Just Another Warehouse Fire? No Such Thing!

BY JEFF A. WELCH

On Thursday, December 2, 1999, at approximately 2245 hours, the Hayden Lake (ID) Fire Protection District responded to an incident that changed our way of thinking about fires in warehouse storage facilities. We responded to a 911 dispatch of an automatic alarm at the Louisiana Pacific Corporation warehouse, 13455 N. Government Way. The initial response to the alarm consisted of one engine with three personnel, an ambulance with two personnel, and the chief officer.


Louisiana Pacific stored its records in the warehouse. (Photos by author unless otherwise noted.)

When Engine 521 arrived at the building, there was nothing showing. Lieutenant Mark Ghiraduzzi, the officer in charge, quickly realized smoke was coming from somewhere in the vicinity, and a firefighter on the ambulance saw someone flashing his headlights from the Louisiana Pacific warehouse approximately one block south. While responding to the warehouse, the lieutenant called for mutual aid from the Coeur d’Alene (ID) Fire Department and Kootenai County Fire Protective District (FPD), each of which would respond with an engine to the location. When Engine 521 entered the gate to the warehouse area, moderate smoke was coming from a building approximately 100 feet long by 200 feet wide and about 25 feet high of Type II, non-rated construction. A heat detection system was installed in the building.

I arrived then and, while the engine was hooking up to the hydrant, drove around the building from side D to side A. While doing so, I noticed the distinct odor of sulfur (similar to that of burning road flares) and immediately called for another engine and a third alarm, which activated the response of the remaining full-time personnel.


Burned storage boxes. (Photo by Inspector Dean Marcus, HLFPD.)

I asked the building supervisor, who also had been notified by the alarm company, what was stored in the building. Since there was an explosives factory down the road from Louisiana Pacific, I wanted to confirm that explosives were not stored in this building also. The building supervisor told Ghiraduzzi and me that the building was used to store only records for Louisiana Pacific, a paper manufacturer that had its corporate headquarters located in the area. The information received at that time did not indicate the need for a haz-mat team response.


A five- by seven-foot opening was cut in an overhead door to ventilate the building. (Photo by Inspector Dean Marcus, HLFPD.)

The supervisor opened an entry door on the far left of the A side and stated that the electricity to the three overhead doors on the A side and two similar doors on the C side had been shut off. Engine 521 tried to hook up to a hydrant downwind of the smoke on the D side and discovered it didn’t work. Quickly abandoning this operation, the company identified another hydrant on the property that was right inside the gate. The engine backed up to it and led out with approximately 200 feet of dual three-inch lines to the A side of the building. While two three-inch hydrant lines were being connected to the intake, a 200-foot, preconnected 13/4-inch line was stretched to the open entry door. I established incident command and designated Coeur d’Alene Chief Rick Lasky operations chief and assigned the Kootenai FPD Chief Ron Sampert to the C side of the building. Engine 322 from Coeur d’Alene was assigned to stretch a 21/2-inch line to back up Engine 521, and the Kootenai FPD engine was assigned to building ventilation.

Personnel cut ventilation openings five feet high and seven feet wide in the three overhead doors on the A side of the building. There was no vertical ventilation. Meanwhile, an additional 21/2-inch line was stretched to protect the crews performing ventilation and to prevent fire spread.


SCBA air pack

The fire was located approximately 50 to 75 feet inside the building from the point of entry. The storage arrangement of the records was as follows: The one-foot-high boxes were stored five high (approximate overall height of five feet). They were stored back to back, which made each row approximately 41/2 feet wide; 31/2-foot aisles separated each row of boxes.

FIRE AFFECTS RESPONDERS

At this point, a Hayden Lake firefighter, who was on the initial hydrant hookup team and the ventilation team, reported to incident command, complaining of shortness of breath and chest pains. He was immediately taken to the ambulance on- scene, treated by a paramedic, and transported to the hospital. Personnel on the initial attack line reported that they felt they had knocked the fire down. Around this time, Ghiraduzzi, who was also involved in the initial hydrant team, came out from the 13/4-inch attack line to replace his SCBA bottle; he also complained of shortness of breath and chest pains. He refused treatment and transport to the hospital but was sent to rehab for evaluation. When the paramedic returned to the scene, Ghiraduzzi was also taken to the hospital in the paramedic rig for observation. During the entire incident, a very strong pervasive odor of sulfur was observed by everyone on the fireground.

