Warehouse fires: The big fire that requires big water
What firefighters need to know about size-up, ventilation, fire attack – and when to go defensive
Warehouse fires: Where else can a bunch of on-duty firefighters meet up, aggressively fight fire for about 15-20 minutes, then back the lines out and set up for 8-10 hours of defensive operations, have food and beverages delivered, solve all the world’s problems, and catch up on all things that matter in life, all the while flowing thousands of gallons of water per minute?
Of course, this is also a good opportunity for firefighters who aren’t normally assigned to aerial devices to receive some real-world training on such devices – or at the very least take a ride in a tower!
A warehouse fire true story
After transferring into a new district, a captain hits the ground running. In his first three tours of duty at his new station, he makes three warehouse fires – and not a single warehouse was saved.
On his fourth tour, his engine was dispatched to yet another warehouse fire. The officer thought he had this one. He had studied and thought about the recent rash of warehouse fires in his district, and he thought for sure he had a plan.
The officer’s engine company was first due again to their fourth warehouse fire with moderate smoke coming from the A/D corner. The fire occurred on a weekend, and no vehicles were in the parking lot.
Side A consisted of a small office entrance and 14 large overhead doors with below-grade ramps that trucks would back down into for off-loading their deliveries.
On the A/D corner, an additional garage door was at grade level. This is where the officer decided to make entry and the initial attack.
The officer cut a standard triangular access hole in the bay door and was greeted with heavy black smoke down to the floor. He entered the building and found the chain to hoist the door open just inside the doorway. Working in zero visibility, the officer pulled on the chain until he met resistance.
When he walked into the clear, his crew was just finishing setting up the blitz-fire ground monitor supplied with 3-inch hose.
Using the department-provided thermal-imaging camera (TIC), the officer initially attempted to locate the source of the smoke, but what the camera did not show was a dividing wall had been built approximately 40 feet beyond the door.
The officer retrieved a search rope from the engine and returned to the doorway. He communicated his plan to his crew and had his firefighters stage at the door while he entered the zero-visibility conditions in search of the seat of the fire. Approximately 40 feet in, the officer found the seat of the fire. The fire showed on the TIC to be the size of a small passenger vehicle. It appeared to be a pile of waste material.
As the officer returned to the doorway, he could hear a hose stream flowing inside the building. It sounded like a car wreck on a repeating cycle that plays over and over.
When the officer exited the building and looked back, he could see two companies aggressively flowing water into the smoke, nowhere near the seat of the fire.
The officer ordered his crew to forget about the blitz-fire setup and pull a 2½-inch hose and follow him to the seat of the fire. As the crew arrived near the seat of the fire and started to flow, the hose line went limp. When the nozzle was closed, the hose line stiffened up again. This repeated several times, and the officer asked the chauffeur what he was pumping. The chauffeur responded with the correct pressure.
The officer opened the nozzle again and the hoseline went limp. The officer reported this to command and exited the building to retrieve another hoseline because the officer felt it was still possible to extinguish or contain the fire.
As the crew exited, the officer was approached by a division officer who was now assuming Alpha division. The division officer determined that it was time to go defensive.
The company officer was floored. He did not understand why they were going defensive. He explained to the division officer that he had located the seat of the fire and the approximate size and that he felt it could be extinguished or contained. The division officer paused for a moment, but then he insisted that they were sticking with the defensive strategy.
Soon the company officer learned two critical factors that drove the decision for defensive operations.
- The A/D corner had racks upon racks of full propane cylinders.
- The material burning was recycled plastic pellets the size of a kernel of corn, difficult enough to extinguish when you can see what you’re doing, entirely impossible in zero visibility.
Soon after the company officer removed his SCBA and got a drink of water, the fire began to spread like someone had poured gasoline in the building, and within 20 minutes, the entire 20,000-square-foot building was engulfed in fire.
After learning of those two factors, the company officer was in agreement. You see, the first three warehouses that burned to the ground were of the same recycled plastic. You can put a hose stream on the pile of burning plastic, but that just cools the surface much like a hard chocolate cover on an ice cream cone. The plastic underneath was still molten and hot enough to reignite once you removed the hose stream.
When all four fires were “tapped out,” there was literally no evidence of what was burning inside the buildings. The contents has been consumed.
Tactical observations for warehouse fires
Warehouse operations can come and go in the middle of the night.
A well-documented preplan has the potential to be almost entirely useless a week after it is put on the apparatus or chief’s vehicle. Companies change hands, and operations change as quick as the stock market rises and falls.
The point: What’s in a warehouse today may be something else entirely tomorrow.
Then there is always the warehouse that remains the same for years, but the occupant allows their buddies to store personal items in the building as well. Items ranging from furniture to boats could be inside a warehouse that illegally stores flammable or caustic liquids in large 500-gallon vats.
Sizing up a warehouse can be difficult. It can also be time-consuming. However, it can also be the most beneficial step you take for the entire incident. It will remove most questions you have about your attack options.
It will tell you if the warehouse has a sprinkler system and if it is flowing. It will also tell you if you have additional FDC connections available. The most important observation, though, will be where and how many doors are available that can be opened for ventilation and the attack positions for entry or defensive operations.
The best method for sizing-up a mega-warehouse is to simply drive around the building before even committing to a location.
Don’t forget about sizing-up your water supply as well. As you are driving into and around the complex, make a mental note of any hydrants you come across. Then, in your radio report, advise incoming crews and command of the locations. It is critical to provide this information as quickly as possible, as the incoming crews will start stacking up inside the complex, making access and logistics a communications nightmare.
