PREPLANNING FOR INCIDENTS AT SELF-STORAGE WAREHOUSES

Any preplan must take into account the maze-like conditions created by the identical looking rows of metal lockers found inside warehouses with enclosed storage units.

The self-storage warehouse industry has experienced tremendous growth in recent years; today, these structures are quite common nationwide. As this type of occupancy takes over existing buildings or is found in newly created buildings, it presents firefighters with new challenges. The public’s ability to freely access and store items that are virtually unchecked will mean that responding firefighters will not know what hazards they will be facing.

As with any other structure, preplanning must begin before the fire department finds itself responding to calls at the location. Although some of the preincident concerns are similar to others associated with commercial occupancies, the public storage warehouse also holds additional hazards of which firefighters must be aware prior to having to operate in the building during a fire or other emergency. Such concerns include but are not limited to the following:

  • unknown types of storage;
  • construction hazards, such as the presence of trusses;
  • forcible entry problems related to entering the yard, building, and individual lockers;
  • emergency vehicle access to the location;
  • maze-like conditions created by rows of identical looking lockers;
  • lack of ventilation;
  • unknown life hazard and the lack of an area for refuge;
  • the ability of fire protection systems and the possible lack of those systems;
  • location of utilities;
  • on-site auto, camper, boat, and other motor vehicle storage;
  • exposures; and
  • criminal or illicit activities that may lead to illegal storage.

UNKNOWN TYPE OF STORAGE

Responding firefighters do not know what is actually stored in a public storage warehouse and, therefore, will not know what might be burning there. Any preplan must recognize this fact. Even though the building may have signs stating that hazardous materials and flammable liquids cannot be stored on the premises, such rules often are not enforced. Even the largest of facilities have only a handful of employees; most of the time, no one is looking over the renters’ shoulders to see what they are placing in the lockers, often objects and materials they no longer want to keep in their homes or at their businesses. Renters are allowed to place their own padlocks on the storage lockers, effectively keeping employees in the dark about what is in each rented space. Some self-storage companies allow portable storage containers to be dropped off at a customer’s home, where the homeowner fills it and locks it. The storage company later removes the containers to the warehouse. The employees have no idea of what was placed inside them.


(1) Row after row of identical looking lockers can lead to maze-like conditions. (Photos by author.)

Changing demographics has meant that private dwellings in many areas of the country are becoming more crowded with extended families or additional tenants living in the same house. Basements, attics, and garages are becoming living spaces. Items normally found in such “nonliving” areas can now be found in great numbers in the self-storage warehouse.


(2) This wooden locker is dropped off at the renter’s home or place of business to be filled before being loaded onto a trailer and returned to the storage warehouse. Its contents are unknown to the employees.

Rented locker space is not limited to residential storage. Many times commercial and small industrial businesses and self-employed tradesmen rent space. Ask the warehouse management for the names of the businesses that rent locker space and the locations of those lockers. This information may give a good indication of what types of storage you can expect to encounter in an emergency.

CONSTRUCTION HAZARDS

As with many types of warehouses, public storage warehouses need large, open spaces that facilitate hundreds, if not thousands, of individual storage cubicles. Many times this will mean the presence of trusses used to support the roof. Any preplan must certainly include this feature. If the site consists of only rows of connected, garage-like lockers, the preplan survey should indicate the stability of the structures. Some of the questions that must be answered include the following: What type of structural members are present? Of what materials are they constructed? How easily can fire spread from one locker to another?


(3) This open metal grate floor will allow smoke and heat to easily travel to the upper floors.

Preplans for large interior storage warehouses should include information on how the lockers are constructed and whether they are enclosed on top, which will limit fire growth, or open-perhaps covered only with a metal mesh that will allow the fire to spread. If there are upper floors, how are those floors constructed? Some floors may be fabricated of steel, in which case areas directly above the fire will rapidly heat up. Floors made with an open metal grate in the passageway will easily let fire, smoke, and heat pass directly through it. Note the presence of floor trusses.


