“BIG BOX” STRUCTURES

I have good news and bad news. The bad news first: The current trend is to build a 100,000-plus-square-foot building constructed mostly out of steel that houses excessive amounts of combustibles. The good news is that it is required to be protected by automatic sprinkler systems-big automatic sprinklers systems.

A working fire in one of these “big box” stores will tax the largest departments in the country. Let’s do some math: Length × Width divided by 3. I know that those who espouse this fire flow formula say it is only “relatively” accurate for flows up to 1,000 gpm. To my way of thinking, it still provides a rule of thumb for fire flow to start with-and even I can do the math: 100,000 ÷ 3 = 33,000 gpm. Let’s see: How many 1,500-gpm engines will that require if the building is totally involved?

Let’s say only one-tenth of the building is involved: two engines + the additional engines to flow the required water. How many firefighters will it take to flow 3,333 gpm out of handlines? In my quick-math world, that would be about 10 2 1/2-inch lines. That’s not counting ventilation efforts, searches, and all the other “stuff” we do! Thank God for automatic sprinkler systems.

In Toledo, we have our share of these buildings. We have not increased our initial response to these giants. We send four engines, one truck, one heavy squad, a safety officer, a life squad, and a battalion chief on a reported fire in a big box store (same as a reported house fire). Once on-scene, the incident commander (IC) can upgrade or downgrade the response according to the situation.

Last year, we had a working roof fire caused by fireworks at a large home improvement supply store. We cut and peeled a large section of roof insulation, but that was the extent of our efforts. It was pretty labor-intensive but not too dramatic. One good thing about the fire was that we didn’t run out of tools or garbage cans to complete the overhaul.

John “Skip” Coleman, deputy chief of fire prevention, Toledo (OH) Department of Fire and Rescue, is the author of Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer (Fire Engineering, 1997) and Managing Major Fires (Fire Engineering, 2000), a technical editor of Fire Engineering, and a member of the FDIC Executive Advisory Board.

Question: Does your department have a policy regarding large (big box) enclosed structures to address fire attack, ventilation, and egress?

Rick Lasky, chief,Lewisville (TX) Fire Department

Response: This is a very popular building design in our city, and the described scenario is very realistic. Our initial response to this would be the following:

• For a fire alarm activation with no one reporting an actual fire: 1 engine or quint and 1 tower ladder.

• For a report of a fire in the building: 2 engines, 1 quint, 1 tower ladder, 1 ambulance, 1 battalion chief, and 1 duty chief.

Because of the size of the structure and the potential for a lot of work, on receipt of the first-arriving company’s size-up and a confirmation of a working fire, a second alarm would be struck, bringing the following apparatus to the scene: 3 engines, 1 quint, 1 tower ladder, 2 ambulances, 3 duty chiefs, 1 air unit, 1 rehab unit, and 1 communications/command unit.

Our fire attack would be as follows: An attack line would be stretched through the closest door or entrance, depending on the fire’s location, or this would be accomplished from an interior standpipe connection. The system would be supported by an engine company. This would be followed by a backup line and any additional attack lines. Depending on the situation, the company officer would have the choice of using a 2 1/2-inch attack line or staying with the 3/4-inch line.

Ventilation would be accomplished from three different fronts. If possible, any roof skylights over the affected area would be removed/opened up (consider how effective this will be initially because of a sprinkler system’s working, which may keep smoke down and away from the opening in some cases). All attempts would be made to open up the building through overhead doors, access doors, or windows, on the opposite side of the fire attack. Finally, on approval from the IC, several positive-pressure ventilation (PPV) fans could be set up in one large doorway or in several doors on one side of the building.

Several other issues and tasks, such as the following, would be under consideration (they are not listed in priority order):

• Add companies/personnel to the initial rapid intervention company (IRIC), in part because of the size of the building, and possibly stage some in the front and some in the rear of the building.

