Recently I was shopping in a huge, very crowded building supply store with high rack storage, no in-rack sprinklers, and numerous shelves that appeared to be solid, thus shielding stock below from sprinklers. Such a store could be the scene of a major loss of life tragedy. This item is a “Work in Progress.”

I imagined myself writing recommendations that might be made after a disaster. I would appreciate suggestions or criticism from readers regarding the concept of supplying the sprinklers first.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) report Bulk Retail Store Fire, Tempe, Arizona, March 19, 19981 provides some guidance as to what might happen. It tells of a major fire in a huge home and building supply store. The report does not name the store, but it resembles the home supply store I visited. The Tempe store was only 100,000 square feet; current stores are much larger.

When the alarm was given, the incendiary fire was quite small. The Phoenix engine company, responding first due from only 1.2 miles away on automatic mutual aid, saw a large column of smoke as it left the station. Sprinklers were operating (66 heads opened over 5,000 square feet; the system was designed to supply 29 heads over 2,000 square feet), and the smoke that was driven down reduced visibility to zero. The engine company could not see the fire until it was upon it. I had the report in mind as I shopped, and I made the following comments.

The worst-case scenario

A realistic worst-case scenario for a fire in such a store should include the following.

•Evacuation problems. There will be unimaginable confusion on arrival. Families will be separated, and some will be desperate to get back into the store to search for a loved one. There may be a delay in evacuation because of the store`s size and perhaps inadequately trained staff.

–Will cashiers be more concerned with patrons taking purchases without paying for them than with clearing the spaces next to the checkouts of shopping carts?

–Will anybody direct patrons to remote exits to reduce the jam at the front exits with which the patrons are familiar?

–Will patrons distant from the fire, who may see no cause for alarm, keep on shopping? At a fire in a Pennsylvania mall, shoppers wanting to get to a big sale at the Sears store at one end of the mall ignored a raging fire at the other end. The aisles will be obstructed with abandoned carts, movable ladders used to reach top shelves, and merchandise stacked on the floors. Cardboard displays will collapse from sprinkler water. Getting a hoseline to the fire may be very difficult.

•Automatic sprinklers. The sprinklers may drive the smoke down to the floor, reducing visibility to zero. The sprinklers may not extinguish or even control the fire because of inadequate design, a greater-than-anticipated fire load, or a water supply failure. In Fire Engineering, former insurance engineer Jay Robinson writes, “I cannot tell you the number of times I have seen buildings with inadequate sprinkler systems because of a change in commodity classification or storage arrangements. Property insurance rates for commercial businesses are relatively cheap, and it is difficult for an owner to upgrade a system for, let`s say, $10,000 when the premium is only $2,000 per year and no significant reduction of premium will occur if the upgrade is completed.”2 Portions of the sprinkler system may be lost because of a roof collapse.

•Operational slowdowns. The control procedures necessary to track firefighters entering the building will slow operations. Traffic will continue into the area, increased by onlookers attracted by the column of smoke. Traffic will delay additional units.


Preplanning for this hazard is a major effort; it requires close cooperation with the management. It should not be a matter of the local engine company`s dropping in unannounced. The chief should write the manager a letter. A sample is given on page 6 of Building Construction for the Fire Service, Third Edition (BCFS3). A senior officer should meet with the store manager. People in authority respond much more readily to their peers. Fire departments that would respond on mutual aid should be involved in the plan.

Remember that the manager`s first, second, and third priority is to increase profits over the last year as demanded by management, whose priority is to increase the value of the stock. Increased profits impress investment analysts the most.

The manager may point out that the insurance inspector was just in and had no problems. Explain that the insurance company is interested only in property damage and as a matter of policy will make no life safety recommendations.4

Point out that the manager is not immune to the inevitable lawsuits. It costs very little to sue everybody even remotely connected with the disaster. It is quite possible that the employer will leave the manager hanging in the wind.

If the manager is uncooperative, write to the president of the parent company explaining what you are trying to do and asking for his cooperation.5 When I wrote to the president of Food Lion about a major hazard in one of its food warehouses, the hazard (pictured on page 609 of BCFS3) was removed.

Specific recommendations

Insist that the management instruct all employees in writing that the store is to be evacuated immediately when the fire alarm sounds. Don`t accept that employees will use their common sense. They need clear guidance.

Fire wardens should be designated to guide customers to remote exits. In this regard, make sure the manager and staff understand that the exits belong to the store occupants and cannot be blocked (even “temporarily”) with merchandise while the store is occupied.

A fire in one corner might not be apparent in the far corner hundreds of feet away when racks are blocking their vision. Waiting to confirm a fire may cost lives. The public address announcement should say, “The fire alarm has sounded. By order of the fire marshal, everybody must leave immediately. Fire wardens will take positions.”

