SIZE-UP AT COMMERCIAL BUILDING FIRES

BY NATE DeMARSE

The focus of this column on the necessary tactics specific to different building types.

One- or two-story commercial occupancies, also called taxpayers, are found nationwide. Even though such occupancies might not be in your first-due area, you won’t have to go far to find one of these commercial buildings and you may even be called to respond to one of them at any time.

Within the first few minutes of your arrival at any fire, your first task is to complete an initial size-up of the building, a process that will continue throughout the operation. As you approach the building, train yourself to take in as much information as possible. You will depend on this information to make tactical decisions throughout the operation.

First, consider a few critical size-up and safety points that are most prevalent at fires in these older commercial buildings.

In photo 1, an engine company is preparing to advance a 2 1/2-inch line into an exposure to halt lateral fire extension in the cockloft. A lazy smoke condition is pushing from the front display windows, which tells you that the extension in this store is light to moderate or that the store has been vented somewhere else. A heavy smoke condition visible above the roof line means that either the roof firefighters have accomplished ventilation or that the fire has burned through the roof. In either case, both situations are significant enough for roof firefighters to report to the incident commander and the units operating below. The fireground is no place to keep secrets. Any radio-equipped firefighter or officer should report conditions that will impact other companies and the successful outcome of the operation.


1.
Photos by author.




Note also that there is an air-handling unit (might be an air-conditioning or refrigeration unit) perched on the parapet at the store’s front left corner. You can see the ends of the support beams resting on the parapet on both sides of the portable ladder. This method of supporting the air-handling unit may result in failure of the parapet or the entire front wall early in the incident.

An air-handling unit may also be installed directly on the roof. This is common when the building has been converted to accommodate a new occupancy type (e.g., a laundromat is converted into a deli). This support method puts a concentrated load directly on the roof beams and could result in an early roof collapse in that area, sending the entire air-handling unit plunging through the weakened roof beams and into your area of operation. A few years ago, an air-handling unit in an occupied factory crashed through a weakened roof and almost killed my brother. The collapse occurred 10 minutes after the initial report of the fire.

At a taxpayer fire in Yonkers, New York, a moderate to heavy fire condition is showing in front of the store (photo 2). The steel roll-down gates have already been cut, and the firefighters operating on the roof have cut a large ventilation hole over the fire. A line has been stretched and will be put in operation shortly.


2.



Firefighters operating at this fire are doing a great job by keeping off the front sidewalk, one of the most dangerous places to operate at a commercial building fire. Firefighters in the past have learned the “STAY OFF THE SIDEWALK” lesson the hard way. The reason for this rule-of-thumb is the presence of the steel beam directly over the front windows. In addition to this steel beam, another steel beam probably ties into it running from the front to the back of the store. We know that when a 100-foot steel I-beam is heated to 1,000°F, it will expand nine inches. Firefighters have paid with their lives when the steel I-beam expanded, pushing out the parapet and sending tons of brick and debris crashing onto the front sidewalk. Firefighters must learn these lessons so they do not continue to be injured or killed while operating in front of such buildings.

Awnings, roll-down gate housings, and the presence of large signs or marquees can also increase the collapse potential because of the weight they add to the front wall or parapet. Also, large signs and awnings conceal the parapet collapse warning signs normally visible to safety-conscious firefighters and officers. Firefighters should never be positioned under such structures, but instead should seek refuge inside the building or be well outside of the collapse zone. This once again reinforces the rule: “GET INSIDE, OR GET AWAY FROM THE BUILDING!”

Note the 10-foot hook on the sidewalk in front of the store. This tool is a must when dealing with these older commercial buildings found in many downtown areas. The extra length is needed to reach through the multiple dropped ceilings that most times are present in the store. Also, on the front sidewalk is an exterior basement entrance, which should be opened and examined early to confirm that the fire is not in the basement, even if the main body of fire is visible on the first floor.

DISCUSSION

Below are some questions and comments for the kitchen table. Discuss them at a drill, and see what answers you come up with.

1. Tin ceilings will probably be present in these buildings. Based on your experience, what is the best method for pulling tin ceilings, and what type of hook do you prefer?

2. How can you tell when you have reached the roof boards when opening up to examine the cockloft? In photo 1, what other hazards or size-up points ought to be discussed?

3. In photo 2, what other hazards or size-up points ought to be discussed?

4. Discuss three methods for cutting roll-down gates.


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If you have photos that would be useful for discussion in this column, e-mail them to brotherhoodinstructors@gmail.com. Include your full name and a detailed description of the incident.

NATE DeMARSE, a 13-year fire service veteran, is a firefighter with the Fire Department of New York, assigned to Engine 68 in the South Bronx, working with Squad 61. Previously, he served on volunteer and paid part-time fire departments in rural and suburban Illinois. With his brother Curtis, DeMarse is a co-owner of Brotherhood Instructors, LLC.

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