STRIP MALL FIRES, PART 1

My definition of a strip mall is “one- and two-story buildings that house several types of businesses under the same roof.” The vast majority of these occupancies are one story and of lightweight construction. They are akin to the taxpayers that sprang up at the turn of the past century. Like the strip malls, the taxpayers, in my opinion, are disposable buildings and should be treated as such.

Most are built on slabs and have exterior load-bearing walls of ordinary (brick or block) construction. Some are wood frame. Most have lightweight truss-roof assemblies of steel bar joist or wood. Access to the front (glass) is usually not a problem; access to the rear is usually a hindrance (small steel doors with no windows, and some lack exterior hardware except keyholes). Most have common truss lofts that span the length of the structure. Party walls (walls that separate addresses) are normally concrete masonry or concrete block units and generally do not reach the roof deck.

Finally, you can expect to find in these occupancies anything from office space to dentists’ and doctors’ offices to ice cream shops. Preplanning is a must, as is having sufficient staffing.

—John “Skip” Coleman, deputy chief of fire prevention, Toledo (OH) Department of Fire and Rescue, is author of Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer (Fire Engineering, 1997) and Managing Major Fires (Fire Engineering, 2000), a technical editor of Fire Engineering, and a member of the FDIC Educational Advisory Board.

Question: A working fire is discovered in a strip mall. The fire building is occupied by a hobby shop/toy store and is 40 2 60 feet. The fire is in the rear of the hobby shop; approximately one-third of the shop is involved. What size would your initial attack handline be? Where would you stretch it? Would you expect other initial fire attack operations?

Thomas Dunne, deputy chief, Fire Department of New York

Response: My department mandates the use of 21/2-inch hoselines for a strip mall fire because of the heavy fire potential, the potential for fire extension into the cockloft, and the presence of adjoining stores. The initial line would be into the hobby shop with the hope of knocking down the fire before it spreads.

Several crucial unknowns must be addressed while the first line is being stretched. Fire is visible in the store, but could it have started in the basement? If so, advancing a line into the store above it could endanger personnel.

Has fire already spread to the cockloft? An inspection hole should be made in the ceiling of the hobby shop at the front of the store to ensure that firefighters advancing the line are not operating under a large body of hidden fire. Check adjoining stores as soon as possible to determine if the fire has spread laterally by way of the cockloft. If fire has extended to a number of stores and only limited firefighting personnel are available, you may have to skip a store and place a hoseline in a defensive position to protect the rest of the building.

Finally, what is holding up the roof? In a heavy fire, firefighters should not be operating on or below a roof supported by a lightweight steel truss.

Strip malls call for a well-considered risk analysis that takes into account the extent and location of the fire, exposure concerns, and potentially dangerous construction features. An aggressive attack may quickly contain the fire in this scenario. However, if conditions present serious concerns for firefighter safety, go defensive. No building is worth a life.


Freddie Fernandez, battalion chief, City of Miami (FL) Fire Rescue

Response: Decisions here should be based on the life hazard. An appropriate size-up would include the time of day; what protective devices, such as overhead rolling doors, are in place; wind direction; and first-hand information received from the owner, manager, or security personnel on the scene.

If it can be safely assumed there is no life hazard, consider a quick and aggressive attack with a preconnected deck gun. This would be done simultaneously with the advancement of a 13/4-inch preconnected line in the front door from the unburned area toward the seat of the fire. Immediately back up this line with a second line of equal or greater gallons-per-minute (gpm) flow.

If it is apparent that a life hazard is remotely possible, the 13/4-inch line would be advanced to the front door and a second to the downwind store on side B or D. Immediately back up this attack line with a second line of equal or greater gpm flow.

A larger-diameter hose, such as 21/2-inch, could be considered. However, since the store is not fully involved, I favor the 13/4-inch line for its greater mobility and ease of advancement through what is sure to be a cluttered arrangement of inventory, shelving, and other components of the fire load.

In either case, the exposures can be initially protected with 13/4-inch lines unless a common attic space is readily apparent. A thermal imaging camera (TIC) would be helpful in determining where to begin opening up to check for extension. If there is a common attic and there is any doubt that the fire has extended, you must immediately check the farthest downwind occupancy.