(4) Las Vegas firefighters fought a fire in this older, wood-framed public storage warehouse in August 2001.

Many of the newly constructed facilities are made primarily of steel or other mixed noncombustible construction, but older facilities made of ordinary or wood-frame construction may still be found, either in their original states or as rehabilitated structures. If the structure has fire walls, note their locations and conditions.


(5) The quick-moving fire damaged or destroyed more than 200 lockers.

The building’s construction materials may contribute to fire spread. Even though the warehouse’s interior lockers may be of noncombustible metal, the walls, ceilings, and floors can conduct the heat from the burning combustibles stored within and pass it into the adjoining lockers, spreading the fire. The same characteristics will be found at exterior, garage-type, metal-clad structures. One documented fire of this type occurred in Aloha, Oregon, in April 1989. Through conduction, heat spread from unit to unit, eventually destroying 97 storage lockers.1

With the older, wood-framed designed storage buildings, there will, of course, be concerns if the fire enters the void space between floors and locker enclosures. Even though you may be able to open the ceilings easily with conventional tools, you may not be able to get ahead of the fire because the quantity of items stored in the lockers may be blocking the areas that need to be opened.

Be aware that some storage facilities are located in high-rise buildings. Such structures present not only the hazards associated with storage facilities but also the numerous problems associated with high-rises.

FORCIBLE ENTRY REQUIREMENTS

The preplan must include information on how to gain entry. Many times, fencing surrounds the property. Depending on the neighborhood, this fencing may be topped with barbed wire. Even during business hours when such a fence would be unlocked, parking lot gates may hamper access. Renters open these gates using an access code on a keypad adjacent to the gate. The gate closes after a short time, usually after allowing a private vehicle to enter. Such gates may slide to the side or lift up, but they all close after a short time. When preplanning a facility with such a gate, determine how to get the gate to stay open. It may be possible to gain entry to the gate control access panel, open the gate, and then disengage the mechanism so the gate will remain open. It would be easier to have a fire department access code programmed so firefighters can use the keypad; the gate mechanism may still have to be disengaged to get the gate to remain open.


(6) When positioning apparatus and placing large-diameter hose, consider that additional fire trucks may have to gain access to the scene. Do not block the limited number of exit drive aisles. Note the perimeter barbed wire in the foreground.

How are individual storage lockers locked, and in which direction do they open? Smaller units usually have doors that swing out. Larger units have rollup doors. Some lockers may have more than one padlock. The renter is allowed to place his own lock on the storage cubicle; however, management will put its lock on the unit if the customer is late in paying the monthly fee. Both locks usually would be on a sliding bolt type of latch; both will have to be forced for the door to open.


(7) Use search ropes when smoke conditions warrant it. This 108-foot aisle leads into a large area of unused warehouse that is wide open with no interior walls.

Another concern is how easily you will be able to open the door should heat from a fire deform it. Will you have to remove slats? If so, how will you do this? Will you need a saw with a metal cutting blade? What about access openings for applying water? Will you be able to use piercing applicators? If you use the piercing applicator, will it be too long for use in the confines of the passageway after it is connected to the hoseline? Will lockers opposite the burning lockers have to be forced before you can swing the applicator nozzle into position? Include all this information in your preplan. A rollup door will also be more difficult to open if the interior storage has fallen against it.

EMERGENCY VEHICLE ACCESS

Will you be able to get fire apparatus to all parts of the property? Are the drive aisles between the rows of exterior lockers wide enough for more than one vehicle? Can vehicles be turned around, or must they always be backed out? If the only fire hydrant is located at the front of the main entrance driveway, will large-diameter supply lines block entry for later arriving apparatus?

Look at adjoining properties. Perhaps you will be able to reach the rear of some structures through neighboring properties. This may not be possible if a facility “sprang up overnight” on what used to be farmland and is surrounded by fields. Older facilities may be in industrial areas and surrounded by railroad tracks, highway overpasses, and built-up industrial and commercial properties.

