When fighting shopping mall fires, officers must be aware of not only the mall’s construction, fire load and fire control devices, but the thousands of shoppers as well.

First Vice President

Shopping malls, meccas for both rural and urban shoppers, are also potential threats to life and property.

With the ability to accommodate thousands of people at any one time, fire spread, panic and resulting calamity are very real possibilities. Still, shopping malls continue to be built at a staggering pace throughout the country.

The shopping mall should not be confused with the strip center, which presents its own unique problems related to fire spread, but which forces the shopper to enter each store from and exit to the outside.

There are basically two types of shopping malls: the open mall and the enclosed mall. The open mall is usually found in older cities where attempts are being made to revitalize downtown shopping areas. Open malls are also operated in those parts of the country blessed with warm weather year round. In these cases, stores face each other with entrances and exits into the open air mall. The open mall, like the strip center, presents some unique problems to the fire service with renovated structures facing the mall’s walkway (now windowless) and certain response limitations.

Memphis, Tenn., is a prime example of a community where an open mall was developed in the older downtown section. In the renovations, building owners were required to provide removable panels in place of windows that faced the mall. These panels are labeled FD or FIRE.

In each of these shopping facilities — the strip center, the open mall and the enclosed mall — the fire service is faced with a new set of parameters, which include problems such as:

  • Mall location. Most malls are located on the fringes of the city since parking is a major criterion. Some malls can accommodate 10,000 parked cars at one time.
  • Building codes. In less populated and less developed areas, building codes may be less stringent than in adjacent cities.
  • Fire station location. Some malls, because of their locations, present response time problems.
  • Water supplies. Malls may be located beyond the city’s water mains.

Fire officers must consider each of these problem elements in pre-incident planning, as any one of them may constitute a new direction in response patterns and initial assignments.

Construction pattern

Fire officers should further recognize that an enclosed shopping mall will be constructed on one of several patterns.

First, there will be one or more major stores, referred to as anchor stores, while the stores facing the mall and tying it all together are referred to as linking stores, which take many configurations.

Anchor stores are usually multiple level, while the linking portions occupy one level. There are exceptions to this, such as Chicago’s Water Tower and Washington, DCs Georgetown Shopping Mall, which are multilevel facilities with open centers (atrium concept), and escalators, stairs and elevators provide for vertical occupant flow.

Considerations to keep in mind

In addition to considering the thousands of shoppers, fire officers must keep in mind the construction of the facility.

A major concern should be not for what is seen, but for what is not seen — that void above the ceiling with untold vertical and horizontal spaces that result in potential rapid fire spread. These spaces above the ceiling in some malls will be 4 to 8 feet high and be a veritable lumber yard with wooden 2 X 4 studding holding ceiling structures together. In newer construction, metal studdings are probably used for wall supports.

Fire officers also must be concerned with the fire load. This can range from the standard commodities to highly combustible and flammable items such as oil and gas. Seasonal rushes, narrow aisles, large open floor areas and the use of the open mall for special booth rentals contribute to a large loss potential.

Reasons for loss

The lack of automatic sprinklers and detection equipment, poor construction and the lack of effective alarms to the fire department are the three major reasons for large loss fires in shopping malls. Therefore, the officer’s concerns must address each of the three elements.

  1. Automatic sprinklers. The automatic sprinkler has shown the greatest effective track record for control and extinguishment of fire than any other fire protection-related item.
  2. In shopping mall fires, automatic sprinklers, when present, have gained rapid control of the incident. Where absent, major losses have resulted.

    The Plymouth Meeting Mall (Pa.) fire in early 1970 left 11 linking stores damaged, and another 32 stores were damaged by the collapse of the roof or second-story floor. An anchor store that was protected with a water curtain deluge system in front of the doors leading to the mall sustained minimal damage.

    Three major sprinkler systems can be found in a mall. Wet systems provide water in the pipes to every head in the protected facility. Dependent on the hazard-specific spacing, control and/or extinguishment is expected with three to five heads operating.

    Dry pipe systems are used to protect specific areas of occupancy, particularly those with freezing problems. A dry pipe system has a piping configuration that is pressurized with air (in some cases nitrogen) from the dry pipe valve to the sprinkler head. When fire occurs and a head is fused, the air must escape first, permitting the valve to trip and the water to be released to the heads. Underground and deck parking facilities, loading docks, etc., use the dry pipe system to prevent water from freezing in the system.