Leigh Hollins, battalion chief, Cedar-Hammock (FL) Fire Rescue

Response: I’m making the following assumptions: the store is 60 feet deep, not wide, and the fire involves no life hazard other than firefighters. With the information given, I would be comfortable “blitzing” the fire with a ground monitor (deck mounted would be too high to effectively hit this first-floor fire). I would find acceptable also even throwing a tank full of water at this fire until a water supply could be obtained. Our engines carry 1,000 gallons, which may even put out the fire.

The other acceptable tactic would be to attack from the front with a 21/2-inch line equipped with a 11/8-inch solid tip. Depending on the conditions, crews could enter and attack or be positioned just outside of the front door/windows to increase the safety factor. This should provide the gpm (200 to 250), maneuverability (50 psi at nozzle), and reach (60-plus feet) to effectively knock down 800 square feet of fire.

The back of the shop should be “opened up” as soon as possible. Stretch subsequent 21/2-inch lines to the store on each side of the shop, and pull the ceilings near the B and D wall in these exposed stores.

Christopher J. Weir, battalion chief, Fort Lauderdale (FL) Fire-Rescue

Response: When I was a company officer in our operations division, we responded to taxpayer fires similar to this one, and the tactics we deployed worked well.

A tenant space of 2,400 square feet necessitates the need for a fast attack of a fire that appears to be consuming roughly 800 square feet of the occupancy. To get a quick knockdown, the first attack line (first-arriving engine company) was a 21/2-inch line with a straight-bore 11/8-inch knob. The line, brought in through the front of the store, penetrated the fire’s seat and was directed near the ceiling to control superheated gases with 225 gpm at 65 to 70 psi of pressure. This method of entry allows for a quick escape if necessary.

The second attack line, pulled by the first-arriving rescue company, was a 13/4-inch line with an adjustable fog nozzle set at 200- to 250-gpm flow; this line directly backed up the initial attack team and could be used to knock down spot fires and get to hard-to-reach areas the initial line may not reach. It is imperative to get quick water on what appears to be an intense fire reaching flashover potential.

The truck company operation/ventilation team meanwhile was opening up over the affected tenant in an attempt to abate or minimize the horizontal fire spread within the common cockloft. The second-arriving engine company stretched a 13/4-inch attack line to the roof as cover for the roof team. The incoming third-due engine company and the second-alarm companies were assigned to primary/secondary searches, utilities, and recon of horizontal fire spread by stretching additional 13/4-inch attack lines in tenants B and D. Crews assigned to the exposed tenants on B and D concentrated on opening up ceilings to look for and control any horizontal spread that might be occurring. The extent of horizontal spread determined whether additional lines were stretched to stop additional flame travel; additional alarms were struck to meet the containment needs. Of course, once lines are deployed, the incident command system (ICS) support function must be deployed, and a company or additional companies must be standing by as the rapid intervention crew (RIC).

Factors that may change hose stream tactics include personnel safety, the time of day, the day of the week, whether the building is occupied/unoccupied, first-due companies’ prefire survey of the building, proactive fire prevention/inspection practices to protect tenant separations of at least one-hour rated protection, roof construction, and the quantity of hazardous materials stored in the occupancy.

Robert C. Krause, captain, Toledo (OH) Department of Fire & Rescue

Response: Commercial buildings routinely carry a higher fire load than residential structures. The store makeup of the strip mall also influences fire growth. Expect the hobby store to be filled with plastics, paints, thinners, and other combustibles that have a high rate of heat release, resulting in a hot, fast-burning fire. Building construction would also be a factor during the firefight. Lateral fire spread may occur by way of pipe chases, heating and air-conditioning ducts, and open plenums. Firewalls cannot guarantee there will be no lateral fire spread.

A flow of at least 260 gpm is needed to effectively stop or extinguish this fire and to prevent lateral fire spread into the exposure. The initial line would be a 21/2-inch attack line with a 11/8-inch smooth-bore nozzle deployed into the fire building to attack the seat of the fire. Deploying this line and nozzle combination provides ample water, tremendous reach, and penetration while operating from a safe distance. The solid stream will penetrate the thermal column above the fire and extinguish the fire more readily.

Second-arriving companies would deploy 21/2-inch lines into exposures B and D and look for extension. Crews would open the ceilings in both exposures and look for fire spread into their respective areas.