MAZE-LIKE CONDITIONS

Any preplan must take into account the maze-like conditions created by the identical looking rows of metal lockers found inside warehouses with enclosed storage units. A heavy smoke condition will only add to any disorientation a firefighter might already be experiencing. During the preincident surveys, identify exit doors, dead-end corridors, and corridors that may open into large wide-open areas. Identify locations in which you can tie off search ropes; practice searches with these ropes, if possible. Firefighters must be familiar with the locker numbering system so that, in case of an emergency, they will know if they are heading deeper into the building and will be able to figure out how many rows away they are from an outside wall, where the exits are located.


(8,9) The lobby may contain a central monitoring station with a computerized locker surveillance system. It may be one way to help find disoriented firefighters.

Devise a plan for finding a lost member before that situation arises at an actual alarm. Obviously, if your department has a thermal imaging camera, you can use it, but the plan still must be practiced. You also must practice plans involving the use of personal alert safety systems or portable radio feedback; you must practice plans using locating devices to get to understand how successful they will be. Sound-producing beacons may be difficult to locate in areas that produce echoing. Another problem is that if the individual lockers are protected by burglar alarms, the alarms will sound continuously as the lockers are opened, adding to the confusion by drowning out radio transmissions and the activated PASS alarm(s).


(9)

The manager usually can reset burglar alarms with a remote-control device. Determine if such a device exists. If so, obtain it from the employee and see if it would be plausible to have a member assigned to a location from where the alarm can be silenced. It may appear to be easier to find a way to disable the alarm, but consider that the alarm can act as a distress signal of last resort for a lost firefighter. If the firefighter has no other way of telling others that he is still in the building, he can break the alarm contact on any locker, thereby activating the alarm and letting the others know that he is still inside.

Another way of locating missing members involves using the surveillance monitoring station, usually located behind the front desk. The monitoring station may have video surveillance (which will probably be useless in a heavy smoke condition) or a computerized surveillance screen. This computerized program will constantly give updates of the opened lockers; the layout of locker rows is visually indicated on the monitor. The software will show on the screen in different colors lockers that are empty, are full, or have open doors.

During firefighting operations, firefighters should ventilate and keep the monitoring station area tenable, if possible, so they can see the screens. A firefighter who has become separated from his crew can forcefully jostle a locker door and break the alarm contact; the firefighter’s location will be visually indicated on the monitoring screen. If the firefighter has a radio, a member at the monitoring station can tell the disoriented firefighter in which direction to travel to get to safety. The lost firefighter will shake additional storage locker doors as he crawls along, breaking the individual door contacts, and allowing the monitoring station firefighter to track his progress.

The maze-like conditions can also be a problem for the renters even when there is no fire. One California facility installed street signs in the hallways to help their clients find their way through the all-interior facility.2

LACK OF VENTILATION

Another feature of the multistoried, indoor warehouse is the lack of natural ventilation openings. Since storage lockers take up the majority of wall space, there are few, if any, windows. Windows are removed or covered over in older structures that have been rehabilitated into a public storage warehouse. Some newer self-storage buildings may have a comparatively small window area on each floor, in an area used to display advertising banners. Only employees can access these areas. Locker rolldown doors visible through the windows are the backs of storage units that can be opened only from the interior passageway side. However, one locker in this row will have doors, usually of the swing-out type, that open on each side. Employees use this locker as a pass-through to reach the banner-hanging area adjacent to the windows. Any preplan must indicate the location of the pass-through locker, since this may be the quickest way to reach any window area on an upper floor. Use caution when venting because these windows are large, display-type windows.


(10, 11) The only windows in the building are in the front. The locker doors visible through the windows are dummies; the public cannot access this area. One door opens as a pass-through to allow employees to hang advertising banners in the small hallway. For ventilation purposes, note the location of any pass-through locker doors in your preplans.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that a public storage warehouse with many windows visible from the front will have similar ventilation points on the sides and rear. These buildings are designed to look open and well lit on the street side, to better attract customers. The large windows will cease to exist as you move away from the front of the structure.