• Interior companies working without a hoseline would consider using a rope as a means of retracing their way, if needed, or for other companies to follow in or out.

• Roof teams would bring a rope to the roof with them.

• Using the building’s preplan, also ensure that if a sprinkler system is in place it is operating in the area of the fire. There have been instances in which the system had been modified without the approval of the Fire Prevention Bureau or the Building Department. When that occurs, you can end up with a system that is no longer designed to protect the contents and structure it was originally designed for and end up with a lot more than you anticipated. Whether the system is working properly should always be a consideration when you pull up and have heavy smoke showing.

• Consider requesting extra alarms early to get enough resources (people and stuff) to the scene.

• We do a lot more work in smaller structures and use less air, so all personnel should be reminded to carefully watch their air consumption and supply while operating inside the building.

These are only a few of the considerations for this type of incident; we want our personnel to “think big” (addressing as many considerations as may be warranted) when facing this type of incident.

Ron Hiraki, assistant chief,
Gig Harbor (WA) Fire & Medic One

Response: We do not have a specific policy for fire attack, ventilation, and egress of large enclosed structures. If the risk-benefit analysis allows us to enter the structure for fire attack, we have equipped our engine companies with 2 1/2-inch smooth bore nozzles to increase the reach and gpm.

Nearly all of our large enclosed structures are sprinklered. Therefore, one of our fire attack priorities is to charge and augment the sprinkler system. In our suburban community, land is normally available to permit access for fire apparatus all the way around the building. Our members have dedicated a lot of time to preincident planning and maintaining preincident plans. In shopping or commercial complexes where there are multiple fire protection systems and fire department connections, we are working with city and county building officials to require signage to indicate which building and system the fire department connection serves.

Thomas Dunne, deputy chief,
Fire Department of New York

Response: Our department has specific procedures for fires in commercial buildings, many of which are applicable to big box structures. The heavy fire potential in these buildings requires 2 1/2-inch attack lines. When sprinkler systems are present, they must be supplied by 3 1/2-inch hose.

Personnel accountability is crucial, given the hazards firefighters will face. Large-floor layouts and the possibility of extensive stock accumulations call for the use of search ropes. If using roll-down doors for egress, prop them up with ladders to keep them from closing behind passing firefighters. In addition, the building height will make it difficult to monitor ceiling heat conditions from the floor level.

We will not cut vent holes in the truss-supported roofs we are likely to encounter in these buildings. The lack of vertical ventilation will create problems with heat retention, visibility, and hoseline advancement. This may call for the use of ventilation fans, the frequent relief of personnel, and possibly an exterior attack.

The ventilation restraints will cause our greatest tactical challenges; knowledge about the structure will be our greatest strategic asset. Vital particulars regarding the dimensions, layout, construction features, and building contents are broadcast to our units as they are responding. This information is gathered from previous inspections and helps to formulate a safe plan of action. Simply stated (as the late Frank Brannigan often reminded us), there is a huge advantage in knowing the building before it is burning.

Craig H. Shelley, EFO, CFO, MIFireE,
fire protection advisor

Response: Our department does not currently have a specific policy regarding big box structures. As an industrial/municipal department, we really don’t have the classic big box structures in our areas of response-that is not to say we don’t have large commercial/industrial occupancies, but we do not have a specific policy addressing them. When I was a member of the Fire Department of New York, we had policies and procedures for the majority of structures and incidents to which we responded regularly-i.e., tenements, row frame structures, brownstones. Most departments may never respond to a big box structure fire, but I believe some policy or procedure should be developed. Procedures will allow a coordinated and organized attack on the fire. Preincident plans should be the start of these policies. The type of roof support present will allow us to determine under what conditions we will place personnel on the roof for ventilation. What type of suppression system is present, and what area does it protect? What are the primary and secondary access and egress points? What is our available water supply, and is it consistent with the requirements for the structure? Perhaps automatic aid should be part of the procedures for the sole purpose of water supply.

