ANATOMY OF A STRIP MALL FIRE

BY LANCE PEEPLES

Webster Groves (MO) firefighters had just completed morning chores on April 3, 2003, and were meeting with the city manager to discuss impending staffing cuts when the dispatcher transmitted an alarm for “a fire behind Dobb’s Tire” at 1235 Laclede Station Road. The initial assignment included four engines, a quint, an advanced life support (ALS) ambulance, and a battalion chief. Because the first-due engine was out of service, another engine company was assigned. As the companies responded, the dispatcher provided additional information that the fire was believed to be in the rear of Dobb’s Tire and that she was receiving multiple phone calls. Based on this information and the large column of smoke visible from miles away, Chief of Department Michael Capriglione ordered a second alarm.

The first engine on-scene (a mutual-aid company) reported a “working fire.” No additional information was heard at this time. On arrival of the remaining companies, a heavy fire condition in the rear of a one-story, noncombustible (Type II) tire store located at the end of the row was reported. The strip mall was approximately 1,000 feet long and L-shaped. The first-due engine was operating a 13/4-inch line that was having little effect on the fire, and the second-due engine was laying approximately 400 feet of five-inch supply line to the first-due engine.

Battalion Chief Steve Tritschler, the incident commander and a 30-year fire service veteran, quickly realized that the initial fire building was lost and ordered Quint 2015 to stretch a 21/2-inch line into exposure 2 (a discount store). Because that company’s members had previously inspected this occupancy, they knew there were openings above the ceiling in the fire wall separating the two occupancies.

Members of Ambulance 2017 pulled the ceiling from the front to the rear of exposure 2 as Quint 2015 firefighters completed stretching their line.

Meanwhile, the attack on the main body of fire escalated as firefighters opened two 13/4-inch and two 21/2-inch lines, a portable monitor, and a deck gun into the overhead doors on side 4. Quint 2015’s ladder pipe was placed in service to prevent the fire from extending down the row of stores, which had combustible roofing material. Eventually, a 21/2-inch line was placed on the roof of exposure 2 to expedite this effort.

Because the smoke condition was so heavy that the building was not visible, firefighters operating these exterior lines were forced to use SCBA. An estimated fireflow of 3,000 gpm eventually knocked down the flames that were feeding on hundreds of tires, but not before the steel bar joists failed and the fire building roof collapsed. In the end, Webster firefighters, assisted by their mutual-aid partners, prevented the loss of a major shopping center and a devastating impact to the community.


(1) Heavy fire condition in 1,000-foot-long strip mall as seen by first-arriving companies. (Photo by Kyle Tobey.)
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(2) All companies except the first-due pumper should reverse-lay to ensure maximum water supply and prevent congestion in front of the fire building. (Photo by Kyle Tobey.)
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LESSONS LEARNED

1. Big fire, big water. Use nothing less than 21/2-inch lines flowing at least 250 gpm on commercial occupancy fires.

2. Beware the truss! Strip malls usually use steel bar joists or wood trusses to support the roof; steel bar joists will fail rapidly when exposed to fire. Set up a collapse zone, and prepare for an early failure. At this fire, members were kept well back from any possible collapse. Members used a 21/2-inch line from the relative safety of exposure 2, which was separated by a fire wall.

3. Sufficient staffing is essential. Fully staffed ladder companies are needed to force heavily secured doors, ladder the building, vent, and pull ceilings in exposures on both sides of the fire building. Fully staffed engine companies are needed to operate and advance 21/2-inch lines. The fire doesn’t care about the economic woes of the community. If you don’t hit it hard and fast, the building burns down.

4. Maintain access for equipment. Leave the front of the fire building open to allow for positioning of tower ladders. Their elevated streams should be used to sweep the storefront. Provide a highly mobile master stream at street level.

5. Deck gun mounting. Deck guns are often mounted so high on modern pumpers that they cannot be aimed into a storefront without pointing the gun downward. This causes the stream to hit the floor before penetrating the fire building. A separate, portable monitor should be available; it should be carried low on the apparatus so that it is easily accessible and can quickly be placed in service. It can even be preconnected to a supply line and carried on the back step of the pumper.


(3, 4) Heavy security at the rear of strip malls and taxpayers demands a heavy commitment of ladder company personnel to force entry. (Photos by author.)
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6. Preplanning is key. Knowledge of the defective fire wall proved crucial at this fire. This deficiency should have been pointed out to the Fire Prevention Bureau for correction.


(5) The decorative façade of modern strip malls is usually poorly firestopped, and fire can easily extend to the entire row of stores. Ladder companies should use a thermal imaging camera or open up early to prevent extension. The façade also creates an approximately eight-foot drop to the roof for members. (Photos by author.)
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7. Keep IC focused on the fire. Designate a staging officer early to prevent the IC from being overwhelmed by companies requesting assignments as they arrive at the fire.

8. Only the initial engine company should use a forward lay. Later-arriving companies should reverse-lay to maximize the available water supply and prevent congestion in front of the fire building.

9. First-arriving fireground report essentials. The first-arriving company’s radio report should include the following:

—number of stories,

—occupancy,

—construction type,

—conditions on arrival (i.e., light smoke, heavy fire, nothing showing)

—actions taken (i.e., investigation, using 21/2-inch line)

—initial orders for later-arriving companies (i.e., stage, lay supply line), and

—assume/transfer command.

10. Look for hidden fire extension. Decorative facades running the length of the row should be inspected using a thermal imaging camera or by opening them up to make sure fire is not extending down the row.

11. Prevent fire extension. Write off what is already lost; keep fire from extending down the row.

12. Safety is paramount!


(6) Rear access to strip malls is complicated by narrow alleys, dumpsters, fences, and delivery trucks. You may have to carry portable ladders through an exposure and out to the rear alley to access the roof.
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(7) Strip malls in high-crime areas often use rolldown gates secured by “hockey puck” or disk padlocks protected by shields. The first-due engine company must be prepared to use a rotary saw equipped with an aluminum oxide blade to make an inverted V-cut. Then drive the spike of the halligan into the end of the slat and pull toward the opening to enlarge it. They should keep on opening up rolldowns until firefighters are well ahead of the fire. (Photo by author.)
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—Beware the truss!

—Establish a rapid intervention team of at minimum six members. The two-member RIT is a fiction created by bureaucrats who never dug a firefighter out of the back room of a strip mall.

—Stay on the line! This isn’t a private house with a window in every room; if you get lost here, you’re dead!

—Accountability is essential! It’s not about two tags on a board. It’s about the IC knowing what the sector officers are doing, the sector officers knowing what the company’s doing, and the company officers knowing what the firefighters are doing—every minute of the fire. Mess this one up, and someone dies.

Stopping a raging fire in a strip mall is a daunting task. More firefighters are killed at these types of fires per incident than in residential fires. Only careful training and preplanning make a “good stop” possible.

Note: This article is dedicated to the memory of Webster Groves Fire Department Captain Dennis G. Mignerone, who died while performing his duties on January 21, 2003.

LANCE PEEPLES is an instructor at the St. Louis County (MO) Fire Academy and a former shift supervisor for St. Louis EMS. He has associate’s degrees in paramedic technology and fire protection technology and a bachelor’s degree in public administration. Peeples is a certified fire instructor II and fire officer II and has taught in the fire protection technology program at East Central College in Union.

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