STRIP MALL FIRES, PART 2

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?

William Carey, sergeant, Hyattsville Volunteer Fire Department Co. 1, Prince George’s County, MD

Response: The two main questions regarding the initial handline (what size and what location?) should be answered long before the engine company receives the alarm. These answers dictate what the remainder of the initial attack operations will be, not what we would expect them to be.

I surmise that the time of this scenario is late evening or early morning.

The average staffing in my station, in a combination department, likely would have a four- or five-person engine company and a five- or six-person truck company (or rescue squad company, since we are a “triple house”). In Prince George’s County, an assignment for this scenario would be a Box Alarm—a minimum of four engine companies, two truck or tower companies, and one rescue squad company.

Preplanning (and drilling) is crucial when responding to such an incident: We should know this building, its size and the type of construction, the type and number of occupancies, if sprinklers are present and the occupancies they serve (sprinklers may cover only one store, not the entire building), forcible entry problems (visible door with deadbolt or roll-down security gate), ventilation concerns, and unusual building characteristics (basement open to entire width of building?). No access on side Charlie? Closest hydrant is across a four-lane road. Ribbed awnings? Roof work being done? Fences in the rear? Bars in the rear? If the building is in our first-due area, we should not be surprised.

On receipt of the alarm, as the engine company officer, I would grab the printout while heading to the engine. A quick glance would confirm the address and give supplemental information that wasn’t dispatched.

Assumptions: There are no sprinkler connections, there are no problems accessing all sides of the building, the Box Alarm assignment is unaltered, and unit staffing is at or above my county’s minimum (three-person engine companies and four-person truck/squad companies).

Arriving with our truck company, I’d give layout instructions and the initial size-up (“… a one-story, type-two commercial row, approximately 40 2 60, with smoke showing from a middle occupancy”) and would pass command to the second-due engine company, per our general orders.

We would have answered the first two questions above without even getting off the wagon. We have a building we know that has a fire with unknown extension.

Anticipating that this is an advanced fire, a 21/2-inch line would be established for many reasons (display cases in a hobby/toy store are at the entrance and the rear, and aisles run front to rear as opposed to left and right; shelving with ceiling-high stock is on all the walls; the suspended ceiling may be concealing a lightweight steel truss roof, for example). Should we have to go to defensive operations on arrival, the 21/2-inch handline would be directed into the fire occupancy while the portable deck gun is removed from the wagon and secured. This eliminates having to move out a smaller handline and then set up the master stream appliances.

The fire probably extended into exposures B and D (left and right occupancies). Despite the information given in the scenario, we don’t really know that only one-third of the hobby store is involved or that the fire started in the basement. A 13/4-inch handline may be suitable for the involvement information given; a 21/2-inch handline would cover us if we can’t locate the seat of the fire or if we have to go to defensive operations quickly.

Other considerations would be advanced fire conditions and roof construction. We don’t know how long the fire was burning before someone saw smoke coming from the store—collapse of the lightweight steel roof is a possibility. The hose stream must be of sufficient volume and force to knock over stock, reach the rear of the store (if we cannot do a direct interior attack), and penetrate the suspended ceiling and cool the trusses. If operating inside, the crew should be listening for popping sounds above, indicating that the open-web bar joists are failing and crews need to evacuate.

Our engine is positioned on the far side of the fire lane with our crosslay in line with the occupancy so we can easily deploy the 21/2 inch handline (300 feet, not preconnected). (The truck was allowed to pull in ahead of us.) The lineman and backup should know that only one length is needed. I carry our standpipe extension bag, to hook up to the 21/2-inch line once the fire is knocked down; this line will be easier to use for any fire extension and overhaul.

As the interior team of the truck company is forcing the door to the fire occupancy, my crew would start moving in the handline. As we move in, the hook/can man would open a hole in the ceiling just inside the doorway (if there is a different type of ceiling construction) to determine if fire is in the cockloft. Depending on conditions, we will use a direct or an indirect interior attack; we will not be standing outside and flowing water into the building.

“Bread and butter” operations would follow. I’d expect the truck’s interior team to be alongside us searching, the truck driver and ladder firefighter to ladder the roof, the VES firefighter to report on what he finds in the rear, the second-due engine company to have a backup handline in one of the exposures or standing ready to back up my crew, the third-due engine company to operate its handline in opposition to mine, and the rescue squad (if assigned RIC) to be proactive and remove any hindrances to our egress.

I would not allow anyone to do any overhaul work without breathing air from an SCBA—I would have the conditions inside monitored for CO, even with a positive-pressure fan operating.

Steven Gillespie, captain, Pembroke Pines (FL) Fire Department

Response: Preplanning this response area would pay off big time. On arrival, we’d conduct a thorough size-up and establish command. What happens in the next few minutes would probably determine the outcome of the fire. Rescue is always our first priority; however, I am assuming that the building has been self-evacuated or was unoccupied when the fire was reported. If the building construction is similar to that of other strip malls in my first-due district (common voids and lightweight construction), extension to the B and D exposures is a big concern.