Without a procedure in place, our response will be haphazard and at times ineffective. Start with the preplan, identify resources needed, and develop procedures to mount an effective and safe attack on the fire. These procedures, when developed, should be followed on all responses to the subject building so they are practiced on a regular basis. They should be the subject of in-house training sessions, and the response procedure should be practiced on-site at least once a year.

Jeffrey Schwering, lieutenant,
Crestwood (MO) Department of Fire Services

Response: My department operates at incidents of this type using preplans. At this time, we do not have a formal policy. Our preplans for any large structure of this type are kept up to date. We currently have two industrial parks that could potentially pose problems to responding firefighters. Although the preplans are very effective, the initial size-up of a structure is the key to determining our methods of fire attack, ventilation, and other operations.

Our company officers play a vital role in determining our actions at any structural fire. At buildings of this type, the first-arriving company officer must take into account the building construction, the percentage of fire involvement, the overall condition of the structure, and other factors. The size of the attack hoselines, means of egress, ventilation methods, ladder placement, and so on will be determined only after a complete size-up has been performed. It is mandatory that the first-arriving engine officers communicate all available information at their disposal to our first-arriving chief officers.

Our department is aggressive; however, many of the businesses of this type are older and not safe to operate in under heavy fire conditions because of the building construction, hazardous materials, or the structure’s overall condition. Our firefighters’ safety is our top priority. When no life safety issue is present, we will not take unnecessary risks on a structure of this kind.

Gary Seidel, chief,
Hillsboro (OR) Fire Department

Response: We accomplish the big box thinking through our preplanning, knowledge of building inventories, and incident mitigation. Our department uses the philosophy of “incident-specific” assignments. Company officers have the flexibility to make decisions based on the inherent risks and the specific situations with which they are confronted. Allowing our firefighters to accomplish incident objectives based on the exigent circumstances with which they are confronted during the scope of the emergency will usually ensure a more successful outcome. The statement “No two incidents are alike” demonstrates the need and ability to make decisions based on the unique incidents that confront us daily. Firefighters need to be able to think outside the box.

There are five key points in firefighting/preplanning; they are known as the “five Cs”:

  • Context-the setting or environment to which we respond.
  • Content-the incident type (dynamic going to static or vice versa?).
  • Control-the use of the incident command system to handle the incident.
  • Concise-the strategy and tactics used to mitigate the incident.
  • Concrete-the knowledge firefighters have to do their job.

As firefighters, we are constantly subjected to dangerous conditions and situations. Each member must become proficient in recognizing and dealing with these dangers. To perform our duty, we must not fear these conditions; we must respect, understand, and combat them based on the incident needs. There is no room for complacency or ignorance on the fireground. The goal is to achieve the maximum at minimum risk. Preplanning assists us in accomplishing the philosophy of “Fighting Fire Smartly.”

Jim Mason, lieutenant,
Chicago (IL) Fire Department

Response: These stores are usually built with noncombustible construction that has outside brick-bearing walls and steel bar-joist roof systems. Along with the quick collapse of these buildings (because of the exposed trusses), there are several additional problems. First, they are usually so large that the location and extent of the fire are difficult to assess without investigating inside. Two, smoke removal is difficult to perform. Third, the building officials on the scene will not normally know if everyone inside has gotten out.

Our first task is to determine if the construction is noncombustible and if the truss is exposed. If so, this building is likely to be getting ready to collapse. If the decision is to perform an interior attack, the first engine would connect to the sprinkler system, if available; drop 2 1/2-inch hose from the rear bed at the front doors; and drive away from the building to secure a positive source of water outside the collapse zone. As the interior hoseline is advanced, the bar-joist roof is washed to retain the steel’s integrity.

The ventilation would be done primarily by opening the front display windows usually located in the front of the building along with any dock areas in the rear. The roof team would investigate the deck for signs of fire exposure by looking through skylights or other natural openings from the aerial ladder. This would be a defining action for making the decision of whether to conduct an interior attack or go defensive. The roof team would not normally vent the roof by cutting a hole.