The preplan should also determine the location of any roof-level ventilation points. If there is an interior scuttle ladder, a rooftop scuttle hatch will exist. There may be no other easily ventilated locations in newer storage buildings. The preincident survey should also take into account the abilities of the building’s mechanical ventilation system and the fire department-supplied ventilation equipment.


(11)

Underground space that has been converted into a storage facility presents additional challenges. Examples of this type of facility are a basement-level parking garage that was converted into a 349-unit facility in Phoenix, Arizona, and the changing of a 100,000-square-foot belowgrade parking area into storage space in an old Toys ‘R’ Us store in the Bronx, New York.

A problem of great concern is the potential for steam to be created when hoselines are operated in and around the metal lockers. The steam will not only further reduce visibility but may also cause the firefighters to suffer steam burns.

UNKNOWN LIFE HAZARD

When called to an emergency at this type of warehouse facility, you will not know how many people are in the building. During business hours, you can easily determine the number of employees present; the problem is not knowing how many customers are in the warehouse. Information received from the manager and observation of the computerized monitoring screens will tell you how many lockers were opened; therefore, you must account for at least one person for each open locker. But the renter may have brought additional people into the warehouse. The preplan should also indicate if the facility has any overnight employees. Some self-storage locations advertise that they have security personnel on-site overnight.


(12) Many self-storage warehouses also have interior or exterior areas for vehicle storage. According to the manager, the front portion of this warehouse is being used as a service and vehicle storage area for a new car dealer.

Again, the preplan must take into account the floor layout, to determine areas of refuge should a fire break out and evacuation cannot be accomplished. Usually, the only office space, restrooms, and so on are on the first floor, adjacent to the service counter. If the building is two or more levels, note in your plans whether the stairways are enclosed or rated in any manner. Remember, some warehouses will have only open-grate floors in the passageways, allowing heat and smoke to easily travel upward.

FIRE PROTECTION SYSTEMS

The survey must include the presence or lack of fire protection appliances, such as smoke detectors, fire extinguishers, and sprinkler systems. If the building has been redesigned into a storage warehouse, have those fire detection and suppression systems been changed? Are there individual sprinkler heads to protect each rental locker, or are the lockers open on top and protected by an area sprinkler head or smoke detector? Is the warehouse heated enough to allow for a wet pipe sprinkler system, or does the facility use a dry pipe sprinkler system? Any company that uses portable lockers that are loaded off-site and then brought into the warehouse will not have those lockers individually sprinklered. Again, the major concern with any of these warehouses is not knowing what is stored in the rental locker. Will the sprinkler system design criteria enable it to control the spread of the fire?

LOCATION OF UTILITIES

The preincident survey must list the locations of the utilities-not only the gas and electrical controls but also fire alarm panels, sprinkler controls, and elevator control rooms. Some buildings will have HVAC units on the roof; others may have them enclosed within storage lockers. If that is the arrangement, such lockers should be clearly marked so they can be easily located among the rows of similar-looking rolldown doors. The site surveillance computerized monitoring screen may also indicate the utility locations.

MOTOR VEHICLE STORAGE

Another growing trend in self-storage facilities is on-site storage for motor vehicles. Although this may be mostly outside storage, some places offer grade-level lockers large enough to store vehicles. Usually, such vehicles have limited or seasonal use. They include campers, snowmobiles, boats and other watercraft, and antique cars. Problems arise from the fuels and other fluids found in these vehicles. Do the campers still contain propane for their cooking systems? Have renters turned the storage lockers into service garages? An additional concern arises when a commercial or industrial establishment rents space for its fleet. If such a company uses hazardous materials or compressed cylinders in its line of work, those hazards will be brought onto the property daily.