Arriving with a three-member engine company, I would establish a water supply early and have the firefighters begin to open up the front of the building (doors and windows). Although this would increase the likelihood of forward fire spread in the affected unit, it should simultaneously slow any horizontal fire and/or gas spread (in the voids), buying time to check exposures. Exposures B2, B1, D2, and D1 would be opened to quickly determine if fire is overhead (this can be done with a therml imaging camera or by popping several drop tiles out of place with a pike pole). Regardless of whether fire is found in the exposures, lines would be placed to protect the exposures. Once in place, two 13/4-inch lines or a single three-inch line would be put on the fire (we do not carry two- or 21/2-inch lines). Then, we would address the other fireground necessities.

This is a taxing call for any department, especially if operating with limited resources; call for help early. A well-planned aggressive attack and reevaluation of the tactical plan and structural stability throughout the incident may make it possible to limit fire damage to only one unit in this strip mall.

Andrew Magenheim, firefighter, Franklin Lakes (NJ) Volunteer Fire Department

Response: I am assuming that the mall is a freestanding structure without exposures and that the building is constructed of ordinary or noncombustible materials and that the first-responding engine and ladder companies are staffed by six firefighters.

Considerations here are a high fuel load and the heat and toxic gases that would be produced by a fire in an occupancy such as a toy store or hobby shop. The initial attack line should be a 21/2-inch line with a 15/16-inch smooth-bore tip at a pressure of 50 psi for a flow of close to 200 gpm; three or four firefighters would be able to stretch and operate the line. The line would be stretched through the front door, directly to the seat of the fire. Because the fire is in the rear of the store, companies can make a more aggressive interior attack without worrying about an awning or a parapet collapse. Since most stores in strip malls have an interior stairway in the rear that connects the first floor to the cellar, it is quite possible that the heavy fire conditions in the rear of a store are indicative of a cellar fire that has extended up the unprotected stairway. The engine officer must use extreme caution when stretching the hoseline; he should sound the floor to ensure structural stability as his team advances.

The chauffeur of the first-in engine company establishes a water supply while another firefighter connects to the fire department sprinkler connection on the building. If the additional firefighter is needed to advance the line, it is imperative that the second-due engine stretch hose to the fire department connection. Engine operations must be coordinated very closely with those of the first-arriving truck. The outside vent (OV) firefighter from the first-arriving ladder company should force the rear door to permit horizontal ventilation ahead of the hose team; the roof man should gain access to the roof and determine its construction. If it is of concrete or lightweight steel truss, do not cut it; the roof may collapse. Otherwise, the roof man should cut a roof vent in the rear of the structure as close to the seat of the fire as possible. The second half of the first-due ladder company (officer, irons, and can) should conduct a primary search and then assist the engine company members with advancement of their lines.

After completing exterior ventilation operations, the roof and OV should enter the structure, begin to pull ceilings, and look for extension above the drop ceilings and in other concealed spaces. If a cellar is present, it must be searched as soon as conditions and staffing permit; employees could be trapped there. Horizontal fire that may have spread below the floor joists could weaken the structure, resulting in a catastrophic collapse.

Michael Matz, lieutenant, Coral Springs (FL) Fire Department

Response: Although of lesser concern, in this scenario, life hazard is still the first priority. If surrounding businesses need to be evacuated, the police could handle it, freeing crews and the IC to concentrate on suppression activities. The fire—fire load, fire spread, extension, overhead fire, and construction—are our next concerns. The initial attack line would be a 21/2-inch line with a smooth-bore nozzle with a 11/8-inch tip. We want to overpower this fire fast and keep it from developing further.

The stretch: The textbook answer is through the front door, from the unburned side to the seat of the fire. The other approach would be to attack from the rear and hold it from the front. I would choose the latter, based on the construction of the typical strip store, at least in my area. This could present a large fire load for lightweight bar joist or wood joist roof construction, depending on local construction. The fire load of plastics, fuels for remote-control vehicles, wood, and an abundance of other Class A and B materials will add a lot of heat and fire, quickly.

Besides their propensity to fail when exposed to high heat and fire, these roof systems may be further stressed by the weight of a large air-conditioning unit or some other system, which would hasten collapse. Also, these occupancies often have a drop or an acoustic ceiling with a considerable void space between the actual roof and ceiling. Unchecked fire in this area can cause the suspended ceiling to fall on the interior crews, entangling them, or the roof system to fail and fall on the crew along with any equipment on the roof.

The ceiling must be opened up and the void space must be inspected for fire extension before committing anyone to work inside the structure. It must also be determined if there is a common void space over the entire strip mall or only between fire walls/party walls. TICs are very helpful in detecting these conditions early. Preplan information would be able to provide the answers to some of these questions before the first engine arrives on-scene.

The TIC can be used also to check for fire spread in the immediate exposures to B and D sides; an effective and strong command should keep crews out of harm’s way. From a risk/benefit standpoint, a commercial building generally has a low life hazard, but firefighters die at these fires. We should fulfill our tactical objectives and operational priorities but not at the cost of a firefighter’s life.

