nothing is going on, we can take up.
A number of years ago we received an alarm from a restaurant at 4 a.m. I pay attention to these types of calls, because it is not unusual for someone to leave a pot on the stove. We had a faint odor, suggesting a food-on-the-stove situation. The store was locked up tight; all the roll-down gates were locked with hockey puck-style locks. There was a basement Bilco door that only had a small padlock on it, so we cut the small lock and got into the kitchen. Once inside, we found an aluminum pot burning on the stove that someone had forgot to turn off.
Because of the size of the self-storage building, we needed to force entry and check out what was happening. We put the aerial device up to the roof while the inside team took looked for a door that would offer the least resistance. It turned out that the roll-down gate was not secured properly. The locking pin was not engaged all the way. We then were able to force entry on the front door by going through the lock. I was happy to see the truck company took such a professional approach to getting into the building. If there is nothing showing, and odds are that there is no fire, we can take a slower approach in gaining entry. There is no sense cutting locks or gates for something that may just be a broken pipe. If there were indications that there was a fire, then by all means we need to find the fastest and safest way to make entry.
Once inside, the ladder company made their way down to the sprinkler control room and found a broken pipe that was pouring water into the basement. We notified the owners and they were able to get the pipe repaired and put the system back in service. Firefighters must guard against complacency. There is sometimes the inclination to disregard these alarms as nothing more than a nuisance and fall into a complacency mode. One thing I can say about the firefighters in New York is that they treat every alarm as if it was the real thing. I see the companies at every alarm taking hydrants and placing the apparatus where it should be. They get off the trucks with all their tools and hose and are ready to go to work.
What if this had actually been the real thing? the first thing that I would have to do is perform a quick 13-point size-up (COAL WAS WEALTH)
Construction: Type 4 Heavy Timber
Occupancy: Self-storage warehouse
Area: 200 x 100 (2,000 square feet)
Life: The building should be unoccupied at this hour
Weather: No issues, clear night
Apparatus: One engine and one ladder at the moment
Street Conditions: Wide two-way street
Water Supply: Ample hydrants, (one in front of building, a 12′ main)
Auxiliary Appliances: Sprinkler System ( out of service, broken pipe)
Time: 0300 Hours
Height: Two stories
This size-up is done very quickly, and probably without having to put too much thought into it. The alarm ticket contains Critical Information (CIDS) that lets us know any peculiarities that may exist inside the building. Based on the size-up, the next step is to form a strategy. Will this be a offensive or a defensive operation? Historically we would predicate our strategy on a very basic plan: Locate, confine, and extinguish. FDNY Deputy Chief (Ret.) Vincent Dunn has taken that very basic precept and expanded it to be much more thorough and inclusive.
One of the major considerations I would have when trying to formulate a plan for this building would be the fact that there are 900 storage units containing all sorts of items. People are buying more things today and have no place to store them. I would have to err on the side of caution and prepare for the worst. The other issue is that the building is a Type 4 Construction, heavy timber. These buildings have a high ratio of surface to wood. There are a lot of exposed columns and joists. If a fire gains headway, it can make conditions untenable very quickly. According to Chief Dunn, our strategy would be to:
1. Locate the fire
2. Conduct life-saving
3. Prevent fire spread
4. Confine the fire
5. Ventilate the fire*
6. Extinguish the fire
7. Conduct searches*
8. Perform salvage
9. Overhaul the fire
10. Prevent a rekindle
11. Secure the building
(*not in priority order, can be done as needed)
1. Locate the fire: This would be our most difficult task in the described scenario. In the FDNY, this task is normally assigned to the ladder companies. A building of this size will make this task of locating the fire extremely difficult. Firefighters are sometimes killed or injured during this difficult phase of the operation. It is important for the engine companies to stretch enough hose to cover the expected fire area and to stand fast until the ladder company determines and verifies where the fire is located. This particular building will probably require the use of at least two ladder companies to locate the fire. Search ropes are mandatory in a building like this, companies will encounter maze-like conditions inside the building. I found myself a bit confused walking around the first floor even without smoke and heat (photo 2).
I recall having a fire in that building a number of years ago, without the storage units and we needed a search rope to navigate the first floor. Another useful tool will be the thermal imaging camera. The use of the camera will be helpful in trying to hone in on where the heat is radiating from the most.