Inside, the truck officers would use the thermal imaging camera to continue to monitor the roof from underneath and look for victims inside. In this type of commercial building, a rope-assisted primary search would generally be limited to areas near the hoseline to keep firefighters from getting lost inside if fire conditions deteriorate.

John O’Neal, chief,
Manassas Park (VA) Fire Department

Response: Our department does not have a policy specifically addressing this type of commercial occupancy. We do have formal first-alarm assignment guidelines/procedures for protected and nonprotected commercial structures that address standardized assignments/positions for the first-, second-, third-, and fourth-arriving engine companies; first- and second-arriving ladders; and first-arriving rescue company and medic units that address fire attack, water supply, ventilation, and other functions. This procedure would be used at this type of structure fire.

The department has adopted and uses regional procedures for structure fires involving strip malls, town houses, and row houses; single-family dwellings; and high-rises. Regionally, the stand-alone commercial and mall structure procedures are slated for future development.

Brian Singles, firefighter,
Hampton (VA) Fire Department

Response: We do not have a set policy for this type of situation, but I think it is something that should be looked at seriously, not only for the fire department’s benefit but also for the safety of the firefighters who have to fight this type of fire when it occurs. We respond to these types of buildings and the usual “pot on the stove” all the time on fire alarms but have encountered nothing too serious yet. There are only a few of us in the suppression forces who would know what to do if the “Big One” did occur in these types of buildings, and that’s sad for some.

We drill on all types of aspects of the fire service, such as haz mat, RIT, and vehicle extrication, but we also need to drill on fire suppression in the large enclosed structure. This would be something each company on all three shifts could easily accomplish and I think would be approved by the fire chief. After all, it is training, and training is the most important part of any fire department’s well-being.

Hopefully, in the near future our Training Division will add this to our training schedule along with all the other important hands-on training that will keep our level of service up to par and make us a better fire department.

Jim Grady III, chief,
Frankfort (IL) Fire District

Response: We do not have a policy for response to large box-type structures. Currently, we respond to all buildings within the district unless the building is designated as a high hazard with two engines, one truck, and a chief. The truck company remains available for positioning by the chief or the first-in engine company officer.

If we receive a call of smoke/fire in the building, we respond with four engines, two trucks, a squad company, three chiefs, and a communications unit. A RIT is also designated.

Additional alarms bring in a complement of equipment predetermined from our box card system setup, which takes us to a 5-11 fire with special requests when and where necessary.

Our district has an established program with builders and developers that provides for suppression systems and buildings that are fully alarmed and directly connected to dispatch.

William R. Mora, captain,
San Antonio (TX) Fire Department

Response: To reduce the risk of firefighter fatality, we adopted a flexible standard operating guideline (SOG) for enclosed structures in December 2004. These types of structures, which have very few windows or doors in relation to their size and are difficult for firefighters to ventilate and evacuate, have been associated with firefighter disorientation, serious injuries, and line-of-duty deaths. The SOG calls for an interior assessment with a thermal imaging camera before deciding which method of fire attack would be safest based on a number of key conditions and factors found. Some of the interior factors include the amount and arrangement of contents, distance to the seat of the fire, size of the fire, and whether the fire is compromising structural integrity.

The attack options include an attack from the original point of entry, attack from a different side of the structure closer to the seat of the fire, or a defensive attack. Coordinated ventilation to prevent a flashover or a backdraft that may engulf the assessing firefighters, providing a means of access and egress to minimize the distance from the exterior to the seat of the fire, and others issues are also considered and noted. The SOG is based on an understanding that traditional strategy and tactics are not to be used but that a more cautious and calculated approach is needed to manage enclosed structure fires. Although enclosed structures are commonly referred to as big box structures, it is important to note that small and moderate-size enclosed structures have also taken firefighters’ lives.

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