Fighting Small and Medium-Sized Box Store Fires with Limited Personnel

By Robert Callahan

For most fire departments, the response to a fire in a small or medium-sized retail box store may be as close as the next dispatch; and many departments, especially in smaller communities, are likely to be operating with limited staffing, apparatus, and experience at working incidents in these types of structures.

Just about every small community in this country has at least one small or medium-sized box store; some communities may have several. In this article, small retail stores less than 9,000 square feet in size are considered small box stores. Stores from 9,000 square feet to 18,000 to 20,000 square feet in size are considered medium-sized box stores. These occupancies may include general merchandise stores such as national chains like Dollar General or Family Dollar and locally owned or national chain hardware, clothing, furniture, second-hand, rent-to-own, tire, and auto parts stores.

(1) Some departments may cover larger medium-sized box stores, such as this indoor lumberyard/hardware store found in our fire district. This building measures 22,500 square feet. (Photos by author unless otherwise noted.)
(1) Some departments may cover larger medium-sized box stores, such as this indoor lumberyard/hardware store found in our fire district. This building measures 22,500 square feet. (Photos by author unless otherwise noted.)

We can include the small-town general store, which can easily contain a wide variety of products in this classification as well. A common thread among these occupancies is having a fire load that contains a high percentage of hydrocarbon-based fuels, which, as we all know from street experience and current fire research, burn at a much hotter temperature and faster pace than natural fuels.

I am the full-time fire prevention officer serving in a combination fire department that covers a population of nearly 18,000 as well as a lieutenant serving with a neighboring volunteer organization that protects about 3,000 residents, and this is a challenge that both of my departments can face at any time. Although these fires are rare, when they do occur, they can quickly escalate into a major fire event that can kill or injure members. Prior to my current experience in northwest Louisiana, I served in busy volunteer and combination departments that protect medium- and high-density suburban communities in upstate New York, southern Massachusetts, and central and northwestern Vermont, where chain and locally owned box stores of all sizes present a constant threat.

During that time, I have had significant variations in personnel response levels, training, experience, truck and rescue company availability, and use of automatic mutual-aid systems.

Staffing in My Departments

The combination department in which I serve operates from six stations and protects 17 square miles with two full-time administrative members and six full-time suppression members operating in three shifts. Staffing from Monday to Friday is supplemented by one daytime firefighter. During the weekend, the two full-time shift positions are supplemented with two part-time firefighters from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day. The paid staffing is supported by 40 to 50 volunteer firefighters and support members. We have a typical response of eight to 10 during the day and up to 20 during the evening. The department typically responds to all structural calls with at least two engines and a well-equipped rescue truck. We do not currently operate a truck company or use automatic mutual aid in our structural response.

The volunteer department in which I work operates with 20 volunteers, including four to five exterior-only personnel. A typical response is four to five members during the day and six to eight during the evening. We are supported by an automatic mutual-aid response from the neighboring combination department that provides one engine and four full-time personnel. A 75-foot quint and additional call personnel are also available, and my full-time combination department can provide mutual aid within a 10- to 15-minute response time.

As the numbers indicate, neither department operates with a large number of members initially at structural incidents. Obviously, the problems associated with responding to these types of incidents are significantly more pronounced at my volunteer agency since we operate without any paid staff and fewer volunteers; we also have a longer response time. Because of this, we have been using the transitional approach (discussed below) for several years with good results.

As fire department leaders, we need to evaluate several considerations when approaching suppression operations in small and medium-sized retail box stores, which are discussed below.

Structural Hazards

This article does not cover all aspects of commercial building construction and fire behavior. It presents a brief overview to set the stage for the operational and tactical discussion to follow.