Michael Long, captain, Camp Taylor Fire District, Louisville, KY

Response: The initial attack line would be a two-inch preconnected handline. The type of construction should assist in containing the fire to the area of origin, since the walls should be a minimum of two-hour separation. I would immediately get crews into the adjacent stores to check for extension, especially in the attic space. These structures are known for having a common attic. Ventilation would also play a major role in reducing spread and damage to other areas.

Jeffrey Schwering, lieutenant, Crestwood (MO) Department of Fire Services

Response: The initial attack line would be a 21/2-inch line, through the front door. The fire load of the hobby shop would prove challenging. The worst-case scenario would be the hobby shop’s being in the middle of the strip mall. In this case, additional 21/2-inch lines would have to be stretched into the adjoining businesses. To accomplish even the first line’s being stretched, the first-arriving company officer must look at the overall picture. Life safety (responding firefighters and civilians) is our number-one priority. The first officer will need personnel and equipment and can’t be afraid to ask for additional alarms. The first five minutes of this operation would be critical. A water supply from at least two separate hydrants must be established, to supply the attack lines and protect firefighters.

Ventilate by opening the roof over the fire, if possible. The ceiling in the hobby shop and the adjoining businesses needs to be pulled to ensure that any fire spread is stopped. A trained RIT needs to be set up before a possible Mayday occurs. Additional backup handlines, minimum 13/4-inch, need to be stretched to assist first-due companies in the fire attack. Rehab needs to be in place. All of these activities, and many more, will not be possible unless a strong ICS and an accountability system are in place. The first officer on the scene needs to communicate with the IC. An aggressive interior attack may need to be turned into an aggressive exterior attack, depending on the building’s structural integrity.

Mitch Brooks, lieutenant, Columbus (OH) Division of Fire

Response: The initial attack line would be a 21/2-inch with a smooth-bore nozzle taken in through the front door. The large line would extinguish the fire and control extension. The smooth-bore nozzle allows for increased reach and penetration deep into the structure, facilitating removing ceiling coverings, exposing joists so they can be cooled down, and extinguishing any fire that might have extended to the truss loft.

Other initial operations would be establishing water supply and performing ventilation. Ideally, a ladder company would be available to support the initial attack. Forcible entry or an aggressive search might be needed, depending on the time of the incident.

Charles Wassman, assistant chief, Honolulu (HI) Fire Department

Response: If the fire has not communicated to the outside, I would stretch a 21/2-inch handline through the front door to extinguish the fire. Simultaneously, firefighters would inspect the common attic area above the stores with charged 11/2-inch handlines. Inspection would begin two doors left and right of the original fire unit. As personnel arrive, ventilation above the fire would be considered if the fire is still communicating. Of course, a RIT team with a safety officer would be in place.

Kai W. Rieger, firefighter paramedic, Jackson Township Fire Department, Canton, OH

Response: We would use a 21/2-inch initial handline. Since we would be operating from the front of the building, we’d have to get to the rear of the store and open it as soon as possible. If it is a newer strip mall with steel bar joist and metal deck roof construction, we would not attempt to cut a ventilation hole over the fire. We could assess roof information such as teetering HVAC units, bubbling tar, and so on. As soon as the rear of the building is open, horizontal ventilation using PPV can be instituted.

Exposures: Enter sides B and D exposures and assess fire spread. Pressurizing exposure occupancies with PPV can help to control smoke and fire in the exposures.

Even though this fire would be darkened down dramatically within the first minutes of operating the 21/2-inch attack line, many firefighters would still be needed to complete additional tasks—forcible entry if after store hours, for example. Having sufficient personnel early would make it possible to complete tasks simultaneously instead of sequentially.

Anthony Tricarico, captain, Fire Department of New York

Response: A 21/2-inch line would be stretched to the front entrance of the original fire occupancy, as called for in our SOPs. Two engine companies would be teamed to advance the first line, an advantage when moving in with a charged 21/2-inch line.

Often, fires in these types of buildings start in the rear, because that is where the utilities are. The slope of the roof is also pitched from the high point in the front to the low point in the rear, allowing the fire to extend upward toward the front of the building once it gets into the cockloft.

As initial entry is made into the fire occupancy, a truck company member would open up the ceiling right inside the entrance to determine if the fire has extended to this point and the type of roof structure. As the engine advances, the truck will continue to “pop” holes in the ceiling to determine if the fire’s advancing above the nozzle team.

Other initial operations:

  • Determine if the fire started in the rear on the first floor or has extended from the basement.
  • Send members to the roof to determine if firewalls and shafts are present, the type of construction, if there is fire extension, and the true size of the building—the magnitude and location of the fire and the type of roof structure would determine whether there would be vertical ventilation.
  • Place portable ladders to all sides of the building, to define the perimeter and provide escape routes for members operating on the roof.
  • Get to the rear to provide horizontal ventilation and possible access/egress.

The front and sides of the building will be kept clear for possible tower ladder access.

The remainder of the initial alarm assignment, once entry is made into the original occupancy, would search the adjoining occupancies for fire extension and stretch lines accordingly.

Tom Brennan, Fire Department of New York (ret.); chief (ret.), Waterbury (CT) Fire Department; Fire Engineering technical editor

Response: We don’t know if the mall is “open for business” or not