Use of Fire Fighting “Basics” Thwarts Mall Fire

Use of Fire Fighting “Basics” Thwarts Mall Fire


An overheated light fixture touched off a fire that damaged a section of a 944,259-squarefoot shopping mall. The incident served not only to reinforce the value of basic fire fighting tactics, but to cause command personnel to fine tune fire fighting procedures. This article contains many important lessons—for all fire fighters.

Fire and smoke swept through portions of the large, enclosed Colonial Plaza Shopping Mall in Orlando, Fla., last October.

The aggressive interior attack of 125 fire fighters battled the blaze for 2½ hours and held damage to practically the area of origin.

Construction and fire protection

The fire area in the north side of the mall was of 1 1/2-story concrete block with bar joists supported by the block walls and protected steel beams. The roof was lightweight concrete over corrugated metal decking with built-up asphalt and gravel. The party walls separating the individual commercial occupancies did not continue as a fire barrier to the underside of the roof deck. The building code in effect at the time of construction permitted 8 to 12-inch openings above the partition wall.

Although most of the mall was of newer construction, protected by sprinkler systems, the shops in this older section, built before protection was required, were unsprinklered.

Because of the additional Christmas inventories, the fire load was heavier than normal.

The initial alarm to this $1.25-million blaze was transmitted by the Jarman Shoes Store manager, who detected an odor of smoke. On further investigation he saw sparks in and around the front window. He turned off the electrical supply to the air-conditioning units, and at 7:28 p.m. transmitted the alarm to the Orlando Fire Department.

Size-up and fire attack

The initial response to the alarm was two engine companies, a tower ladder, a rescue unit, and Captain James Brennan as district officer. Upon entering the mall, the first-arriving engine on initial size-up reported smoke conditions inside the mall, and immediately stretched sufficient 1¾-inch hose to the shoe store.

Brennan ordered the second engine to stretch into and supply the mall’s combination standpipe/sprinkler system. He also radioed to incoming Tower 1 to set up on the east side of the mall and accomplish roof ventilation and size-up near the fire area. In addition, Brennan requested a second ladder truck to assist in the evacuation of civilians, which was underway by security personnel.

The initial attack by the 1 3/4-inch hose on the fire area was thwarted by heavy fire and smoke conditions in the mezzanine stock area in the rear of the shoe store.

Assistant Chief Charlie Lewis arrived and took command at 7:40 p.m. Brennan was assigned interior operations. Lewis then requested a full second alarm.

The roof venting team at this time reported heavy smoke from all openings above the shoe store. Also, flames were visible inside air-conditioning ducts above the roof of the shoe store. Lewis ordered complete shutdown of the air-handling units.

Evacuation complete, the aerial ladder unit was then assigned the northern exposure (Rutlands) to check for extension. Smoke continued to build in the mall area as fire was then reported spreading horizontally to Rutlands.

The walkway provided with a sprinkler system had sufficient heat buildup to fuse three heads. They did not attack the fire, however, instead they caused smoke conditions to worsen at the operating level.

Engine crews inside the shoe store were continually hampered by heavy smoke, heat and fire problems which were additionally complicated by the storage configuration in the mezzanine area. Brennan ordered the first floor ceilings to be pulled, hoping to deflect water streams to the seat of the fire.

Lewis ordered a third alarm, and paging systems automatically brought additional command personnel to the scene. Operations Bureau Deputy Chief Joseph Hobby arrived and assumed command of the resource sector. He thereby relieved Lewis of the responsibility of coordinating manpower and support services such as police, traffic and crowd control, and SCBA replenishment.

Administrative Assistant Greg Gentleman arrived and took charge of media release at the scene. A medical and rehabilitation center was set up immediately outside the mall entrance in the relative safety of the exterior mall walkway. Smoke continued to build up.

Twenty minutes had passed and companies were still unable to locate visible fire in the exposures. However, smoke and heat were continually noted.