To manage the response to these incidents, you must be familiar with the building stock within your community, including that of every small and medium-sized box store. Clearly identify in your preplans the construction type and specific characteristics of each building (more on this later), and ensure that all officers and members responsible for commanding these incidents are aware of these conditions. In addition, each member must have a working understanding of how each building type will likely perform under fire conditions, including how it will contribute to fire spread and the possibility of structural failure. Identify the known concealed and void spaces in these buildings, and make sure that each member of the command staff understands how heat and fire in these spaces will impact fire behavior and spread, building performance including structural failure, fire attack operations, and member safety.

The floor of the CVS store in photo 3 is divided into 18 aisles that occupy the majority of the store’s interior. The restrooms and stock room are on the B/C corner of the structure and are behind a locked door. The remainder of the C side of the building is occupied by the open pharmacy area that has a drive-through window. The office is behind the sales counter on the A side of the structure. Access to the floor area from the exterior is through a set of double doors on the A side of the structure. There is a single locked door on the C side of the building for accessing the stock room.

(2) Typical of most national chain general merchandise stores, this building contains a wide variety of hydrocarbon-based products. Even when partially involved in fire, they will necessitate the punch of a 2½-inch line or master stream for initial fire attack.
(2) Typical of most national chain general merchandise stores, this building contains a wide variety of hydrocarbon-based products. Even when partially involved in fire, they will necessitate the punch of a 2½-inch line or master stream for initial fire attack.

Members must also know the capabilities and limitations of any fixed fire protection systems in the structures and what they should do to supplement the operation of these systems on arrival at the scene.

At a minimum, every member who may establish or assume command must have a working knowledge of fire behavior as it involves modern fuels. Just as in residential structural fires, fire behavior in retail establishments has changed over the past 20 years. The hydrocarbon-based loads commonly found in most retail occupancies have spurred increased British thermal unit production and increased heat release rates and fueled explosive fire growth that has created hotter and more intense fires that easily overwhelm the traditional medium-sized handlines many fire departments still use. This problem will be compounded in buildings that may be overstocked in anticipation of seasonal or holiday sales spikes. Identify those periods in your preplanning process.

If you do not understand this change in fire behavior, it is likely that your attack lines will not flow enough water, your response will be inadequate, and the worst-case scenario may cause firefighter injury or death.

Experience and Training

A commercial building fire response is an infrequent event for many departments, even busy volunteer, combination, or small career departments that run hundreds of fires and thousands of fire-related calls a year. As an example, my combination department, which may run 10 to 15 structure fires a year, will typically respond to one or two commercial building fires during that period. It has been several years since my volunteer department has responded to a nonmutual-aid commercial building fire.

It is a well-discussed fact that a lack of experience with a skill or response can challenge personnel to perform safely and effectively during an emergency response. According to the Recognition-Primed Decision Making model, we develop a mental “hard drive” or “filing cabinet” through repeated successful experiences. These previous experiences provide a playbook that will guide a member’s decision making and task performance in command and operational roles when they arrive on scene. When there are no matches because of a lack of previous experiences, the brain scans the hard drive for the closest match, which often is the action we will take, even if it is not appropriate for the situation.

Unfortunately, in slower or smaller departments, where there may be limited or no previous commercial building fire experiences or matches, it’s not uncommon for the responders to fall back on the closest match in their “hard drive,” which in almost all cases will be a residential structure fire.

As has been widely discussed within the fire service, the differences between commercial and residential buildings are profound. If not experienced in commercial building operations, firefighters, pump operators, company officers, and the command staff will base their decisions on their residential fire response experiences and will make tactical and strategic decisions that will prove ineffective and can cause significant firefighter safety issues. Some of these decisions may involve failing to provide for increased personnel to perform more complicated forcible entry operations, selecting the improper size of fire lines; not providing for rapid intervention, implementing search and ventilation operations that are not suited to the larger building size, failing to supply the higher fire flow requirements necessitated by the increased hydrocarbon-based fire load, failure to locate access and firefighter egress points, and overlooking the management of the fire and heat in overhead void spaces.