    The deluge system, mainly installed in front of the mall’s anchor stores, uses a configuration of open heads on the piping with some type of sensor, usually heat, that will sense the fire and trip a release mechanism at the deluge valve. Open heads mean that each specific head deployed in front of the large sliding doors of the anchor store and any associated glass has no fusible links.

    The detector may be an air pilot line using fusible links or a heat activated detector that expands air with the result of tripping the valve, which releases the water. Water then flows out of every head in the system. With an anchor store protected by a deluge system, the water curtain showers the glass, protecting it from fire spread. This configuration has been successful in protecting stores in several mall fires.

  3. Poor construction. The second major reason for large losses in malls is the construction factor. Some problems include:
  • Use of combustible materials for a variety of areas such as ceiling supports, party walls, display equipment, etc.
  • Large, open, unprotected areas. Four to eight-foot spaces above ceilings without adequate fire separation permit rapid horizontal spread. Add to that unprotected truss beams and roof decking above the ceiling, unprotected truss beams at the first floor roof line, and exposed horizontal beams and the potential for structural collapse is clearly evident.
  • Horizontal openings between party walls of stores as well as breached fire walls have led to rapid fire spread. These problems can be located in the storage rooms or above ceiling tiles. During construction, dry wall will be cut to fit around truss beams or piping. If the contractor failed to seal these points, the protection afforded by the dry wall is voided.
  • Lack of alarm system to the fire department. In the Plymouth Meeting Mall incident, fire burned for 20 minutes before the fire department was called. Shoppers had pulled local alarm stations thinking that this called the fire department.
  • In reviewing malls, fire officers should determine if a proprietary (local) or a central station system is used. In the former case, there needs to be a review of mall management’s operation of the system. Is it monitored 24 hours a day? If so, by whom and what training has been given to the individual on response to an alarm? Also, are automatic sprinkler system water flows monitored, and what instructions have been given to those involved in summoning the fire department?

    Strategies/tactics to consider

    Strategy takes the form of a response plan. Tactics reflect implementation of that response procedure. Therefore, for fire officers to develop a plan of action, they must provide for a detailed inspection and pre-incident plan survey of a facility.

    A pre-incident plan survey requires an on-site inspection of every area in the mall, including automatic sprinkler protection, building construction and fire department alarm systems. For each area, the positive and/or negative should be detailed.

    If the mall lacks automatic sprinklers in the linking store area, fire officers must determine if they are able to provide the needed water flow for a fully involved fire in any given area of the mall, how this would be done, and the amount of water needed. The formula requires determining the cubic feet (length X width X height) of the largest open area and dividing by 100, which equals gallons per minute for total involvement.

    In unsprinklered malls, water supply requirements for an open area are quite large. If inspection of the construction shows large, open, horizontal spaces above the ceiling or the use of “poke hole” construction breaching firewalls, then points of access, the method of cutoff and the development of sufficient water to contain the fire must be considered. Of course, deficiencies should be coordinated with appropriate officials for repair.

    A potential horizontal spread with fire flow requirements in excess of 800 gpm may dictate the use of master streams first, in order to contain the fire in any given quadrant of the mall.

    A mall’s sprinkler system (water flow) should be zoned by specific construction area for identification in order for fire officers to determine method of response, position of apparatus for attack, and assignment of truck companies to appropriate roof work.

    Long stretch

    With travel distances of hundreds of feet in an anchor store or the mall, each company and command officer must be prepared for the long hose stretch. Officers must be certain that, with minimum personnel, their department is able to stretch 300 to 500 feet of attack line and that the apparatus has been designed to meet these needs, i.e., 3-inch preconnects that can be stretched in with a gated wye put in place for attachment of attack lines, or the extension of the 3-inch line to reach the farthest point from the area of entry. In some malls, there are standpipe connections that make this evolution easier, in which case officers must be sure to have sufficient standpipe hose packs that can be handled with minimum personnel.

    Back to basics

    Fire fighting basics play a key role in mall fires, and fire officers must remember each of them while commanding the incident. Rescue remains a paramount consideration. With thousands of shoppers, fire fighters should be alert for evacuation needs. Shoppers, like home dwellers, tend to use one favorite exit and want to leave through the door they entered. This same inclination may prevail during an emergency.

