Shopping Center Challenge

Shopping Center Challenge

Aerial view of Southridge, Wis., Shopping Center shows two-level parking area and access road encircling the project.

An increasing problem for small fire departments around the nation is the building of huge shopping centers within their boundaries. Compounding this problem is the growing use of enclosed-mall construction, tending to eliminate outside access to individual stores.

Typifying these difficulties is the newly opened $70-million, two-level Southridge shopping center in Milwaukee County, Wis., the largest single retail complex in the Midwest. How local fire officials are coping with the challenge may hold some lessons for others.

Located about 10 miles southwest of downtown Milwaukee, the millionsquare-foot Southridge development occupies a 110-acre site within the Village of Greendale (population 15,000) except for the northernmost portion inside the City of Greenfield (population 25,000).

Paid department formed

More than four years ago, the developer’s investigations concluded that the small Greendale volunteer fire force would be unable to protect the center adequately. Rather than lose the proposed center, Greendale officials launched an improvement program aimed at a fully paid department of 15 men and a chief, augmented by at least 16 call men, before the Southridge opening date last September.

That goal was reached. As chief, Greendale hired Robert Madden, an experienced fire fighter and former training officer for the Racine, Wis., Fire Department. A new fire headquarters was built. In the fall of 1968, metropolitan Milwaukee water was brought into Greendale’s local system via a 54-inch supply main.

Chief Madden’s major task, besides building up his paid manpower and carrying on their training, was pre-fire planning for Southridge. Here is how he went about it:

First, Milwaukee County mutual aid agreements (see Fire Engineering, June 1966) between Greendale and neighboring communities were expanded by setting up a predetermined, coordinated response for all Southridge alarms (other than rescue calls). This initial attack force consists of five pumpers, two from Greendale plus one each from Franklin to the south, Hales Corners to the west, and Greenfield on the north. The normal complement of men, mostly volunteers except for Greendale and Greenfield, is 20 during the day (with 20 more available) and 36 at night. All units from outside the village arrive in 5 to 8 minutes.

All four departments use a common radio frequency. This created some problem with unnecessary traffic at first.

“We had to change our operating procedures to improve radio discipline,” Madden explained. Standard procedure is for each company responding to Southridge from outside Greendale to call in on the way, telling their approach route and asking where to report.

Unless advised otherwise, however, first-in Greendale units always go to the southeast entrance, lower level. There, the center’s security people are instructed to meet fire officers to direct them to the specific location of the emergency. Greendale coordinates all fireground operations via a bluelighted communications car. As each company goes inside the building, a portable radio goes with them.

Although directed in detail by its own officers, each outside unit takes overall command from the ranking Greendale officer at the scene. Each is advised whether to spread covers, handle hose lines, or pump into the sprinkler system.

Plans based on sprinklers

“Our whole attack,” Madden said, “is based on a holding action by supplementing the sprinklers. If the first response isn’t enough, I can call on the county mutual aid structure of three successive special alarms. This can bring in nine more engines and two trucks, including a West Allis aerial which can get here in 9 minutes.”

Pre-fire exercises began some time before the first major Southridge store opened. Fire fighters from the four departments gathered there for several training sessions, including laying lines and pumping into sprinkler connections. (Franklin and Hales Corners men had no previous sprinkler experience.) A group of 30 men surveyed the entire roof, noting the location of automatic vents from the mall, the fixed ladders connecting the several roof levels, and the construction of a false gambrel section around one major store which has a 22-foot drop immediately behind its face.

Open stairs and balconies dominate this view taken inside the mall of Southridge Shopping Center.

The layout of sprinkler rooms (one for each quadrant), operation of valves, and the workings of the recirculating air conditioning system were studied. After the center opened, Madden recalled, “we once were called to search a store for smoke odor and found a smouldering tarp several hundred feet away. The air recirculation had dispersed the smoke widely.”

Employees trained

The second step in planning for trouble at Southridge has been training the shopping center security-maintenance people to augment the fire fighters. These employees are on the spot 24 hours a day and there is always a man on hand with all the mall and outer entrance keys for access to the service corridors.

Two training sessions were held before winter weather and the Christmas season intervened. In one of these, basic lessons of extinguisher use, the fire triangle, and recognition of hazards were reviewed. In the other, men were directed by Greendale fire fighters in laying hose lines through the mall area. With improved weather, Madden expects to resume these sessions, which will probably continue on a monthly basis indefinitely because of personnel turnover.

In explaining the third step, Massen said, “Our long-range plan is to establish a 36-man fire brigade made up of personnel from the four major stores.”

These men will even have plastic salvage covers to help cover stock. More often, their training as well as that of the outside fire fighters will be directed toward wholesale moving of stock from involved areas to safety.

Inspections at the center by Greendale fire officers are carried on almost continuously, with at least three visits a week.

“We have constant followup on phone calls from one person or another reporting some condition we need to check on,” the Greendale chief disclosed.

Alarms from Southridge average 10 a month, many of them rescue calls.

Information book

Madden has assembled a master book with a separate page for each Southridge occupancy, listing the store’s identity and mall location, where to reach management, location of the nearest exit door, special hazards or operating conditions, and the sprinkler room valve location and riser number. Each page also contains a small building map with the store pinpointed on it.

To keep the closest possible fire watch on the center, the chief explained, “we agreed to monitor any approved standard fire protection system here. Each of the four major stores has such a system, two of them being heat detection, the other two electronic waterflow alarms. At first we had a lot of nuisance alarms because some of this electronic equipment was set too close. After experimenting, we settled for permitting 20 seconds of water flow before a trip.” Other nuisance calls, half a dozen monthly for a while, were caused by water surges in the system, complicated by some domestic and fire service water line crossovers. Some modifications have been made.

A 12-inch U loop serves Southridge, tied in at two points with existing Greendale mains. Tests showed hydrant flows ranging from 1250 gpm at 53 psi residual to 2880 gpm with 22 psi residual.

The real water problem is lack of adequate interior floor drainage.

Sprinkler problem

“It just isn’t economically feasible to overcome this structural deficiency in scuppers and drains,” Madden commented. “There are 10,000 sprinkler heads there. With even 14 of them open, we can’t get rid of the water.”

Hence the emphasis in pre-fire planning and fire brigade training is on covering and moving stock.

Also, sprinkler freezeups in the Wisconsin winter hadn’t been fully anticipated in building design. Very large void spaces above the store ceilings contain no combustible material-no storage or furnishings—and are not heated. It was apparently believed that heat loss from tenant spaces would keep sprinkler pipes in those voids from freezing. But this proved insufficient. After two freezeups, corrective measures were begun. Temporary ceiling openings were made as a stopgap to heat the voids.

This difficulty was the indirect cause of the first successful full-scale trial of the planned response to Southridge. At 3:09 a.m. January 20, a propane gas heating system used to keep sprinkler piping warm developed a leak and then exploded. Within minutes, a critically burned security guard was on his way to St. Mary’s Burn Center, the flash fire had been knocked down, and fire fighters were doing their best to clean up water throughout 11 of the center’s 90 stores.

Later in the morning, four chiefs from area departments joined Greendale officers for a tour of the damaged area and a critique on the effectiveness of the response. The consensus: everything went smoothly and according to plan.

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