According to the National Fire Protection Association report “Firefighter Fatalities in the United States – 2015,” there were 12.8 fireground deaths per 100,000 nonresidential structure fires vs. 2.7 deaths per 100,000 residential structure fires in the years 2010-2014. These statistics show the dangers associated with commercial structures and indicate that using residential operations for fires in commercial buildings has been associated with multiple firefighter fatalities. These differences must be addressed during training, which should make clear to members the hazards of using residential fire operations at commercial building fires.

Though not as effective a teacher as experience, training can fill some of the voids created by a lack of experience. Unfortunately, many departments do not train on fires in retail business buildings. There are various reasons for this.

A significant challenge small and medium-sized department training officers face when attempting to develop the “hard drive” through the training process is that large burn structures that can be used to simulate the commercial fire environment are not often available for training. Consequently, members rarely get to experience hands-on training on large-flow/large-fire structural operations, extended hose stretches, and large-area search operations under realistic heat conditions. Even in the cases where a large structure may become available for live burn activities, the planning and delivery of such training may be daunting tasks for smaller agencies.


The culture of a department impacts how a department views operations at small and medium-sized box store fires. Having moved from the Northeast to the South 14 years ago, I can attest to that firsthand. Culture can affect operations in various ways, which will be addressed in this article.


One of the keys for departments responding with limited staffing is the effective use of the prefire planning process. Many department members and agency leaders view preplanning as a necessary formality, often for rating purposes, and do not take it seriously. This attitude leads to the task being completed without much urgency or diligence, which affects the organization’s culture during response. A nonchalant prefire inspection wastes the opportunity for the department to determine specific operational needs for structures within its district. This will significantly impact responses with limited staffing in the case of a fire.

The preplanning process should be an opportunity to identify operational needs, which in turn will identify the need for additional staffing or companies on the initial alarm to meet those needs. These needs may include forcible entry challenges posed by fortified doors or barred/reinforced windows, extended attack hoselays to reach deep in the structure, extended supply hoselays to reach hydrants not within the hose load of a single engine, weak or low-pressure hydrants requiring pump support, concealed spaces that will require additional staffing to open and access, and additional search needs.

Once these needs have been identified through an effective preplanning process, develop a multiagency or regional mutual-aid response plan for the target structures. Include automatic (initial) mutual-aid assignments that provide sufficient personnel and apparatus to address the identified tactical needs. The plan can also include automatic enhanced responses for working fires, beefed-up second-alarm assignments or specialized runs, box cards to bring in truck companies for forcible entry or ventilation, and rescue companies for search or rapid intervention team assignments that may not normally be included in a department’s residential response. Common standard operating procedures/guidelines (SOPs/SOGs), the incident command structure, and dispatch/communication protocols must accompany these response plans. For areas without a working system in place, the development of these elements can prove challenging since they generally require some level of compromise.

(3) The CVS located in our district is typical of thousands of small box stores throughout the country. The lightweight construction of this store makes it especially dangerous for firefighters given its potential for early collapse. The building is wide-span lightweight open web truss construction. There are no columns to support the load.
(3) The CVS located in our district is typical of thousands of small box stores throughout the country. The lightweight construction of this store makes it especially dangerous for firefighters given its potential for early collapse. The building is wide-span lightweight open web truss construction. There are no columns to support the load.

This can be a major hurdle: In some places, the department culture may still view a small or medium-sized box store fire as “just another building fire,” delaying the dispatching of additional companies or mutual aid until the first-due companies or the command officer encounters significant fire conditions on arrival. This mindset creates dangerous conditions for the initial responders, often placing them in unsafe operating conditions created by minimum staffing until additional resources arrive several minutes (or longer in rural areas) after the arrival of the initial companies.

Where there is an identified chronic shortage of staffing, the department needs to be proactive in developing a plan that ensures the early response of enough members to safely and effectively handle the incident. The staffing issues could be caused by reduced paid staffing or an increased workload that limits the number of companies available in career or combination agencies, decreased membership, or fluctuations in member availability in volunteer departments.

