Dumpster and Trash Fires

By Frank Viscuso and Michael Terpak

In their new book, Fireground Operational Guides (PennWell 2011), Frank Viscuso and Michael Terpak provide readers with a universal tactical worksheet that could be used at all structure fires and 70 operational “field” guides for incidents such as multiple-alarm structure fires (at various construction types and occupancies), water emergencies, natural gas emergencies, electrical emergencies, carbon monoxide investigations, outdoor fires, wildland-urban interface fires, vehicle fires, engine company operations, ladder company operations, hazardous material incidents, non-fire emergencies, general operations, and more. The operational guides featured in the book are designed to serve many purposes. They can be used as field guides, drill templates, standard operating procedure (SOP) formats, and study guides for firefighters interested in advancing their career to the officer level. The following is an excerpt from chapter 8, “Outdoor Fires.”

Dumpster and Trash Fires

It has been said that as firefighters, we “risk a lot to save a life, risk a little to save little, and risk nothing to save nothing.” Your first thought at a dumpster or trash fire should be that this is garbage. There is no value to discarded items and no need to risk your life trying to save them. On December 29, 2009, several Wisconsin firefighters were injured, and one died from injuries sustained, when a large explosion occurred while operating at a dumpster fire in the parking lot of a manufacturing plant. This could have happened anywhere in America. When it comes to dumpster and trash fires, there is typically no civilian life hazard; you (and your fellow firefighters) are the life hazard. Because of this, the primary concern of an incident commander (IC) and all who are working on the scene should be to take appropriate precautions to protect fellow firefighters and prevent injury.

At a warehouse fire, you can always obtain material data safety sheets to determine what hazardous materials are present. With dumpster and garbage fires, this is not always possible. Regardless of any container markings, the contents inside dumpsters are the ultimate unknown. Even if the dumpster is in front of a construction site, you cannot assume it is full of scrap wood and packaging materials. There is always the possibility of illegal dumping of a variety of hazardous materials that can include chemicals, biological waste, explosives, PCBs, asbestos, plastics, and sharp items that can penetrate through fire boots and personal protective equipment (PPE) such as glass and nails ( photo 1). It is essential for firefighters to understand that other than for a suspected or confirmed life hazard (such as vagrants living in the area or kids playing), there is no reason to enter a dumpster. Furthermore, by using the reach and penetration of the fire stream and by remaining upwind and using tools such as pike poles, firefighters should remain at a safe distance to avoid injury and the threat of contaminated gear.

(1) The possibility of the illegal dumping of hazardous materials should be considered at all dumpster fires. (Photo by Anthony DeLucia.)

The type and construction of dumpsters add to the hazards of dumpster fires. The three most common types are open-top, roll off (generally found at construction sites); compactor/closer, roll off (typically found at commercial sites); and flip top (usually found at small businesses or multifamily occupancies). All may have unknown contents that could result in unpredictable fire behavior and reaction. Closed containers will smolder and pose a threat of backdraft; large, open-top containers will radiate heat; and plastic lids on flip-top containers will melt from fire exposure.  

Routinely speaking, a single engine should provide enough personnel and water to effectively extinguish a typical dumpster fire, but firefighters should avoid becoming complacent and should be prepared for the worst-case scenario. Besides the content factor and firefighter safety, the IC should be looking to secure the scene and monitor exposures. Dumpsters are usually positioned near exposures, and these fires typically produce a heavy volume of fire and extremely high heat. When the exterior of an exposure is threatened, additional lines and staffing will be required. Furthermore, you will also need to call for enough staffing to allow you to effectively search the interior of the structures. If the fire extends into a nearby exposure, this incident becomes a working structure fire, and a minimum of a full alarm assignment will be required.