I again contacted the building supervisor on-scene to confirm the nature of the contents of the building. The supervisor reaffirmed that the building was used for record storage and there were no other hazards present. The initial attack line had indeed knocked down the fire, and ventilation was progressing well. According to fireground speculation, the odor came from sulfur that was placed on the records to preserve them.

OVERHAUL CONSIDERATIONS


Storage boxes used in warehouse.

As the building was ventilated, a positive-pressure fan helped remove the smoke. Chief Lasky and I conferred to assess the damage and determine to what extent overhaul was needed. It appeared that most of the overhaul would require full turnout gear and SCBA because of the sulfur odor still present, although the building was mostly cleared of smoke. Personnel from the Rathdrum and Timberlake Fire Protection Districts assisted with overhaul. After the building was further cleared of smoke, it was determined that the major fire involvement was in the rear of the building. Kootenai Chief Sampert (side C sector) determined that, during overhaul, firefighters still needed SCBA to protect them from the sulfur smell. SCBA was used throughout the overhaul process, which entailed using shovels and tarps to remove the burnt debris.

Crews were rotated to rehab after emptying two SCBA tanks. Rehab personnel checked members’ vital signs and had members replenish fluids. Crews were rotated into the rear of the building until overhaul was completed. During overhaul, dispatch notified the IC that the firefighters sent to the hospital had been released. Ghiraduzzi returned to the fire scene, and we discussed the conditions inside the building and the pervasive sulfur odor. He also reported that the emergency room doctor told both firefighters treated there to take a couple of days off and prescribed some medications for the respiratory exposure.

ORIGIN-AND-CAUSE INVESTIGATION

The origin-and-cause investigation began during overhaul. Hayden Lake Investigators Anson Gable and Dean Marcus entered the building but soon left because of the still strong odor of sulfur. They decided to wait until the overhaul process was completed before starting an in-depth investigation.

After the overhaul was completed and lines were being taken up, the investigators started to work. Although the building was clear, the odor of sulfur still lingered but did not hamper the investigation. There were questions about the sulfur smell and the burn pattern on the floor in the area of origin. After taking numerous pictures of the area and talking with the building supervisor still on the scene, the fire cause was classified as undetermined. The next day, Glen Lauper from the Idaho State Fire Marshal’s office came in to help with the investigation. Investigators concluded that an overhead light ballast had malfunctioned and that a black, tar-like substance contained in the light fixture had dripped down onto the record storage boxes, causing the fire.

THE SULFUR ODOR MYSTERY

As for the source of the sulfur smell, we were still at a loss. We were attempting to get the material safety data sheets (MSDSs) from Louisiana Pacific but had not yet been successful. On Monday morning following the fire, a firefighter who was on the initial attack line told us he had a rash on his body. After talking to other firefighters who were at the incident, we found that some of them also had suffered varying degrees of skin rash.

An equipment examination revealed that the metal on the SCBAs used at the fire was tarnished and some of the metal parts had begun to rust. The SCBAs were relatively new, having been purchased last year. A phone call to the Coeur d’Alene Fire Department revealed that the same had happened to its equipment. The department was one of the first companies inside on a backup line, and a firefighter reported that his silver ring had turned a bronze color. We were still working with the company to get a copy of the MSDS for the cardboard box storage containers. Firefighters were sent to the hospital to have the rash checked out. An urgent message was sent to the company requesting that a copy of the MSDS for the cardboard storage containers be made available immediately. The MSDS arrived that afternoon, and we discovered that the signs and symptoms that personnel were experiencing were detailed on the sheets.