Gary Seidel, chief, Hillsboro (OR) Fire Department

Response: A response to a “strip mall” fire requires a good thorough size-up: Where is the fire? Where is it going? Any exposure problems? Type of occupancy(ies)? Construction type? Open or sealed attic? Based on the scenario, we know the fire occupancy has a good fire load, the construction is most likely lightweight, and there is an open common attic. With the fire already consuming at least the rear one-third of the occupancy, there is a good chance the fire will spread rapidly if quick, aggressive, and safe tactics are not initiated.

I would expect the responding companies to bring in their own water supply (water tender or fire hydrant). Once the water supply is accomplished, a 21/2-inch with a straight-stream nozzle would be deployed in the fire occupancy. The positions of the next two lines would depend on the weather conditions and the rate of fire spread into the two adjacent potential exposure(s).

If, for example, the fire is progressing toward side D, the second line would be in that next adjacent occupancy to the fire, the third line on the side B exposure, and the fourth line used to back up the first line. The second, third, and fourth lines most probably would be 11/2-inch with spray nozzles. If the fire has already involved the exposure occupancy, I would consider 21/2-inch lines.

If no obstacles are in the way and the distance from the building is not a problem, a four-person crew would have the option of using a deck gun on the fire building, to achieve initial knockdown while two members each stretch a 11/2-inch line to both adjacent exposures. The next-in company would bring in a 11/2-inch hoseline to the initial fire occupancy, hopefully for mop-up.

In this scenario, engine and truck operations go hand-in-hand. Do you cut on the roof of the fire occupancy, or do you cut a trench on both sides? If so, where do you initiate your cuts? Do you cut on the fire or exposure sides?

I would get a heat hole, hopefully to ventilate and prevent the fire from spreading. If it is spreading, trenching should be considered—preferably beginning the trench cuts on the fire occupancy roof, if possible both sides B and D; if this is not feasible, then trench both sides on both of the exposure roofs closest to the fire (sides B and D).

Katherine T. Ridenhour, battalion chief, Aurora (CO) Fire Department

Response: Once any lightweight truss, wood or metal, structural members are exposed to fire, we have minimal time (maybe less than five minutes) for an interior attack. In fire- or smoke-investigation situations, it is critical that you “pop” those ceiling tiles above you immediately on entry and periodically as you make your approach. Fire spread will be vertical into the attic/cockloft space, and the fire will spread rapidly horizontally.

Let’s assume the façade is uninvolved. On entering the fire or exposure units, immediately open up the overhead void space, even if no fire is apparent. If fire is in either of the exposure units, the hoseline may be needed there first to protect the “most exposed exposure.” Without specific information, the D exposure would probably be the side to protect first, because of the number of units. Size-up must also consider exactly where the fire wall or fire partition wall is located (if there is one). You need to anticipate where you are going to stop this fire and make your “last stand” if you have lateral extension.

Strategically, unless you have information that contradicts this, search is not the first priority—fire attack is. About 265 gpm are necessary to put out this fire. The first-in engine will supply the first line, which should control the fire in one to two minutes. I’d prefer the 21/2-inch line. However, most U.S. engine companies have two or three personnel and would find it faster to pull the 13/4-inch line (which barely meets the minimum required flow) to attack the fire; a 21/2-inch line should then be used for the backup line.

The crew would begin applying water from the door opening of the fire unit. A smooth-bore or a straight-stream nozzle will easily penetrate the 60-foot building and can be used to expose the remaining overhead truss space. If fire or high heat is impinging on metal trusses, the hose team must direct initial streams onto the trusses to cool them before hitting the seat of the fire.

Other initial tactics would include the following: using positive-pressure fans to pressurize uninvolved adjoining exposure units to keep out smoke and heat, at least one hoseline to protect the exposure units and to cool the trusses in them. Rooftop ventilation or trench cuts are not recommended if any truss has been exposed to fire.

Strip mall fires need aggressive tactics. You may have to write off the fire unit to save other units. The basic strategy is to locate the fire and its extension, “flank”‘ the fire on both sides, find the firewalls or fire partition walls to determine your last stand, and use PPV to assist in protecting exposures and put out the fire. Keep the firefighters safe. Aggressive interior attacks in structures that do not pose any civilian life hazard (and strip malls rarely do) are not warranted.