Regardless of the cause, leadership needs to understand that the initial resources necessary for effective and safe operations at these stores are significantly greater than those for a residential fire and that they must be willing to change the response.

Response and Tactical Changes

How do you adjust your response and tactics for these fires? Some departments may have to adjust their culture of viewing these fires as “just another structure fire.” This change can start with the chief and the command staff and filter down through the training staff and district chiefs to the company officers and firefighters. Or, it can start at the company level based on “street experience” or issues encountered with previous small or medium-sized box stores or through outside training influences such as conferences such as FDIC International, presentations, classes, and online programs and may filter up the chain of command. This evolution can be effective, but it can also take considerably longer than the top-down model, especially if there is resistance from the top of the command structure.

After the department has accepted the initial personnel changes needed to deal with the additional operational needs in these commercial buildings, it must address the operational changes needed to more effectively attack these fires. I believe that for many departments, especially those operating with limited personnel, the core of this change will be a transitional attack, which applies large amounts of water from the exterior before mounting an interior fire attack, when structural conditions allow. The transitional attack may also include apparatus-mounted or portable single-inlet master stream devices before moving to operations using 1¾-inch handlines if 2½-inch handlines represent a physical challenge to the initial response personnel.

This will initially involve the development and delivery of training that effectively communicates the reasons behind the tactical shift. Then, you should modify your operational guidelines so they are consistent with the new approach.

In some places where combination nozzles are used exclusively, this challenge can extend to transitioning to the use of smooth bore tips for transitional operations. When compared with combination nozzles on the initial large-flow handline, these tips provide superior reach, penetration, and flow since the bulk of the stream will not evaporate before reaching the seat of the fire because of its larger droplet size and compact cone. This nozzle also has significantly lower flow pressures at the tip, allowing for effective single-firefighter operation, which can be critical when operating with limited personnel.

Departments that use two-inch handlines may not have to use a 2½-inch handline as the initial “knockdown line” since they have the capability of flow rates of up to 250 gallons per minute, especially when using smooth bore tips.

Moving toward a transitional approach could be a cultural challenge for some departments because line personnel may initially view the use of a standoff or “knockdown line” in a negative light and view it as operating defensively in an “offensive culture.” The members may look at anything other than a 1¾-inch line moving rapidly interior as backing down from the fire and, consequently, not performing a “traditional” aggressive fire attack. This clash with established departmental culture is a barrier department leadership must overcome early in the training and implementation process.

Changing the existing culture will generally require early buy-in from the department’s influential officers and members, Departmentwide buy-in will generally take education, training, and persuasion to make members understand that the department is not abandoning aggressive operations but is responding to a dramatic change in fire behavior.

Other operational considerations may include the first-due engine company’s laying supply lines from nearby hydrants even when little or no smoke is showing. This could create additional work for the members if no significant fire is located because the hose will have to be reloaded, but the possible delay in having the second-due engine arrive and lay the line could create water supply issues for the initial attack operations. This may be especially critical if the second-due engine is replacing a closer engine already committed to a run, responding from a distant station, or responding from another department. This will be even more critical if two engines are needed for the lay because the third-due would have to arrive before the lay can be completed.

Another consideration for the first-due engine company officer involves the positioning of the apparatus. Many of these structures can be up to 150 to 200 feet deep, and placing the apparatus in the front of the structure will make it necessary to extend attack hose stretches if the fire is deep in the structure. In many cases, especially when operating with three or four members, positioning the apparatus at the side or the rear at the freight entrance can significantly reduce the length of the stretch and speed up deployment into the structure. This will generally necessitate that the officer or senior member sitting in the right seat dismount the engine, enter the structure [preferably with a thermal imaging camera (TIC)], and determine the extent and the location of the fire before positioning the apparatus and pulling the transitional line or smaller handlines. In most cases, it may be a tactically sound decision for a second member armed with a 2½-gallon water or Class A foam extinguisher to accompany the officer. This will give the initial crew the capability to extinguish or delay the development of a smaller fire while the attack lines are deployed.