EXPOSURES

As when preplanning any other location, consider exposures. Is the property made up of rows of exterior garage-type lockers surrounded by parking lots? How close are these types of structures to additional structures of the same type on the lot? What are the adjoining properties, and how can they be protected? If it is an interior type of warehouse, does the facility have to share a large building, or is it a stand-alone warehouse? Some self-storage facilities share building space with dry cleaners and preschool establishments. The preplan must look beyond the four walls of the public storage area.

ILLEGAL STORAGE

Because the responding fire department will not know the contents of the rental lockers, you must take into account in your preplan illegal or at least improper storage. When on a tour of the facility, note in the preplan lockers that seem to have heavier-duty type locks or security devices. Ask management about lockers that may be emitting odors or showing signs of corrosion, or anything else that may seem out of the ordinary. Many times the police department may learn of illegal storage during the course of an investigation; the fire department, however, will not be told of this. Incident commanders at the scene of a working fire in one of these structures may want to at least try to contact a police department representative to find out if there is any ongoing investigation involving illegal storage at that property.


(13) You must know the fire’s location before committing hand- lines to an entry point. Preplanning may indicate that preconnected lines will have to be lengthened. This 240-foot-long hallway contains 53 lockers. There are no cross intersecting aisles.

Documented cases have shown that bomb-making materials, stolen merchandise, hazardous materials, and even murder victims have been found in rented storage lockers. Although this type of activity may be considered rare when compared with the number of items put into storage, it is still a concern that cannot be overlooked. The preplan must recognize this fact.

BEGIN PREPLANS EARLY

If possible, begin preplanning the facility during the construction phase. You can discover much about the construction and building layout at this time. Visit the construction site as often as possible with members of the fire department. Work to establish a positive relationship with the contractors. Don’t be afraid to ask questions; doing this will increase your knowledge of how the building or buildings were put together. Such knowledge will help you better understand how the building may come apart under fire conditions. Additionally, you will get a better view of the ventilation system, sprinkler piping, elevator shafts, and utility runs when the building is still open.

When doing the on-site survey during construction or when conducting post-completion walkthroughs for a preplan or as a company drill, take the following items with you:

  • A clipboard and camera to document the site and write down building dimensions.
  • A roller tape-measuring device to take accurate site measurements.
  • A rope of sufficient size so you can lay it out to get an idea of how many hose lengths will be needed to reach all areas. Using rope with attached markings that match your department’s preconnects will give a good idea of how much hose you will need. The rope is easier to stretch and pick up than actual hose; will show how hose will lie across the floor and deploy around corners; and will indicate where hose may bind or be caught on storage, stairways, structural members, and so forth.

IS THERE A SELF-STORAGE WAREHOUSE IN YOUR FUTURE?

Although it may seem that these facilities are popping up in any conceivable location, some areas are more prone to self-storage structures. Industry studies have shown that the more desirable areas for these facilities are those with multifamily, condominium, and apartment housing, where many tenants have limited in-home storage; areas adjacent to military bases; and areas around universities and colleges because the students have limited dormitory space. Areas featuring single-family homes with a one-car garage and no basement can also attract builders of public storage warehouses.3 The public storage industry has had a 10 percent increase in business every year for the past decade, and continued growth is expected. If a self-storage warehouse is not yet in your district, you may see one in the near future. Whether one already exists or is in the construction phase, it is important that your department conduct initial and ongoing preincident surveys and walkthroughs.


References


  1. Washburn, James, “Four Alarm Fire Sweeps Through Self-Storage Complex,” American Fire Journal, Oct 1989, 24.
  2. Allen, Floyd, “Facility Spotlight,” Mini-Storage Messenger, Aug 2000, 90.
  3. Curtis, Dan, “Unit Mix for the Next Millennium,” Inside Self-Storage, July 1998, 20.

JAMES KIRSCH, a 19-year veteran of the fire service, is a career firefighter with the Bergenfield (NJ) Fire Department and a logistics specialist with NJ-TF1, US&R Team. He previously served as a volunteer fire chief. He is a NJ state-certified fire prevention official and Level II fire service instructor. He has an associate’s degree in international trade and a bachelor’s degree in public administration.

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