Critical Decisions at Commercial Building Fires

By Les Stephens

There is no decision made at a working structure fire that is more basic or advanced than “offensive” or “defensive.” No other decisions can or need be made before the incident commander (IC) determines the strategy that he will employ. One might think the decision to “go” or “not go” would be a simple and straightforward one, but nothing could be further from the truth. No other decision made during the course of an incident places firefighters in a position of immediate danger or calculated safety more so than the decision of “offensive” or “defensive.” Nowhere else is the potential for immediate catastrophic failure and subsequent multiple injuries or deaths more present than at a commercial building fire. A “commercial building” will encompass all occupancies that cannot be classified as single or multifamily residential.

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With such dire consequences riding on these decisions, one might assume there would be no shortage of literature, training materials, or training programs that address what definitive criteria ICs should evaluate when making strategic decisions. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Even fire service literature authored by some of the most respected leaders in the industry stop short of specifically identifying critical factors that should indicate, with any degree of certainty, the call for an offensive or defensive strategy.

Contrast this absence or shortage of information with the emergency medical protocols that guide our decision-making process when confronted with situations of full arrest. The University of Texas Southwest Protocols for Therapy (Pepe 2007) very clearly defines the criteria that paramedics should look for when determining whether or not to initiate cardiopulmonary resuscitation on people found in full arrest. Dependent lividity, rigor mortis, decomposition, decapitation, incineration, head or chest injury visibly incompatible with life, or the presence of do not resuscitate orders are all acceptable reasons to not initiate life-saving measures on another human being. A list of definitive reasons for which paramedics can “write off” a life exists; however, a list of reasons firefighters can use to “write off” a structure has yet to be developed.

Despite increased awareness and training, there has been no significant decrease in the number of line-of-duty deaths (LODD) at commercial building fires in the United States in the past 20 years. Without a policy or guideline, company officers and battalion chiefs, as well as others in similar positions throughout the country, are left to make split-second decisions with unparalleled consequences. If the fire service’s goal of reducing the number of LODD of firefighters in the United States is ever to be realized, significant changes must be made.

Incidents Signifying the Need for Criteria

Numerous incidents over the past 20 years suggest the need for the establishment of definitive criterion for strategic decision making at commercial building fires.

On July 1, 1988, five firefighters were killed at Hackensack (NJ) Ford. The men died when the bowstring-truss roof of an auto dealership they were working in collapsed on them.

An accidental fire claimed the lives of six Worchester, Massachusetts, firefighters on December 3, 1999. The men became disoriented while operating in a vacant six-story cold-storage warehouse.

An early morning fire in a McDonald’s restaurant claimed the lives of two Houston, Texas, firefighters on February 14, 2000. They, too, were killed when the roof of the restaurant they were working in collapsed on them.

On June 18, 2007, nine Charleston, South Carolina, firefighters died while fighting a fire in the Sofa Super Store. The men were operating inside the building when the steel-bar joist roof suddenly collapsed on them.

On April 17, 2013, a fertilizer mixing plant in West, Texas, exploded, killing 10 firefighters. At the time of the explosion, they were operating 1½-inch handlines from an exterior position on what turned out to be a very complex commercial chemical fire whose potential for deadly results were either unknown or underestimated by the initial responding crews. (Crawford 2014).

In each of the above referenced incidents, the first-arriving company officer or the IC chose to initiate an offensive strategy. Unfortunately, in each of these instances the decision to change to a defensive strategy never came or came too late to save these firefighters’ lives. These incidents are only a snap-shot of what has been an ongoing trend in the United States Fire Service over the past 25-plus years. The trend is to commit firefighters to an offensive strategy at commercial building fires with little to no guidelines or training on how to recognize and interpret critical factors that would dictate the need for a change in strategy. Change must occur early enough to allow for safe and orderly withdrawal to defensive positions prior to the catastrophic failure of the building.

Numerous books, reports, and statistics point to a need for change in our response to commercial building fires. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) report on Firefighter Fatalities 2007 (Fahy, LeBlanc, & Molis, 2008), 102 firefighters were killed in the line of duty. Even though more deaths occur at residential fires than at any other type of occupancy, commercial buildings continue to pose the greatest risk. Despite the considerably lower number of responses to commercial buildings, 6.4 firefighter deaths occurred at these types of buildings for each 100,000 responses compared to 3.7 deaths for each 100,000 responses to residential fires (Fahy, LeBlanc, & Molis, 2008). The report notes that the highest death rates over the five-year period from 2002 to 2006 occurred in stores and offices. For more information, see “Commercial Building Fires: When to Go Defensive” (Fire Engineering, March 2011).


LES STEPHENS, a 23-year veteran of the fire service, is the chief of the San Marcos (TX) Fire Department. Prior to moving to San Marcos in 2009, he worked for the Garland (TX) Fire Department for 18 years, leaving as a battalion chief. He is a certified master firefighter, a fire officer IV, and an instructor with the Texas Commission on Fire Protection. He has an associate degree in fire protection from Tarrant County College, is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s EFO program, and is pursuing his BAAS degree from Texas State University.


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