Bob Zoldos, captain, Fairfax County (VA) Fire and Rescue Department

Response: The first line should be a 21/2-inch handline stretched into side A (front) of the building. At least 160 gpm would be needed for the conditions described. The 21/2-inch is also more appropriate when considering its reach and ability to penetrate into the burning building. Firefighters can reach the base of the fire from a distance.

Maneuverability is a valid issue when using 21/2-inch lines, even with four-person staffing on an engine company. Engine companies may have to be paired to efficiently advance and operate the hoseline. To do this successfully, companies have to drill in this operation.

Steve Kreis, assistant chief, Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department

Response: The initial company would pull a two-inch line and attack the fire through the front door of the occupancy. In most strip mall fires, the initial attack should come through the front door; there are just too many variables in strip mall fires if you go to the rear (side C) with your initial company. In this scenario, we get the added bonus of attacking the fire from the unburned portion by using the front door. When the first company can knock down the volume of fire on arrival, these fires are fairly simple: quick search; early, aggressive ventilation; first attack line to the fire; second line to the greatest exposure; and third attack line to the other side of the fire occupancy.

Michael Allora, lieutenant, Clifton (NJ) Fire Department

Response: The company officer must look at the big picture and assign companies to confine the fire to as small an area as possible. The fire load in this occupancy, consisting primarily of plastics, has a high rate of heat release, which will contribute to more rapid fire spread, increase the production of toxic gases, provide a greater thermal radiation feedback, and reduce the timeframe before flashover.

Construction must be a consideration. If the building is of lightweight-truss construction, is it metal or wood? With advanced fire conditions on arrival, the roof structure may be involved or exposed. If the roof is of lightweight wood truss, the building may be too dangerous to enter because of the collapse potential. If the roof is lightweight metal truss, collapse might be prevented if the structural members can be cooled with a large-caliber handline while ventilation operations are underway. But, this might not be the best course of action. Is there a basement? It is possible that the fire originated in the basement and that the floors may be weakened or burned through.

Time of day is another consideration. If the fire is discovered at night, forcible entry difficulties may delay the fire attack and permit extension of the already advanced fire.

The first lines should be committed to the exposures. The probability that there is a common cockloft, fire conditions, and the fire load necessitate that crews get into the exposed occupancies and cut off the fire spread. The original fire building may have to be written off unless a large number of firefighters can be summoned immediately. This may not always be the case in many cities, including my own. The staffing commitment necessary to secure adequate water supplies, stretch 13/4-inch handlines into the exposures, pull ceilings to expose the fire, and vertically ventilate the roofs of the exposed buildings will tremendously strain resources. However, the IC’s committing the original complement of personnel to fight the fire in the original fire building while neglecting the exposures might cause the firefighters to be outflanked by a fire that is moving rapidly throughout the strip mall.

Bobby Halton, chief, Coppell (TX) Fire Department

Response: I assume the following: the strip mall has standard masonry walls with lightweight open web metal trusses and lightweight metal roofing, the ceiling is drop tile, the walls separating the occupancies are wood frame with drywall extending to the common attic area, there is heavy smoke, and no rescue is required (however, a primary and secondary search would be conducted as soon as it is safe to do so).

In our system, the first line would be a 21/2-inch with a smooth-bore nozzle to the front door or A side. The first-due crew would have a five-inch supply line either by looping the plug and having a second-due hook it up or catching it themselves. We call 21/2-inch lines “commercial lines” and 13/4-inch lines “residential lines.” The second-due would be stretching lines to the exposure occupancies. These crews would pull all the ceiling adjoining the fire occupancy and stop the fire from extending to the exposures. In a perfect world, the second-due would go to the five-store D side and the third-due to the four-store B side. It really doesn’t matter that much.

Our first-due truck, or a squared away medic company, would open the rear door to the hobby shop and then open up the rear of the exposures. The first-due would do a shotgun-style attack, combining the deck gun and the 21/2-inch line and putting as many gpm as possible on the fire. If needed, windows could be taken and second or third 21/2-inch attack lines could be used. The point here is, fast, aggressive, high-flow operations. The exposure crews need to stop all extension.