Other companies began to stretch additional hose lines from the mall’s standpipe system, one to back up the initial attack line in Jarman’s and another to Rutlands.

Companies reported that fire was now located above the ceiling of Rutlands. Lewis ordered additional ventilation holes cut above this store by use of circular power saws.

The mall fire was started by an overheated fluorescent light fixture ballast in the display window of the Jarman Shoes Store.

After positioning hose lines, additional interior companies were ordered to pull ceilings inside Lane Bryant to cut off fire at that point. Fire was controlled before this, but these backup lines assured that extension would not pass the cut-off point.

Acting Fire Chief John R. Hunt supervised crews in the north end of the mall. Lines were led to the sprinkler system of Woolworth’s and to the standpipe sprinkler system at Ivey’s.

Interior handlines were positioned in readiness in Woolworth’s and the mall corridor.

The aggressive interior efforts began to pay off. The fire was showing signs of control. Interior lines were advancing and fire in the northern exposure had been stopped.

Roof teams noticed and reported a definite sag in the covering over the fire store. Its location also held in place heavy air-conditioning systems. Interior fire fighting efforts were momentarily halted while fire fighters ascertained the collapse potential.

“The sagging roof actually closed the gap above the party wall leading to the northern exposures, reducing the fire spread potential,” said Lewis. “Unfortunately, this also caused the fire to spread momentarily unnoticed to the occupancy (Pants USA) east of the shoe store.”

This change caught command officers temporarily off guard. Additional lines had not been planned for eastern extension of this fire. However, a 1%-inch backup line from the shoe store was quickly positioned up the stairs and into the cockloft and storage area of Pants USA, cutting off the fire extension threat.

Hobby ordered 100 additional air cylinders. The replenishment of air packs was facilitated by the use of commandeered shopping carts. Additional logistic problems in manpower and equipment were assigned to Assistant Chief H.W. Burns, who coordinated these efforts from a downtown station.

As the fire continued, additional engines and rescue companies were called to the scene, bringing the fire to a fourth alarm. This included the first mutual-aid company from the Orange County Fire Department.

The Orange County Department of Emergency Services brought their communications bus to the scene, and the command post was moved into this well-equipped vehicle in the east parking lot.

Orlando’s Arson Task Force reported to the scene and began their investigation by interviewing the shoe store manager and other witnesses.

Brennan reported that fire fighters were pulling the facia boards separating the Jarman storage area from the mall walkways to gain better access to the fire. No heavy fire was found in the storage area at that time, although heavy smoke and heat were present. Spot fires and some buildups continued to plague fire fighters for the next hour, but at 9:59 p.m., the fire was declared under control by command officers.

The sagging roof closed the gap above the party wall, reducing the fire spread potential.

Orlando Fire Department crews remained on the scene for salvage, overhaul, and cleanup work until noon the following day. “Because of the efforts of the Orlando Fire Department, we were able to open the mall on schedule at 10 a.m. the next day,” said Dick Phinney, manager of the mall. Jarman Shoes, Pants USA, Rutlands, and Lane Bryant remained closed, and dozens of other stores suffered smoke damage, but most were able to remain open during cleanup.

During the fire, only five fire fighters were injured. Of the five, only one required hospital treatment. Lieutenant John Hackett was treated and released for smoke inhalation and first degree burns after he fell through a walkway above the Jarman Shoes display case where the fire started.

By midnight, Arson Task Force investigators, with the assistance of Jerry Troutman from the Orlando Utilities Commission pinpointed the cause of the fire. A fluorescent light fixture ballast in the display window of Jarman Shoes overheated and caused a 2 X 10-inch piece of wood above the display window to ignite. While the fire was near the air-conditioning duct where the store manager first spotted smoke, the air-conditioner problems had nothing to do with the fire cause, according to investigators.

An aggressive interior attack, rapid venting, and quick deployment of backup lines helped keep the fire to practically the area of origin.

