Keeping Firefighters Safe When Working in “Big Box” Occupancies

By:  Robert Avsec

The vast majority of fires that Fire & EMS department personnel will experience during their fire service career will involve fires in residential lumber yardoccupancies: single and multi-family dwellings.  Fires in commercial and industrial properties, aka, “big box” occupancies are what Gordon Graham, a noted subject matter expert in risk management for emergency services, refers to as, “high risk, low frequency” events.

What’s Different About the “Big Box” Fire?

“Footprint” of such buildings are generally agreed to be 40,000 square feet or greater.  How did we arrive at 40,000 square feet?  The average length of a pre-connected 1 ¾” diameter hose line (the “bread & butter” line for fire attack in residential properties) is probably 200 feet.  So let’s see in what size building that length of line will meet our needs:

Big box hose stretches

You’re going to need large caliber streams (2 or 2 ½” diameter) or feeder lines wyed down to 1 ¾” lines to get water to the seat of a fire regardless the side of the building that you make entry.

big fire 1In addition to hose lines, everything else about firefighting in a “big box” occupancy will need to be “bigger”:  forcible entry (heavy-duty metal doors and overhead doors); ventilation and smoke removal (add a 25 foot building height to your 40,000 square footage and you have 1 million cubic feet of building to work on—think a small home improvements store); and personnel.

When the first unit arrives at a commercial or industrial property and observe visible fire conditions they must recognize that the fire already has a substantial “head start”.  Such situations require a high degree of situational awareness on the part of everyone on the scene and attention to following policy and procedures to the smallest detail so as to avoid a firefighter injury or death.

What Starts Well, Ends Well (Or at least has a better chance!)

The first arriving officer needs to conduct a 360-degree size up of the situation, but doing that on foot is not practical for a “big box” structure.  I would recommend that the first arriving officer establish command via radio with a radio report that “sounds” like this:

Communications from Engine 21.  Engine 21 on-scene at the Home Depot store, 4600 Ridgeway Drive.  Nothing visible at this time.  Making entry through main door, Side “Alpha”, to make contact with building rep.  Engine 21 has Ridgeway Command, investigating.

Ridgeway Command is going to: (1) make contact with the property representative, e.g., manager, building owner, security guard, etc., and (2) gain access to the building fire alarm/suppression system control panel.  While Command is starting their “information collection and analysis”, they should designate a second unit to conduct the 360-degree assessment of the building by driving around the structure:

2nd arriving unit from Ridgeway Command, conduct drive-around 360 assessment of the Home Depot and report results to Command.

Ridgeway Command from Engine 12.  Copy assignment to conduct 360 and report to Command upon completion.

Until Command has enough information to develop an initial Incident Action Plan (IAP) they should designate a Staging Area and direct all other responding units to report to the Staging Area.

All incoming units except Engine 12 from Ridgeway Command.  Report to Staging Area in outer parking lot along Ridgeway Drive.

Once Command has an IAP, they can start giving tactical assignments to those units in Staging.  This should make for better tactical deployment of those resources because Command–through a combination of their information collection & analysis and that obtained by Engine 12 during their 360 assessment–should have a pretty clear idea of: (1) where in the building is the fire located; (2) what is the best point of entry for fire attack; (3) where hydrants are located on all four sides; and (4) what does building access look like on all four sides of the structure.

Communicate, Coordinate, and Control:  The Three “C’s” of Command

The initial Incident Commander must quickly establish an efficient and effective command structure so that from the on-set of operations they KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA[the IC] have “eyes and ears” and strong tactical leadership on all four sides of structure. (Divisions A, B, C, and D).  Once this has been done, the IC now has:

  • Two-way communication from all sides of the incident;
  • A tactical leader to which they can direct incoming resources;
  • A tactical leader to direct tactical operations in each geographical sector of the incident; and
  • A “Safety Officer” (the Supervisor) in each geographical sector.

(Review just about any post-incident review conducted by NIOSH for structural firefighting operations that resulted in a firefighter fatality and you’ll typically see those four factors among the noted deficiencies).

Fires in “big box” occupancies can be challenging because we encounter them so infrequently.  You and your department can meet the challenge more safely, effectively, and efficiently by using thinking, strategy, and tactics that are “bigger” as well.

About Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

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Battalion Chief (Ret.) Robert Avsec served with the men and women of the Chesterfield County (VA) Fire and EMS Department for 26 years. He’s now using his acquired knowledge, skills, and experiences as a freelance writer for FireRescue1.com and as the “blogger in chief” for this blog. Chief Avsec and his wife of 30+ years now make their home in Cross Lanes, WV. Contact him via e-mail, rpa1157@gmail.com.