10 ways to stay safe in strip malls

Use these steps to protect against the 'funny haze' turning into fire overhead


We get a call to a strip mall for a laundromat that has a light haze. As we arrive, we notice a few people standing under the overhang canopy in front the store and some are still inside trying to gather their laundry. 

There is a very light haze near the ceiling that is full of fluorescent light fixtures. There is definitely a smell of something burning in the occupancy.

Since the smell seems to be similar to that of an electrical fire, we should proceed to the rear of the unit to the panel box. Or should we? That is the big question. 

At the electric panel we find an unlabeled breaker tripped. The manager says that all of the lights are working and they haven't noticed any electrical equipment not working.

What we don't see is that a small fire above us started in an abandoned junction box with old and compromised wiring.

Prone to hidden fire

Commercial occupancies are especially prone to this type of scenario. This situation can be found not only in strip mall stores but also fast-food restaurants, office buildings and just about any other commercial occupancy that has a drop ceiling. 

In today's building construction low mass, or lightweight engineered, construction is even more dangerous in these types of incidents. The low mass, small dimensional lumber and all of the "non-flammable" glues holding it all together are easy to burn and prone to failure and fire spread in contrast to our old type three buildings or even type two buildings in some cases.

These commercial rooftops are loaded to the max with heating and cooling units and other commercial equipment to keep them off of the ground and away from thieves. However, these newer roofs are designed only for that regions snow load, the dead load for the equipment and with a little wiggle for someone to get up there and work. 

There is no load calculation for fire; there is no formula for that when engineering these building.

Facing the fire

We don't want any fire above us or behind us. Not having the fire facing us is never a good thing. We can't see its behavior or travel and at what rate it is growing. 

It can spread unchecked and then show itself in places that are not conducive for our survival. It doesn't matter how small or how large, we cannot let fire grow above our heads or get behind us, cutting off our exit.

When talking with new firefighters and even officers, I always present the situation that I described to ask what their first move would be. It's very easy to get tunnel vision and to chase a smell that is typically just a light ballast or bad wiring connection. 

The answer in many cases is to go to the electrical panel first. Most of the time that is effective and everything will be fine.

Since fire can run above our heads in occupancies like this, use these 10 practices when entering any commercial occupancy with an odor and/or light haze.

  1. Always know your response area and building types to determine where unseen fire can hide and spread.
  2. Wear full PPE and SCBA.
  3. A minimum cache of tools and equipment should include a thermal imaging camera, forcible entry tools, water extinguisher and at least one pike pole or hook that will reach the ceiling.
  4. Evacuate all occupants from that specific area until it is cleared.
  5. When first entering the building with a haze, right inside the door lift a ceiling tile and use a hand light to look for smoke.
  6. Continue to lift ceiling tiles as you progress through the building or unit checking for fire or smoke.
  7. While checking above the ceiling tiles, look for old ceiling materials that may not have been removed during past renovations.
  8. Use the thermal imaging camera to look for unseen heat and fire.
  9. Be thorough.
  10. If you have a large area and there is a hard to find haze, stretch a dry line to the door.

Probably the most important tactics listed is lifting the ceiling tiles. This will ensure that you don't have a fire above your head. Depending on the number of old ceilings, type of tiles and insulation, fires can spread unchecked very easy as we work underneath. It's an easy thing to do and really takes little effort in most cases.

Be diligent and take a few very simple precautions to keep you and your crew safe. I'm sure some of you have other ideas for safe operations for these "routine" incidents and feel free to share with us. 

Until next month, stay safe, expect fire and train hard. I'll see you on the fireground.

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