Operational guide for dumpster and trash fires

The following steps should be followed when confronted with a dumpster or trash fire.
1.      Wear full personal PPE, and use a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA).
  • You cannot predict what is in a dumpster, including the possibility of hazardous materials and containers that pose explosive threats.
  • Stay out of the smoke, work with the wind at your back, and use the reach of your stream for protection. 
  • Firefighters must remain on air. Always consider the possibility of a change in wind speed and direction.
2.      Establish a safety zone to protect firefighters.
  • Consistently monitor firefighters, and evaluate their condition.
  • Position fire apparatus to shield firefighters from approaching vehicles.
  • Use cones, flares, and/or caution tape to keep vehicles and onlookers at a safe distance.
  • Have law enforcement respond to assist in pedestrian and traffic control.
  • Consider topography, runoff, wind direction, weather conditions, and other hazards such as overhead wires when you position firefighters.
  • If you suspect the presence of hazardous materials, call for the response of a hazmat team or environmental specialists.
3.      Establish an adequate water supply.
  • There should be a continuous water supply.
  • Prepare for a stubborn fire and for possible extension to exposure(s).
4.      Stretch an adequate size hoseline.
  • Use 1¾-inch hoseline (minimum).
  • Use the full reach, protection, and penetrating power of the line to extinguish the fire.
  • Position the stream to extinguish the fire and protect the exposure(s).
  • Consider using the master stream from an apparatus-mounted deluge gun or deck monitor when flooding and hydraulically overhauling dumpsters.
    • Position the engine to sweep the dumpster.
  • For very large, deep-seated fires, use an elevated stream.
    • Firefighters should remain on air, on the platform, and out of the smoke when possible.
  • When the time is right to approach the dumpster, do so from the corners to avoid being stuck by objects that may be blown from the side openings.
  • Monitor water runoff.
5.      Consider the possibility of victims.
  • Kids or vagrants may be in the dumpster.
    • If you suspect a victim, restrict the use of water and make a thorough and safe search as soon possible.
  • Consider victims downwind from the fire (in the path of smoke).
6.       Monitor all nearby exposures.
  • If the dumpster or trash is near a building, monitor for extension.
  • If possible, roll the dumpster away from the exposed building.
  • Look for signs of the following:
    • Smoke entering the building (usually from windows above the dumpster).
    • Cracks, holes, or other openings on the exterior wall that allow for the travel of fire and/or smoke.
    • Direct flame contact or radiant heat threat.
    • Flammable siding.
    • Flying, rising embers.
  • Stretch a hoseline to wet down threatened exposures.
  • If severely threatened with direct flame contact, enter the exposure and conduct a thorough examination for fire and distressed occupants from within.
    • Firefighters should use a thermal imagining camera (TIC).
  • Remove a portion of the combustible siding to check for extension and smoldering embers.
  • If extension is suspected or discovered, call for water and help early. This is no longer a dumpster fire; it is now a structure fire.
  • Consider the possibility of a change in wind speed and direction.
7.      Techniques for overhauling dumpsters include the following:
  • Avoid manual overhaul and direct contact with contents.
  • Do not enter the dumpster.
  • Use hose streams to hydraulically overhaul contents.
  • As soon as possible, secure the dumpster by chocking the wheels to prevent movement (especially after becoming full of water).
  • Remain upwind and use pike poles to move rubbish.
  • Remain on air. Remember—you don’t know what’s burning.
  • Use pike poles (one on each side) to open and close lids.
  • Notify the carrier or owner to assist in cleanup activities.
  • If hazardous materials are suspected, notify the appropriate authorities.

Fireground Operational Guides is available at pennwellbooks.com.

Deputy Chief Frank Viscuso, a 25-year veteran of the fire service, is a member of the Kearny (NJ) Fire Department. He is a certified New Jersey Fire Instructor and co-founder of FireOpsOnline.com. Frank is the author of the book Common Valor: True Stories from New Jersey’s Bravest, and co-author of the book Fireground Operational Guides.  

Deputy Chief Michael Terpak, a 35-year veteran of the fire service, is a member of the Jersey City (NJ) Fire Department. He is the founder of Promotional Prep, a New Jersey-based consulting firm designed to prepare firefighters and officers as they study for promotional exams. He has authored the books Fireground Size-Up, and Assessment Center Strategy and Tactics and has co-authored the book Fireground Operational Guides.

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