    Forcible entry will tax the fire fighter in a mall response. The use of the security doors, particularly the chain type used in front of the numerous linking stores, require that personnel use through-the-lock techniques or cut away a portion of the locking mechanism. On-site studies of the various entry configurations used in malls are needed.

    Fire fighters assigned to rooftop work must use extreme caution. There are many false fronts, particularly on the anchor stores, that are at least a story or more high. These are used to hide the HVAC equipment. In addition, there may be hidden dropoffs, guy wires for antennas, protruding support beams, etc.

    If assigned to ventilation activities, companies should do on-site inspections of the mall in order to determine the methods and tools needed. Surveys should include a sketch showing the locations of scuttles, trap doors, ventilation ducts and skylights.

    Skylights used in a mall are normally found over the mall area. They will be either Plexiglas or Lexan, leading to a forcible entry problem. It must be determined if the skylights can be removed by dislodging edge pieces or if they have special opening devices. An ax will work on Plexiglas, but if it is used on Lexan the recoil could throw you. A power saw may be required to remove a Lexan skylight.

    A fire in a shopping mall is no different than that of any oher large area, requiring effective ventilation for a favorable outcome. The officer must immediately assess ventilation requirements and see that the job is done. When a plan of action is developed for a mall, the automatic assignment of personnel to the roof for ventilation should have a high priority. In several mall fires, roof collapse had occurred before companies could venilate.

    A fire in a shopping mall will extend towards the mall (path of least resistance) and fire gases and smoke will build in these areas. Based on the fire load and its fast burning potential, the accumulation of combustible products will be rapid.

    Attack direction

    A difficult decision lies with the incident commander in selecting the attack direction. After planning for proper water supplies and seeing that hose loads and appliances allow for correct water quantities for the fire, the officer must then consider hose line position. In a shopping mall, due to its construction, there will be a tendency for fire spread towards the mall (limited egress to the outside from individual stores). That fire spread is in the direction of shoppers and other exposed stores.

    A basic fundamental of structural fire fighting is to push a fire out of a structure if it is blowing out a window or door. If fire fighters attack the blaze through a storage door, then fire would be pushed towards the mall and therefore towards the shoppers (if they have not evacuated yet) or towards the exposures. On the other hand, an attack mounted from the mall area may well assist in confinement. Because of this action and square foot area, conversion of water to steam may be effective. If that occurs, personnel should be alerted to potential steam burns.

    It is critical that personnel working inside the mall pull ceilings in all directions to check for the spread of fire overhead. Depending on the volume of fire, master stream appliances may be required.

    With the value of merchandise in a mall exceeding six figures, companies should be alert in the pre-incident survey to salvage needs. Early ventilation, proper use of hose streams and covering of merchandise all assist, but the major concern is water removal.

    Some malls have depressed areas for shoppers to sit or for water foutain areas. It should be determined if drains are available in these areas and how they are operated. If water supply is a problem, could portable pumps be used where the water gathers?

    A command officer must also consider the coordination of every activity and company. Where will the command post be located? Will there be enough capable chief officers to provide for command positions at all sectors? The incident commander may be located away from the “front” of the operation (internal part of mall) and his eyes and ears will be that of the sector commander assigned to this area. With zoning of the mall based on fire potential, the incident commander must consider how many command officers will be needed. Positions to cover include the front of the fire, the flanks, the rear and the roof. In addition, the need for water supply coordination, public information and safety demand an organized plan of action.

    A command officer should also consider the use of an incident control chart, which is nothing more than an inventory check list to log the pertinent details of the incident, companies responding and their assignments, a list of the objectives to be accomplished, sector or field commanders, etc. Use of emergency operations guides for each field commander also can improve a overall operation. These are checklists used by the individuals assigned to such areas as water supply, staging, etc.

    Considerations for construction, automatic protection devices, water supply needs, and so on, as determined by the pre-incident survey, are the elements used to develop the plan of action. Departments participating in a fire should be well aware of their assigments. The fire officer’s standard operating procedure for mall fire incidents should become part of the training program, with both classroom and field exercises being held.

    Fire officers are the elements to getting the response plan into action; their ability to size up and report on conditions is the clue to determining if the plan is functioning and what changes, if any, will be needed.

    The pre-incident survey, along with subsequent training programs, is the road map to success. Each officer responding must be able to take an element of the response plan and tactically execute it to prevent the incident from becoming a major loss.

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