How to safely attack dumpster fires

The contents of a dumpster fire are often a dangerous enigma, but knowing positioning, PPE and how to attack dumpster fires can mitigate the hazards

By Jason Poremba

Firefighters often overlook the dangers of dumpster fires. Dumpster fire safety and firefighting tactics rarely appear on training schedules. This could be for various reasons, but the most likely reason is the fires appear to be very "simple" operations with very limited potential for danger.

There are no perceived life hazards at stake, and no apparent property at risk, so why should we race in with full PPE to extinguish them? The purpose of this training article is to highlight some of the dangers of dumpster fires and show some things to consider when attacking your next dumpster fire.

When the call goes out as a dumpster fire we almost automatically allow our guards to go down. In terms of dangerous operations, car fires and dumpster fires are neck and neck. Both types of fires are often approached with a similar lack of concern in the fire service.

Firefighters are the life hazard at dumpster fires. Protection of the crew is the most important aspect of the attack and overhaul of the fire. The unknown and hidden dangers are what make dumpster fires so potentially deadly. The same complacency and lack of personal protection in vehicle fires plagues dumpster fires. We are typically approaching these fires unprotected and are often unprepared for the unexpected.

This fire features large roll-off dumpster with access at ends.

All firefighters making an attack on a dumpster fire should be in full PPE at all times. No smoke is safe to breathe at a dumpster fire, and often smoke at dumpster fires can be the most toxic of all fires. This will always vary and will depend on the specific contents of the dumpster. We must go into all dumpster fires assuming the worst case scenario so we are always prepared. Assuming there are no exposure issues, there is no reason to rush into a dumpster fire and put firefighters at risk of injury. Take the time to correctly place the apparatus and ensure you have a positive water source for the operation.

Be cautious of wind direction and slope of the ground in the fire area. You do not want to be in a position in which the smoke is blowing directly towards the apparatus, or hazardous fuels or liquids are draining back towards the apparatus as well. Once the apparatus is in position the firefighters should proceed in full PPE. They should proceed with caution and be aware of inhalation and explosive hazards. Be aware of potential exposure issues and maintain scene control by keeping civilians clear away from the dumpster. If the dumpster is located near a structure, command may need to call for additional manpower to protect the exposures at risk.

This fire features large roll-off dumpster fire

On the approach, consider making an attack at an angle. Corners are the strongest portion of the dumpster. The strength of the corner can offer additional protection in the event of an explosion. Depending on the size and design of the dumpster, there are often access doors, panels, and some will even be designed to allow the end to open completely. Avoid the urge to enter the dumpster and make an "interior" attack, and stay away from direct approaches towards access panels and doors.

Expect the unexpected. Assume all dumpsters are potential bombs. Depending on the size of the dumpster you may consider a 1 ¾" or 2 ½" line or multiple lines. Try not to commit too many firefighters to the attack. This will all depend on the size of the dumpster and the fire load. There is nothing wrong with hitting the dumpster with a master stream from a truck or a deck gun from an engine on the initial attack.

This department uses the height of the truck to make attack. Just be careful of placement on this technique. Anything that potentially explodes out the end of the dumpster will go right back at the crew.

  • Lob the water into the dumpster as you make your move.
  • A major portion of the fire can be knocked down safely from a distance.
  • Be cautious of inhalation, explosion, and potential spill hazards.
  • Firefighters should come equipped with the proper tools.
  • Consider multiple pike poles for overhaul and a ladder.

A ladder is often used to get the nozzle firefighter to a height in which they can safely attack the fire from above. This prevents the firefighter from having to reach over the top of the dumpster without being able to see on the other side. Once the fire is knocked down, the firefighters will overhaul the contents by mixing and overturning the contents with pike poles. Quite often the only way to ensure the fire is completely out is by literally filling the dumpster with water. If your department has foam, this is a great opportunity to use the foam.

This video was titled "Rookie Dumpster Fire – New Guys Training" – on Youtube.

Here's a quick list of things to consider when attacking a dumpster fire:

  • Apparatus Positioning: Wind, leaking fluids, and exposure issues — how should we position our equipment to make a safe attack?
  • Life Hazard: Firefighters are the life hazard — how aggressive do we really need to be?
  • Type of Dumpster: Size, access, potential contents
  • The Unknown: Fertilizer, propane tanks, gas containers, pesticides, fuels, hazardous liquids and materials, etc.

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