2. Conduct Life Saving: The odds are very low that there will be much of a life hazard in this building at 0300 hours. This may not be a guarantee; there may be office workers that work overnight or security personnel inside the building. A number of years ago, we had a fire in a row of stores. We assumed the building to be unoccupied. When we cut the roll-down gate, there was a security guard behind the gate–he was locked in and had no way out.
3. Prevent fire spread: With so many storage units inside one place ranging from 50 to 320 square feet, if the sprinklers are overcome, the fire will conduct heat or radiate from storage unit to storage unit very quickly. We will have to use the proper-sized hose to quench the flames quickly. In this scenario, a 2 ½-inch hose would be the appropriate selection. In a recent warehouse fire the radiant heat transmitted through some trailers that were parked some 50 feet away that were loaded with paper products.
4. Confine the fire: Since this is a single building, the priority would be to keep the fire as localized as possible. With so many single units contained within this massive structure, we would need to check six sides of the fire to keep it confined.
5. Ventilate the fire: Both horizontal and vertical ventilation are going to affect fire behavior. If we start opening up the building without finding the exact location of the fire, we can make conditions worse. Once the fire location is verified and we have hoselines in place, we can begin opening the roof and start taking the windows.
6. Extinguish the Fire: If the tops of the containers are open, this could be viewed as double-edged sword. On one hand, with the tops open, the sprinklers may be able to possibly keep the fire in check. The other side of the coin is that with the open top, the fire will have an unlimited access to air. Each individual unit will have to be forced to gain access to the fire, which may result in a delay in getting water on the fire (photo 3).
7. Conduct searches: Given the fact that the place is locked up tight, I wouldn’t be as concerned about a life hazard as much as I would be concerned about the potential life hazard that will be imposed on firefighters searching in these maze-like conditions. Search ropes are mandatory. We will need to focus our energies on locating the fire first.
8. Perform salvage: There will be many units affected by the smoke from the fire. Firefighters must try to contain the fire and limit indiscriminate use of water. Sometimes at these fires we tend to overdo it with our water after the fire has been knocked down. If possible, be mindful that all that water that we use has to go somewhere and it may wind up pouring through any openings in the floor onto the merchandise below. If the sprinklers have activated, we should try and shut them down as soon as possible after the fire is knocked down. We once had a fire in an old loft building that was contained by the sprinklers to one room. There had been some difficulties in locating the shut-off for the sprinkler system on that floor. Below the fire floor was a museum with lots of priceless artifacts that sustained a good amount of water damage.
9. Overhaul: We can talk about overhaul in two ways: Precontrol and postcontrol
a. Precontrol: This is where we are trying to determine the extent of the fire. We need to define the limits by opening walls and ceilings to check for fire spread inside concealed spaces. If we have dropped ceilings or partitions that were added after the original construction, open up these areas to make sure fire is not extending unchecked.
b. Postcontrol: This phase of overhaul is generally done after the fire has been knocked down and we are now trying to open up areas where there may have been some extension. We also will need to go through the containers and pull out any smoldering materials. If we are not thorough in this phase, we will be back later for sure.
10. Rekindle: If we are thorough in all of the above steps, then rekindle should not be an issue. I would encourage members to be smart in their usage of water–I am not advocating using insufficient water to adequately extinguish the fire, but on the other hand we don’t need to create an indoor swimming pool in the basement.
11. Secure the building: If the owners or someone from management isn’t on scene, we need to make sure that we contact our local police department to stand watch. This is for two reasons: we don’t want to be responsible for anyone entering building and possibly getting hurt and we need to protect people’s valuables
Based on the scenario described above, answer the following questions:
1. Destination of first hoseline
2. Second hoseline
3. Portable ladders
4. Primary venting
5. Aerial ladder position
6. Primary life hazard
7. Interior fire spread
8. Exterior fire spread
9. Collapse hazard
10. Worse-case scenario
Daniel P. Sheridan is a 25-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York and a covering battalion chief assigned to Division 6 in the South Bronx. He is a national instructor II and a member of the FDNY IMT. He is a consultant for www.mutual-aid.org.