In the early morning hours, you have to expect a possible advanced fire on arrival in storefront, strip mall, and taxpayer-type fires. Many stores close up for the night in the early morning hours, and a fire behind roll-down security gates can be hidden for hours until it begins to show. Also, many of these occupancies may have grease/kitchen hood ducts or mezzanines that permit rapid fire spread to the cockloft area. Increased security with multiple padlocks of varying styles can also delay your access into the place. There’s also the distinct possibility that burglars have entered from the roof level, robbed the store, and set the place on fire to cover their tracks.
A size-up of this store’s roll-down security gates revealed that they were manually operated gates secured with padlocks and not hoisted by an electrical motor. As the companies began forcible entry operations, they used the thermal imaging camera (TIC) on the roll-down gates to search for any signs of fire in one of the stores. Since no gate showed any signs of distortion or smoke puffing from behind it, we wondered if the fire was more toward the rear of the store or in the cockloft. Remember, many stores have service areas, stock rooms, garbage storage, and break rooms in the rear, where many fires originate. Since nothing was showing except some wisps of smoke from the ends of the cornices, the incident commander radioed to the roof firefighters, asking them if they had any inspection holes in the roof yet. He received a frustrating answer: “We’re having trouble getting a hole.” We thought it was the thick tar roof, often found on these types of structures, that was giving them trouble.
With our luck, the store we were assigned had multiple “hockey puck” locks and a few regular padlocks positioned at all different levels. A firefighter used the irons saw to cut the toe and heel of the padlocks; applying force to both of them with the blade allowed the lock to remain pinned to the gate’s channel rail and be cut easily. In addition, a firefighter didn’t have to hold the lock and be hit with flying sparks and shrapnel. Then he used the saw to cut through the hockey puck lock two-thirds of the way up from the keyway. (Always spot that location first when cutting circular hockey puck locks to ensure you cut through the thinnest part of the lock.)
Once the firefighter cut the locks, he had to remove the pins and then lift the gates upward into their housing assemblies. Whenever you do this, a bell should go off in your head as you look upward and watch the gate disappear into the spring-coiled roller. If the fire becomes very severe or the building is compromised, these heavy devices, attached to the front wall, can pull off the building and collapse and can bring down the front wall without warning.
Now that the gates were up, we didn’t take any windows because we were waiting for a charged handline, and we ran into our next problem: the small metal-framed glass front door with a deadbolt lock. Since we were so delayed in getting into the structure, there wasn’t time to pull the cylinder and go through the lock. Since it was an outward-opening door, a firefighter quickly placed the adz of the halligan between the door and jamb and pried outward, easily popping the door open.
We quickly donned our masks and entered the structure, using the TIC to check the conditions in the store. While doing this, we heard the other truck report the fire was in the other store, so now we were more concerned with a primary search and checking for extension in our store. We didn’t pick up anything initially, and the decision was made to quickly check the conditions above us. A firefighter who went back to the rig and retrieved a few eight-foot hooks quickly pulled the suspended ceiling down; we were behind him so we didn’t become entangled in the web of framing, wire, or ductwork. The TIC still didn’t pick up anything, but we still needed to penetrate the older tin ceiling above to check for fire. After about four attempts, one of the firefighters said, “Something’s wrong; it feels solid,” so they moved a few feet in other directions in case they were hitting a large air handler in the ceiling. Then they began to do the same thing in different areas and still could not gain entry into the cockloft. Although the TIC didn’t show anything above, we still weren’t sure if something could be happening.
After numerous attempts to gain access above, we repositioned and still weren’t able to get an inspection hole into the cockloft from below. Plus, we could hear the roof team’s saw laboring as they cut through the roof decking. Finally, we heard banging on the area above us and so as not to get hit by the roof team pushing down the ceilings, we moved over and started working on another section of ceiling.
As the smoke began to lift and our flashlights penetrated through it, we noticed the 3⁄16 steel-plated ceiling screwed directly to the underside of the roof joists and then supported with additional 2 × 4s at the seams. No wonder we couldn’t get the hooks through the ceiling.
After the fire, we regrouped and critiqued what we encountered in the store and the four plates of tin embedded in the roof tar that the roof team had difficulty cutting through. The occupancy didn’t warrant super security or have signs mounted on the building warning of the steel plating and its location as required by our fire code. Whenever you operate in these commercial structures, be prepared for some type of surprise as you unwrap the building.
MICHAEL N. CIAMPO is a 31-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 Truck Essentials H.O.T. program. He wrote the Ladder chapter and co-authored the Ventilation chapter for Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II (Fire Engineering, 2009) and is featured in “Training Minutes” truck company videos on www.FireEngineering.com.
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