On Tuesday, we contacted the cardboard box manufacturer, Convoy, Inc., in Ohio. A representative of the manufacturer told us that when the boxes are burned, they produce sulfur dioxide as a by-product. Furthermore, although the boxes had been tested in fire conditions, the test involved only small pieces burned in a laboratory. The company was unaware of any sort of fire in a facility where the boxes had been used for storage. They informed us that, during manufacture, the boxes were boiled (“French fried”) in 99.9 percent liquid sulfur, which acts as a preservative for the boxes.

We discussed the side effects that personnel had observed (i.e., skin rash, discoloration of SCBA metal). We were told that some workers who manufacture the boxes occasionally experience rashes, but it was believed that it was those who had constant contact with the boxes. The metal discoloration was not a concern, although the SCBA manufacturer asked us to ship one to it for evaluation. All in all, the signs and symptoms we encountered from the exposure were reconfirmed by the manufacturer. All personnel involved in the incident were briefed on the results of the findings. All personnel at the incident filed exposure reports.

LESSONS LEARNED AND REINFORCED

Some valuable lessons were reinforced.

  • Preplanning and its limitations. Knowing what facilities are in your district and what they contain before an incident is essential. When making or updating preplans, you need to ask more questions and not just look at the preplan as “busy work.” The information gathered by the engine company is, in most cases, the first information available regarding the building and its contents. Asking a few simple questions (e.g., Do you know of any place that has had a fire with this type of storage? Have you had any problems with this type of storage?) might render some valuable information about the building and its contents.

But even if we had a preplan for the building, it would not have helped us with the conditions we encountered. Preplans with which we are familiar will not inform us that sulfur dioxide will be produced by burning record storage boxes or of that smoke’s corrosive effect on metal. They would not tell us that the power was shut down to overhead doors or how to get a quick copy of the MSDS for what appeared to be normal cardboard storage boxes.

  • Be ready for anything. We had become complacent about going to the smells and bells (automatic alarms) daily. The one time in our career when there was actually a fire, we were not prepared for it mentally or physically. We usually do not think about wearing our SCBA outside the fire building (e.g., such as while hooking up to a hydrant), but we always should be aware of the conditions around us. If we are sent to the roof to ventilate and the job is successful, we should consider putting on our masks in case the wind shifts.
  • Thermal imaging cameras and search ropes were not used at this fire. Their use would have made locating the fire easier and safer in this warehouse environment.
  • Haz-mat team response. The information provided regarding the building contents did not indicate the need for a haz-mat team response. However, this should be considered in a situation in which the contents are unknown and observations at the scene indicate such a response is needed.
  • The importance of hoseline selection. When pulling a line, do not get caught up in the “line we always pull.” Granted, most of the time we will be able to do our job successfully with the 13/4-inch line we are accustomed to pulling. Thinking about pulling a big 21/2-inch line may not only start the wheels in motion for a successful offensive operation, it will also afford more water and protection for the interior crews should conditions change. There is still a lot to be said for the adage “Big building, big fire potential, big hose.”
  • Accountability and critical task assignments. A strong incident command system must be set up, although we must not sacrifice “filling in the boxes” for putting water on the fire. Most organizations today respond with minimal staffing and some staff doing double duty. When these double-duty personnel are assigned to tasks other than what they came for, we are playing roulette. This roulette could possibly delay treatment and transport needed to take care of one of our brothers or sisters at the fire scene.
  • Investigators should be encouraged to wear SCBA during interior inspection of structures because of the presence of lingering dangerous gases.

After a few days off to recuperate, both firefighters sent to the hospital were back to work. After a few more days, we all had the opportunity to critique the incident and provide the valuable lessons reinforced and some lessons learned that none of us had anticipated.

Thanks to Chief Rick Lasky of the Coeur d’ Alene (ID) Fire Department for his help with this article.

JEFF A. WELCH is chief of the Hayden Lake (ID) Fire Protection District. He served 20 years with the Urbana (IL) Fire Department, where he was a lieutenant on Engine 24, and served with the Sidney (IL) Fire Protection District, where he held various positions. He is a field staff instructor with the University of Illinois Fire Service Institute and has been involved with the development and delivery of numerous firefighter training programs for almost 20 years. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire science and has attended several courses at the National Fire Academy.

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