IN A RECENT discussion at the firehouse kitchen table, the subject of dumpster fires came up. One firefighter relayed the following story: The engine company he was working with on a day tour responded to a “routine” dumpster fire. On arrival, the lieutenant ordered 1 3/4″ preconnect hoseline stretched and charged, and the firefighters began to extinguish the fire. During the overhaul operations. an explosion and Hash fire occurred, l uckily, the firefighters had an adequate hoseline to protect themselves.

This story made me look back on all the techniques I have seen and heard of lor extinguishing dumpster fires.

Most veteran firefighters can relate to stories about climbing into overfilled dumpsters that were set afire to make room for more trash before collection day. Most extinguishments involved the Hooding method — pulling up next to the dumpster and emptying the booster tank from the deck gun or stretching 2 1/2-inch hose straight from the hydrant. The booster line was commonly used to handle this type of fire and probably still is today.


Our tactics on fighting structural fires have changed significantly over the past decade, mainly because of the more complex makeup of what is burning. The same material that burns in structures is also burning in dumpsters in the form of discarded waste. Therefore, a change in tactics for fighting dumpster fires is also necessary. No longer can we treat these nuisances as trivial, ordinary rubbish fires. We must use even more caution because of the possible presence of flammable or hazardous waste from illegal dumping.

It is a grave tactical error to underestimate the potential for severe, hazardous fire conditions at these types of incidents. The officer should conduct a more complete and accurate size-up by considering the type of structure that is using the dumpster for waste removal. Just as the function of a building’s occupancy indicates the fire hazard that may be present within, the very same hazard may be found in the dumpster outside.

The dumpster fire described earlier was located near an auto body shop—a good indication that flammable liquid containers may have been in the dumpster. In this particular case, the company was lucky that it had a hoseline of adequate size for protection and that firefighters were not in the dumpster. It is too risky to place firefighters inside dumpsters to perform extinguishment and overhaul. The chances of exposure to toxic chemicals discarded illegally are much greater today then even five years ago. The potential for medical waste in areas around healthcare facilities is also great. Danger even exists in residential areas, where partially filled aerosol cans can become flying fire bombs when exposed to the heat generated in a dumpster fire. This is not to overlook the probability of strains and cuts from falls or falling objects. It’s only garbage and you’re human beings!


I recommend changing the response procedure to include a ladder company in alarms for dumpster fires. Hopefully, this would allow company officers to change the overhaul techniques used in the past. More ceiling hooks and the manpower to use them will allow firefighters to perform overhaul from the outside rather than the inside.

Changing the overhaul procedure would eliminate the unsafe practice of flooding dumpsters to minimize work. When a burning dumpster containing toxic material is flooded, the possibility of runoff water contaminated with this toxic waste is great. So even though we have effectively extinguished a fire by flooding, we may have spread a contained health hazard to a greater area, jeopardizing more citizens.

As far as water usage, even though only 1 3/4″ handlines are required for structural and vehicle fires, the engine officer confronted with a well-involved dumpster may want to consider the following: Many dumpsters are filled with the debris from torn-out buildings. The average volume of a Wilmington, Delaware row house is 8,640 cubic feet. The cubic footage of a full-size industrial dumpster is only 940. Therefore, the intensity of burning from the dense fireload is going to be much greater if the total contents are loaded into a dumpster, which is often the case. So when dealing with well-involved loaded dumpsters, realize your potential fireload and choose your attack line accordingly.

Common sense dictates that full fire gear be worn during this and any other fireground action. However, there is a debate about whether to wear masks during this type of operation. Because of the complex contents of dumpsters, it is appropriate to wear SCBA depending on the circumstances. Again, the occupant user of the dumpster should indicate during size-up whether such protection is necessary. Still, it is best to play it safe and have the nozzleman already equipped.

Finally, there are instances when water may not be the right extinguishing agent—for example, for a dumpster that may contain combustible metals. Such dumpsters are common near machine shops and may require the application of dry powder.

As is the case with any fire situation, we must first find out what is burning before we can put it out. So be especially alert at dumpster fires and don’t let your guard dow n or underestimate the potential hazards

No posts to display