This is interior work. Only in a fantasy world would a trench cut or some other fantasy work, so go with what pays the bills, water. Forget about water damage. There is no water damage in a total loss, and the exposures didn’t have a fire, the hobby shop did.

PPV can be used to pressurize the exposures to prevent extension and create wind currents into the fire occupancy, but the key is focused crews’ pulling all adjoining ceiling and using hose streams to stop fire and heat from passing their location. Focus on saving the property not involved.

Overhaul using TICs and good roof work. These roofs usually have tarpaper and tar mud and can sustain fire even when water is standing on the roof. Save the property you can, keep nine businesses operating, and help the hobby shop owner any way you can.

Ron Hiraki, assistant chief, Gig Harbor (WA) Fire & Medic One

Response: Until a few months ago, most of our members probably would have pulled a 13/4-inch line with a variable-flow nozzle. Our pump operator would have pumped at a higher pressure to deliver approximately 200 gpm. Recently, we invited a nationally known chief fire officer to speak to us about tactical operations. He reacquainted us with the value of the 21/2-inch handline. Our 21/2-inch handline equipped with a variable-flow nozzle can easily deliver in excess of 300 gpm.

Most of our members today would pull the 21/2-inch handline equipped with an automatic nozzle, directly attack the fire, and work to achieve a rapid knockdown. We would need 266 gpm for knockdown. Our 13/4-inch line would be less than adequate. Our 21/2-inch line would be adequate and provide a margin for safety. Currently, we are looking at some new 21/2-inch nozzles to better meet our needs.

Other operations: We would immediately assign teams to the adjoining occupancies to pull ceilings and check for extension. This is particularly important with suspended ceilings and roof truss void space. Additionally, we remind our members to look for false architectural elements that can provide a space for hidden fire and create a hazard for firefighters.

Nicholas DeLia, chief/fire marshal,Groton (CT) Fire Department

Response: In a small department with limited initial personnel, the classic taxpayer/strip mall fire scenario may require a different or nontraditional attack plan. A series of safety/tactical questions should be posed: Can I safely make an initial interior attack with the people I have on-scene and considering the regulations we must obey? Can I begin investigating/attacking exposures with the number of people I have? Can I use today’s technology or equipment to stop or hold the fire in check until help arrives?

One or two firefighters could deploy a tactical master steam, a ground-level blitz-fire, or an appliance preconnected to a 21/2- or three-inch line while the remainder of the crews arrive. We have had good success with the blitz-fire attached to 150 feet of a 21/2-inch line. One or two people can use it to darken down a great deal of fire. The firefighter can safely operate it from outside the building into the hobby shop until additional resources arrive to begin providing firefighter safety services, checking/attacking exposures, ventilating, and so on.

The fire loading of a hobby shop necessitates a large flow—either big line would deliver that.

On the arrival of more personnel, base your plan on the conditions and feedback received from the crews. Fiscal limitations and limited resources sometimes force us to give up some turf now and then to protect our people as best we can. In many communities, this fire would not be a big deal. In ours, it would be and possibly might go to multiple alarms.

John M. Swan, firefighter, St. Mary’s (GA) Fire Department

Response: The basic assumptions are a daytime job, masonry building, steel truss roof, glass storefront, unsprinklered, middle of the row, and all employees and customers accounted for. As in so many other fire departments across the nation, understaffing presents the first of many tactical challenges.

The first-due engine company would go to the front of the building. Hopefully, prefire plans are in place and reviewed regularly. Lay in to the hydrant (location should be known). Heavy smoke is probably showing as you approach the complex. Lead off with a 21/2-inch handline with a 1- to a 11/4-inch smooth-bore tip for reach, volume, and penetration. This line can be easily deployed into a loop and managed by one firefighter sitting on the loop. With a three-firefighter engine company, establish the water supply before running out of tank water.

If no command officers have arrived yet, the hydrant firefighter can assume the role of initial IC. Once relieved by a command officer, this firefighter may take the role of incident safety officer. Permit no firefighters to enter the fire store or advance to the roof—structural collapse is imminent because of the advanced fire load and the lightweight steel roof truss system.

The second-due engine company lays in to the rear and gets the back door opened up (generally a stock room). These actions will allow horizontal ventilation to begin and provide access for additional handlines. This company also addresses the utilities, usually located in the rear.

The next-due engine or truck establishes a RIT/FAST company.

