Full Circle


As we enter 2021, we may notice significant changes in our response districts that can affect our firefighting tactics and procedures. Because of the loss of revenue, we should expect to see things that we haven’t seen in quite a long time. Homelessness seems to be on the rise, and we’re finding people living in areas we wouldn’t expect. In addition, we have to keep our eyes open for signs of arson or an advanced fire on arrival in commercial occupancies. Closed stores, high rent, and paying for stock can cause owners to take desperate measures.

Storefront Fires

When there is a commercial occupancy on the first floor of a residential building, it is commonly referred to as a storefront. Don’t be confused and call it a taxpayer, because it’s not, and it will create the wrong size-up and mental picture in your mind. Storefronts can be in many types of structures; they’ll occupy the first floor of a two-story wood frame and a six-story multiple dwelling. They can be some of the toughest fires to fight because of the fire loads on the first floor and stock often stored in the basement.

When you pull up to such a fire in the early morning hours, with smoke pumping out of a heavily secured store, searching the residential floors above for life and fire extension is one of our main priorities. With so many stores closing from being shut down for so long during the pandemic, we’re seeing many vacant occupancies. Can that mean an increase in arson fires? It most certainly can.

For fires in these structures, use power tools to cut the locks on the roll-down gates and security bars or grates over the windows. Try to cut the padlocks on the channel rails prior to cutting the gates. Leaving the gate intact usually makes it easier to lift it up and push it into the recoil housing box above the occupancy. When you cut the padlocks, cut both hasps of standard locks and cut two-thirds of the way up from the keyway on hockey puck locks. Some firefighters like to attack the padlock’s securing bracket on the gate’s frame. Often, it’s a small bracket that easily accepts the rotary saw’s blade and allows an easy cut.

Once you have cut the bracket, pull the padlock outward, and the gate securing pin will come with it. When cutting any padlock or bracket, don’t cut the securing pin that goes through the gate or you’ll have a small stub that is recessed into the gate and channel rail track, which can be very difficult to remove. If the gate is cherry red, the metal has expanded, and you’ll need to cut it because it won’t recoil. Washing it down with a hoseline to cool it will help the firefighter operating near the gate and protect the saw’s housing from melting.

When you get into the store, immediately try to size up the fire’s size and location with the thermal imaging camera. If you notice a small stock load or rubbish strewn around the first floor and a smaller fire, don’t be fooled that this is the only fire. A tactical tip for fires in these occupancies is to drive the pike end of the halligan through the floor to see if the fire is below. If the tool bounces off the floor and it doesn’t impale it, the flooring may be covered with tile, terrazzo, or concrete. The additional load of these materials may cause an early collapse if the fire started in the basement.

Trying to locate the basement can be difficult in these occupancies. When searching, if you feel a large mat under your knees, move it because it could be hiding a trap door for access to the basement. Another area to find these doors is behind checkout counters or in the rear of the occupancy. Always use caution when opening them and, if needed, instruct the nozzle firefighter to direct the stream onto the edge of the steps in a straight stream pattern so it disperses like a sprinkler into the area below.

Vehicle Fires

Responding to a reported vehicle smoking can mean an overheated auto or a blown radiator hose, but it can also mean a well-advanced vehicle fire. We arrived on scene to a minivan pumping brown smoke, which threw off our smoke size-up. Usually, these cars are emitting black smoke with a pungent odor of plastic and other hydrocarbons burning. A quick survey of the vehicle showed that the passenger’s door was open and the brown smoke was swirling around the entire inside of the van. We tried to unlock the van with the power locks but the battery must have been dead. So, a firefighter used his hook to reach across the inside of the van to pull the opposite side’s door handle open so we could access the hood release. Meanwhile, a firefighter opened the rear doors and the fire lit up inside the van. There were a few mattresses stacked on top of each other, and we pulled them out to extinguish them. The vehicle occupant, who denied being so when we arrived, immediately went into the van to retrieve some of his personal belongings. We overhauled the van but used caution so we wouldn’t ruin his “motor home.”

You’ll go to countless vehicle fires over your career. They’ve become some of the most dangerous fires to fight because of gas piston cylinders on hoods and tailgates, exploding air bags, duel fuel vehicles, and high-voltage batteries. In these times, you may have to quickly search them for people using them as dwellings. If you notice no license plates, registration, or inspection stickers but the vehicle is full of materials, use caution and expect to find the unexpected.

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.


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