More than 125 fire fighters were used on the scene and at other locations. Catch up was avoided during this extending fire by having manpower standby.

Since the blaze, the management and owners of the Colonial Plaza Mall have worked closely with the Orlando Fire Department’s Fire Prevention Division to formulate a plan to finish sprinklering the entire mall. Sprinklers were installed in Jarman Shoes and Pants USA when they were refurbished. A time frame is being finalized for a phased project to offer sprinker protection to the rest of the unprotected stores in the mall.

If a similar fire were to occur, many things reinforced here would be repeated, some would not, according to commanders.

The first and second-alarm companies mounted an extremely aggressive interior attack, and the truck companies vented quickly.

Another positive move was the rapid deployment of backup lines into areas not involved in the fire. Commanders decided early that it was necessary to use some manpower to lay these lines just in case the fire spread faster or farther than anticipated. Early deployment of backup lines ahead of the fire removed the possibility of fire fighters having to play catch up and chase the fire through the mall.

Salvage operations were done thoroughly after the main body of fire was knocked down but they could have been started earlier. A reaffirmation of basics in this area, to wit, an early coupling of salvage with fire fighting is of value.

Adequate manpower was provided by transmitting extra alarms early in the fire and calling in off-duty personnel. More than 125 fire fighters were used on the scene, and at other locations during the fire. Catch up was again avoided. “Manpower at standby during an extending fire is a basic strategy for success,” said Lewis.

External streams were not applied through the vent holes on the roof. The ventilation holes were used for their intended purpose, allowing heat, fire, and smoke to escape, thus facilitating the rapid advance of interior attack lines to the seat of the fire.

While in most respects the fire fighting went very well, the operation was not perfect.

On the negative side, the lack of a staging officer in the initial stages of the fire caused some confusion and delays in early setup. In the future, a command officer will be assigned the staging function early in the fire.

Coordination between the interior sector and roof sector was difficult. Heavy smoke and fire above Jarman Shoes, and heavy smoke in the mall, made it difficult to identify “landmarks” common to both the inside and roof of the building. This caused problems in prompt identification of exactly where the vent holes could be cut for maximum effect.

While air bottles were promptly brought to the scene, spare radio batteries, air packs, and other expendables did not arrive until later in the fire, when they were needed immediately.

In the future, it may be the Orlando Fire Department’s policy to have the unit bringing additional air bottles take a few extra moments and pick up other expendables, such as radio batteries, and bring them to the scene at the same time.

The main combat efforts were assigned to the Orlando Fire Department’s second UHF radio channel. Resource and support sectors were assigned to TAC 3. There must be good coordination between the command officer and the resource officer. The use of single earphones rather than dual headphone sets by command may allow better verbal communications with support and resource officers. If possible, all fire fighting operations should be confined to one radio channel. Given an opportunity, some fire fighting operations tended to “evolve” on other TACs, if not tightly controlled.

There must be good coordination between the command officer and the resource officer. The use of single earphones rather than dual headphone sets by command may allow better verbal communications with support and resource officers. If possible, all fire fighting operations should be confined to one radio channel.

A review of the fire also showed that the medical/rehab sector was set up too close to the main entrance/exit of the structure. This occurred because there were a number of benches readily available adjacent to the entrance. Also, on this particular fire, crews going through rehab tended to sometimes get separated from each other. Company officers should attempt to keep their crews together, even during rehab, so the crews can be redeployed quickly when ready.

It’s felt by the Orlando Fire Department that the containment and control of this potentially massive fire was accomplished by:

  • Early detection and transmission of the initial alarm to fire forces.
  • Basics: mounting of an aggressive interior attack coupled with early vertical and controlled horizontal ventilation.
  • Transmission of additional alarms and recall to provide adequate manpower and logistical support at the scene when needed.
  • Use of a command structure that broke the fireground management into controllable sectors.

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