Next, “save” the rest of the building. Once again, prefire plans! The fire store is a write-off. Additional arriving units should be assigned to trench (strip) cut the roof and pull ceilings at adjacent tenant separations. You may have to skip a unit or two for a safety buffer and sacrifice the stores in between.

A job of this size would require a large complement of apparatus and personnel. If your protocols do not have at least three engines, two trucks, a command officer, an ambulance, and 15 to 18 personnel responding to a reported fire in this type of building, call for help early and often until you have sufficient resources. A well-rounded training program would enable firefighters and company officers, such as the initial IC and the safety officer, to perform multiple tasks and fill positions as needed.

Robert DiPietro, captain, New Britain (CT) Fire Department

Response: This fire in our jurisdiction would receive an initial assignment of three engines, one ladder, one heavy rescue, and an IC. Each engine and ladder is staffed with one officer and three firefighters. The rescue is staffed with one officer and two firefighters. The initial attack would be an aggressive interior attack using a 13/4-inch hoseline capable of flowing approximately 200 gpm. The incident action plan would proceed as follows:

  • The IC establishes command and adds an extra engine company to act as the RIT. An additional ladder company is added in case an extensive rooftop or heavy stream operation is needed.
  • The ladder makes forcible entry, if needed, to the front door. The outside vent team initially performs horizontal ventilation by taking out storefront windows and forcing the rear door and then ladders the roof several stores away from the fire unit. Determine the type of roof construction. If lightweight construction (trusses) is present, make a risk/benefit analysis before personnel are placed under or on the roof. Make a vent hole over the fire area.
  • If the fire is controlled quickly, vertical ventilation may be cancelled. If control is doubtful, rooftop ventilation may need to move farther down the building. The IC needs to watch for signs of fire involvement in the attic area and anticipate a possible roof collapse. Gable vents should be pulled or inspection roof cuts made to keep tabs on roof conditions.
  • The second-due engine company provides water to the first-due engine and then stretches hoselines into adjacent stores.
  • The third-due engine secures a water supply and stretches a backup line.
  • The rescue company enters adjacent buildings to perform search and rescue and check for fire extension. If fire is extending into the attic or cockloft areas, stretch additional hoselines.
  • After the fire is under control, conduct secondary searches, and carefully overhaul.
  • EMS, on-scene, tends to personnel in rehab.

Tom Cole, battalion chief, Miami-Dade (FL) Fire Rescue

Response: The first-due engine would pull a 21/2-inch jump line with an 11/8-inch smooth-bore into the front door of the hobby shop/toy store and make an aggressive attack on the fire. An estimated 264 gpm would be needed to safely extinguish this fire. The fire compartment would be vented from the rear doors or windows while the initial attack is underway. A second (backup) line would protect the initial attack line. Additional lines would be stretched to the occupancies on either side of the fire compartment to prevent extension; crews would pull ceiling to check for extension into the attic. With an aggressive attack and good coordinated efforts, this fire could be contained to the fire compartment if all goes well.

Bob Murphy, captain/firefighter/EMT-B, Blaine Hill Fire Department, Elizabeth, Pennsylvania

Response: I assume we are dealing with a single-story commercial building with exposures on the B and D sides. Our first alarm of four engines, two trucks, and a specialty unit should be able to handle this situation unless this fire occurs during the mall’s operating hours. In that case, I would strike a second alarm immediately so that more personnel would be available for faster, more aggressive primary and secondary searches.

Operations: We would stretch 150 or 200 feet (depending on the length of the preconnects) of 13/4-inch hoseline as the primary attack line because of its easier mobility compared with the 21/2-inch line. Assuming that the rear of the hobby shop is on the C side, entry would be from side A. The second-in engine would stretch 150 or 200 feet of 21/2-inch line as a secondary or backup attack line (also introduced from side A) in case of heavy extension and more than one-third of the structure becomes involved.

Truck companies would work on primary searches and recon in the exposures on the B and D sides as well as check the roof area for extension. If needed for vertical ventilation, these companies would be in place.

The third-due engine would assist with search and recon in the fire compartment, stretching a 13/4-inch line, assuming there is still a working fire. The fourth-due engine would split the crew and stand fast outside the exposures with a 13/4-inch line as the specialty unit provides RIT duties.

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