•Make sure all Entrance Only doors will serve as exits.

•Cashiers must clear aisles of shopping carts standing alongside the registers.

•Fire wardens should guide customers to unfamiliar exits and search restrooms.

Fire department operations

The safety of the occupants depends on the proper functioning of the sprinkler system. There should be an absolute requirement that the store be closed to customers if all or part of the sprinkler system is out of service. The legal basis is simple. The exits of a sprinklered building are reduced from what would have been required in an unsprinklered building. When the sprinklers are shut off, the building is unsprinklered, thus exits are illegally inadequate. This rule does not close the store–it forces the sprinkler work to be done when the store is closed.

Shrink-wrapping stock, particularly when the wrapping is over the top, prevents sprinkler water from reaching the stock to prevent ignition (this is called prewetting). Shrink wrapping should be removed, particularly from the top before the stock is in place.

The fire department should be very concerned about the efficiency of the sprinkler system. It is not just the concern of the owner. The sprinkler system is absolutely the key to killing the fire.

It goes against traditional practice, but I believe it would be best for the first typically understaffed unit to connect immediately to the siamese and start pumping to the system at the maximum safe pressure, which should be determined on the preplan and known to pump operators.6 Sprinklers are more efficient when operating at high flows than at ordinary pressure. They are operating right over the fire. Two or three firefighters can accomplish this vital task. This is incredibly more than they could do by rescue efforts or by stretching a hoseline–particularly if the fire is beyond the reach of the preconnect. The most efficient life safety procedure is to suppress the fire.

This action may also help keep the sprinkler system operating. The sprinklers are usually hanging from an unprotected steel bar joist or wood truss roof. A fast increase in the density of the water directly over the fire might save the roof. If the roof falls, the sprinklers go with it. To accomplish this, we must be sure that the sprinkler siamese are complete with caps so that rubbish cannot be stuffed into the siamese.

Make plans of the sprinkler layout as it relates to each aisles so the plans can serve as landmarks to identify a collapsed system so it can be shut down to prevent wasting water.

Consider using a heavy-stream appliance to throw a stream to hit the ceiling above the fire and add to the sprinkler water falling down on the fire. Don`t worry about water damage. If you don`t lick the fire, the whole building will be a total loss, a situation in which water damage is never mentioned. Supply the heavy stream from a water source that will not rob the sprinklers of water.

The story of a number of fires in stores goes like this. “There was light smoke showing. All of a sudden, huge volumes of black smoke developed, and visibility was zero.” Firefighters must be trained to work in pairs and never to leave the hoseline. If a hoseline is connected to an outlet within the building, immediately run a safety line back to the doorway. Set up a big shining light in the doorway.

Some stores have automatic roof vents designed to open when a fusible link fails. The vents are wired shut for shipping and have been found installed with the wires still in place. Check these vents.

Be thoroughly familiar with the water supply of both hydrants and sprinklers. If the water supply is pumped on site, what is the reliability of the diesel backup if the power fails? Can the fire department start it manually?

If hydrants and sprinklers are fed from the same feed line from the street main, be sure that engines pumping handlines do not rob the sprinklers of water. This is a sure way to be sued for causing the loss by depriving the sprinklers of water, rendering them ineffective. Do not give the subrogation shark this tremendous edge. It may be necessary to lay large-diameter hose (LDH) from distant hydrants, and even the relay pump. No matter–the most important consideration is to protect the sprinkler water supply.

The police should be part of the planning. The first units should concentrate on traffic control to keep out shoppers and onlookers attracted by the fire and clear a path for apparatus. Firefighters must have instilled in them that they must not leave the hoseline or lifeline no matter what. A blindfold drill at night might be the best way to convince the firefighter who “shops there all the time” or “works there” that this is absolutely no guarantee that he will not get lost in zero visibility.

When the fire is controlled, remember that until a noncriminal cause is determined, it is possible that the whole building may be a crime scene.

After the fire, if there is no loss of life, there will be much talk about water damage. Be sure that all your people understand that “prewetting” fuel exposed to the fire to prevent its ignition is a vital function of the sprinkler system.


The following is based on National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health Report No. FACE 98-03.7

An engine company of a major municipal fire department was dispatched at about 3 a.m. to a report of a downed power line. As personnel were taping off the scene, they noticed smoke coming from the basement of the affected dwelling. The officer and one firefighter entered the building and removed an occupant. They then donned SCBA and took the 34-inch booster line into the basement. After about 10 minutes, a third firefighter who was feeding line to the two inside returned to the apparatus, helped the operator pull a three-inch line to the hydrant, and entered the building with a charged 134-inch line. A few minutes later the pump operator called for assistance. Responding units could not contact the missing firefighters. Visibility in the building was very poor. The two firefighters were found in a crouching position in the kitchen with their masks off. Their carboxyhemoglobin levels were very high. They had not turned on their PASS devices.