The first-in company or chief officer will also have to determine the occupancy status of the building and the need for conducting search operations. Although generally the employees will be able to account for the staff, it will be far more difficult to determine the status of customers. The reality is that searching a 9,000- to 20,000-square-foot box store will pose a difficult, if not impossible, task for a department responding with limited staffing even under light smoke conditions. It may be necessary for the members assigned to this task to use a targeted search approach, which concentrates the search effort in the immediate areas of doors and other egress points, generally involving TICs and search ropes. It is critical that members understand the limitations of this search technique and be aware of the hazards of going too deep inside the structure because disorientation or air-related emergencies may result.

Department procedures should specify when and how to open and identify the heat condition in overhead concealed spaces; this is critical when discussing the go/no-go decision-making process. They should include the entry crew’s use of a TIC as well as designating the proper tools to access the space.

Vertical ventilation is another area that may prove challenging for volunteer, combination, and career departments operating without significant automatic mutual aid; the personnel requirements for a vertical ventilation operation may be problematic, especially if a committed company, such as a truck or a squad, is not dedicated to the operation. Because of this, horizontal ventilation, which in many cases can be initiated, may be the only realistic option. Given this situation, the incident commander must understand that overhead space will not be able to be ventilated, which will likely increase the possibility of early flashover.

One final consideration is the designation of a rapid intervention crew (RIC). Many departments do not establish RICs at commercial building fires, for a variety of reasons. Although establishing these teams can be a challenge for departments operating with limited resources, it should be a priority when operating at all structural incidents. In many cases, this will mean the addition of companies or departments on the first alarm who are preassigned to the role of rapid intervention. When establishing a well-staffed RIC early in the incident is an issue, all members of the first-alarm companies should receive accelerated training in identifying hostile fire behavior warning signs, self-contained breathing apparatus emergencies, situational awareness, Mayday procedures, and self-rescue techniques. They should also be required to carry in tools that will assist in their escape from the structure should an emergency occur.

Training on the command side must also include making the decision of when not to engage in interior operations or when to transition to a defensive operation from an offensive fire attack. It is critical that command and company officers understand the significance of conditions that may compromise the integrity of the structure or lead to the development of hostile fire events. This may necessitate developing departmental SOPs/SOGs that outline the go/no-go or withdrawal procedures.

Equipment and Setup

For many departments, effectively attacking small and medium-sized box store fires with the transitional approach may involve some setup and equipment changes, especially if they embrace the transitional attack. If a department does not carry a preconnected or a dedicated dead load 2½-inch attack line, it will need to be loaded; deploying and connecting a transitional line from the dead load bed are extremely time consuming, especially if performed by a single member. Whether a single member can rapidly deploy the transitional line and get it into operation is probably the most critical element of the fire evolution in departments operating with limited staffing.

If your department already has a preconnected 2½-inch attack line that is 200 feet or longer, consider adding a shorter line that can be deployed by one member in less than one minute. One significant benefit to this line being placed on the apparatus is that it can also be used for implementing a single-firefighter rapid-deployment transitional line on residential and large-vehicle fire incidents.

If it’s not practical to load a second shorter attack line (lack of space), assign the driver/operator to break the line at the 100-foot mark and connect it to a discharge as the single firefighter deploys the line and positions the nozzle. This function should be identified as a training need and be included as part of the driver/operator’s training package.

(4) Training may be required on single and two-firefighter 2½-inch attack line deployment and operations in departments with little previous experience. [Photo by Bossier Parish (LA) Fire District 1 Staff.]
(4) Training may be required on single and two-firefighter 2½-inch attack line deployment and operations in departments with little previous experience. [Photo by Bossier Parish (LA) Fire District 1 Staff.]