Ventilation is top priority
After the size-up, initial-arriving companies should focus on ventilation. Ventilation will do three things at once:
- Lift the smoke off the floor;
- Help you locate the fire faster; and
- Allow a more rapid and aggressive attack on the seat of the fire.
I have been a part of and witnessed enough warehouse fires to emphatically state that simply opening one or two doors and committing to vertical ventilation on a warehouse fire has never accomplished substantially enough ventilation to improve working conditions at these events.
Warehouse fires require big openings.
Horizontal ventilation is going to be the fastest method of ventilation on mega-warehouses. I am not suggesting you forego vertical ventilation, but when you open up a roll-up door that creates an opening 120 square feet at a time with little effort, it’s hard to say that you’re going to improve on that with even two to three vertical ventilation crews in a timely manner.
Now, imagine if you open two, three, four or all of the roll-up doors! It will make working conditions more tenable – and you can actually see the seat of the fire before committing attack crews.
Regarding vertical ventilation, by all means, send crews to the roof. Send multiple crews to the roof. Have them give roof reports and begin vertical ventilation, if possible, and if it can be accomplished in an expedient amount of time that will yield benefits to the initial attack operation.
However, if they find that they are dealing with a concrete roof, their efforts can be better spent doing something else, simply because they could potentially be cutting for hours before they actually cut a hole substantial enough to overcome any significant fire products inside a warehouse.
No interior attack should commence, and no apparatus positioning should be committed to, until after a good size-up has been accomplished and ventilation operations have been deemed effective.
You do not want to commit that first attack line until you have as much information as possible. You want to avoid creating an increased workload on the attack crew by starting the attack from a poor tactical advantage.
When ventilation efforts have started and the effects of ventilation are seen, that is when the safest, easiest and quickest tactical choice to initiate the attack on a warehouse fire occurs. We know this isn’t always possible, but ventilation efforts must still take priority and remain ongoing as necessary.
Another option is to send a recon crew or multiple recon crews from multiple entry points in first. This crew is equipped with 200 feet of search rope and a TIC. Let them locate the fire and report back to the attack group. This saves a lot of unnecessary effort for the crew that should be advancing a 2½-inch hose line. This allows them to start in the most advantageous tactical position and eliminates searching for the fire while trying to advance the handline.
Many, many times, the best-laid plans will still end in disappointment. Either the materials stored inside cannot be extinguished like plastics warehouses, or the fire is just too far advanced prior to arrival.
Defensive operations should be considered early into the strategy, even while the initial efforts are just getting started. Command should be planning for defensive operations even as they are sending in the initial interior attack crews.
If the fire was small and the initial attack efforts were successful, we can chalk it up to our training and aggressive tactics.
However, if we go headfirst into a warehouse fire without planning early for defensive operation and operations go south, we will be playing catch-up during the entire event, and you can bet the incident will be the topic of conversation for weeks to come as they watch the events unfold on social media, over and over and over.
Ladders should be given tactical priority positions. Command should avoid having multiple engines stack up near or around the warehouse, blocking the ladder’s ability to operate to its fullest potential.
Ladders should be positioned so that they may flow from below the roofline, meaning they should be flowing into the doors used for loading and unloading the delivery trucks. A well-positioned ladder or tower can flow water deeper into the warehouse than any handline or blitz-fire type ground monitor.
Additional hydrants should be located, and companies assigned to those hydrants should begin creating the supply system that will be necessary for sustained operations. Command can also contact public works for additional assistance with water supply, as they have the ability to boost pressure and fix any low flow issues from the water system.
Defensive operations can still be interior operations. Command may determine that part of the warehouse cannot be extinguished and then operations are shifted to a more protection-type operation to control any additional spread or loss.
In this type of operation, part of the building is written off and the focus is in moving as many handlines and master streams into a position that will cut off the path of any oncoming fire to the rest of the building.
Warehouse fires: Smart suggestions
Here’s a final list of some smart suggestions for managing warehouse fires:
- Learn to appreciate a good size-up. It will make your initial decisions easier and could answer a lot of questions in the later stages of operations.
- Throw as many companies as possible into horizontal ventilation operations. Get as many overhead doors open as quickly as possible to help reduce the physical efforts on any attack crew that will be advancing a 2½-inch handline through zero visibility.
- Plan for an interior attack, but prepare for and train for large extended operation in the defensive mode.
- Assign a water supply officer as soon as possible. Their function will be to plan for and make sure that operations are efficient and effective. Many times, a lone chauffeur or an inexperienced firefighter riding up as chauffeur can make a mess of the entire supply operation. Having a water supply officer assigned can help remedy any mistakes.
- Training for warehouse fires should be focused on communications, forcible entry and water supply operations. Crews need to maintain radio discipline, be skilled in opening large overhead doors that will provide the ventilation and proficient in providing the water supply that will almost ultimately be needed for extended operations.
- Command should have early plans for rehab, food, fuel, batteries for radios, and hazmat consideration.
Avoid the circus
Warehouse fires often end in complete destruction. The company officer of the initial attack crew can have the best plan for the initial attack, but it isn’t always left up to that officer. Oftentimes the outcome is decided long before the tones even drop. However, we should not look like a three-ring circus when responding to these types of events.
If you have warehouses in your response area, plan for them and train for them. Train for long lays, hook-ups, relay operation and all the coordination involved in getting it up and flowing. Train for the big fire that truly will require big water.
Editor’s Note: What’s your go-to warehouse fire advice? Share in the comments below.