I wonder if they inhaled enough colorless, odorless, and tasteless CO in their first entry to damage their thinking ability. It appears from the times given in the report that they might not have had full bottles.

My classes in Montgomery College contained a mixture of novices and experienced firefighters. From time to time, an experienced student would complain, “That`s too elementary! Everybody knows that!” Well, everybody doesn`t, and if someone does know, knowing doesn`t always mean action. An experienced fire officer opined that my advice not to get into a narrow space between buildings to fight extension to the exposure was quite elementary. Three firefighters died shortly thereafter in two separate fires during which the burning building collapsed on them.

We advise people in a medical emergency: “Get help on the way before you start CPR.” It should be drilled into every firefighter: “Get help coming before you do anything heroic or stupid!”


The cold outside air is heavier than the warm inside air by many degrees. In high-rise buildings, the stack effect will be pronounced. Smoke generated below the neutral zone will be delivered to floors above the neutral zone. Dispatchers should be trained to determine if callers see fire or if they are simply reporting smoke.

Be wary of committing resources until the seat of the fire is located. Don`t forget about subgrade locations. See pages 481-485 in BCFS3; particularly note Tactical Considerations. Latching the lobby doors open can increase the number of floors polluted by lowering the neutral zone when the fire is below the neutral zone. The building is your enemy–know your enemy!


During World War II, the Navy found that its ships` crews were practically blind for at least 15 minutes after the change of watches at night. The pupils of the eyes of personnel, roused from sleep into bright light, contracted immediately to protect the eyes from excessive light. When they went out on deck, it took at least 15 minutes to recover their night vision. Using red standing (i.e., always on) lights in the sleeping areas and the bridge solved the problem. When our apparatus drivers at the Navy compound in Norfolk, Virginia, complained that the headlights were poor, I substituted red bulbs in all standing and turn-out lights. Personnel`s night vision greatly improved. I heard that after I left, however, they went back to lighting up the whole place.


A number of ways have been contrived to build structures with completely unobstructed interiors. This industrial building`s design is very clever because all the heavy equipment normally set on the roof is set on the A-frames (see photos on page 96). I surmise that part of the cost of the system was recouped by making a roof structure that was as light as possible. However, this renders it susceptible to early collapse if the sprinkler system (which it presumably has) doesn`t do its job. Backing up the sprinkler system should be the fire department`s No. 1 priority. Sprinklers flowing at higher than standard pressure because of fire department backup are extremely efficient.

Building equipment usually placed on the roof is supported instead by A-frames in this industrial building. The presumably light roof structure is susceptible to early collapse. Backing up the sprinkler system therefore is the fire department`s No. 1 priority. [Photos by Deputy Chief Thomas Kearney, Jersey City (NJ) Fire Department.]


1. A summary of the report is available from the NFPA Fire Investigation Department, (617) 984-7263, fax (617) 984-7110. E-mail: investigations@nfpa.org. Web site: www.nfpa.org/Research/Fire_Investigation/ fire_investigation.html. Two other reports deal with fires originating in bulk pool chemical retail stores in Quincy, Massachusetts, and Albany, Georgia.

2. Letters to the Editor, Fire Engineering, May 1999, page 59.

3. Although directed at warehouses, “Rack Storage” (Chapter 14, BCFS3) contains much useful information for preplanning the huge warehouse stores.

4. Note the following, printed on the title page of the IRI Sentinel: “Inasmuch as Industrial Risk Insurers is a property insurance organization, The Sentinel does not discuss life safety issues.” There is a similar notice in the Factory Mutual Record.

5. When I was with the Atomic Energy Commission, two old fire chief friends were in the Washington area for a meeting. They visited with me and told me of the noncooperation of the “nuclear Navy” at Norfolk. I asked one of my neighbors, Ted Rockwell, a top assistant to Admiral Rickover, to come over and hear their problem. In both cases, a few days later, the chiefs were approached by the local nuclear commanders to discuss cooperation. A little jab from the top works wonders.

6. Depending on when it was installed, the sprinkler system was required to be pressure-tested to 175 or 200 psi. It might be well to pump at a pressure 25 psi below the rated pressure.

7. NIOSH reports are available on the Internet at www.cdc.gov/niosh/html.

FRANCIS L. (FRANK) BRANNIGAN, SFPE (Fellow), the recipient of Fire Engineering`s first Lifetime Achievement Award, has devoted more than half of his 58-year career to the safety of firefighters in building fires. He is well known for his lectures and videotapes and as the author of Building Construction for the Fire Service, Third Edition, published by the National Fire Protection Association. Brannigan is an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering.

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