As previously discussed, the most effective nozzle for the initial line in the transitional approach is a smooth bore because of its high-flow capabilities, reach, and penetration and only a single member can deploy and operate it in a fixed position. As noted above, the reality is that in most cases, most of the water being applied by a combination nozzle will evaporate before reaching the seat of the fire, rendering the line ineffective. A combination nozzle can be used, but the nature of the stream will render the line less effective.

The same can be said about the tip on the fixed master stream device; again, a smooth bore tip will deliver maximum reach and penetration. The size of the tip should be matched, through flow testing, with the size of the tank-to-pump piping so that an effective stream with sufficient reach can be generated.

The ability to flow Class A foam, if available, through both the transitional and 1¾-inch lines will greatly increase their effectiveness.

In addition, the department may have to purchase access and egress tools consistent with small and medium-sized box operations; if available, they may have to be mounted in places where members can rapidly access them. Again, a solid preplanning process will identify the tools that may be required for your district’s occupancies.


Training should start with developing a solid understanding of small and medium-sized box store building construction, strongly emphasizing the buildings in your immediate response area, as well as buildings in areas to which you may respond through automatic mutual aid. This is critical: Every member must understand the relationship among building performance under fire conditions, fire attack operations, and member safety. Members must also be trained in modern fire behavior, including fire behavior in concealed spaces and how it corresponds to fire spread and flashover.

The training must progress to cognitive classroom training on the theory behind the transitional concept; the reasons behind the organization’s move to the switch in tactics; and the fireground operations associated with the transitional concept using hands-on live fires, simulations, drills, and scenarios.

In departments that have limited experience with 2½-inch line operations, this will likely include additional training on the rapid deployment of 2½-inch lines, line positioning skills, and solo-firefighter hose-handling techniques. If smooth bore nozzles are used for the first time, allow additional training time for their handling and movement.

Pump operators may need refresher training on pumping 2½-inch attack lines and pumping to smooth bore nozzles, especially in departments with little or no smooth bore experience. In addition, refresher training may be needed on pumping master stream devices if the department has limited experience in using those devices in an offensive manner.

The members will need training on the timing required to transition from the transitional stream, whether it is a master stream or a 2½-inch line, to the 1¾-inch line and the positioning of those lines.

This training can be accomplished through live fire evolutions, although, as discussed previously, finding large buildings for a burn or even large gas-fired props mimicking these structures will be difficult. Perhaps buildings may be available for practicing simulated fire attacks. While not as valuable as live fire training, students will have the opportunity to practice the stream application techniques that can be used with the 2½-inch transitional line. If the building is still structurally stable, interior operations with 2½- and 1¾-inch lines may be performed.

As in any training evolutions, the tasks required should first be outlined on a white board or using some other visual technique and then demonstrated. Students should then perform them at half speed. Once the required skills have been developed, they should be performed at “real time” speed. The training should include sufficient time to address issues in procedures or skills that need correction. Departments with little experience in using 2½-inch lines should schedule separate training sessions to develop hose-deployment and operations skills.

Effectively attacking fires in small and medium-sized box stores with limited personnel requires planning, training, and having the right equipment on the apparatus in the right places. It may require also a change in organizational culture and gentle persuasion by the department’s leadership to win over the members.

Although these fires represent challenges, many of the issues can be overcome through an understanding of the changes occurring in the nature and behavior of these fires and the additional resources needed, including an increase in the first-alarm response, automatic mutual-aid assignments, and training in implementing new strategies and tactics.

In many places, the structure for this change already exists. To successfully operate at these complex and personnel-intensive incidents, the organization must embrace the new nature of these fires and respond with a new respect for today’s large structure fire operations.

Robert Callahan is a captain/fire prevention officer with Bossier Parish Fire District 1 in Haughton, Louisiana. He also volunteers for Webster Parish Fire District 7 at the rank of lieutenant. He is a contract instructor for the National Fire Academy and an adjunct instructor for Louisiana State University Fire Training. He is the trustee of education for the Brothers of the Boot F.O.O.L.S.

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