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Commercial fireground tactics require preplanning

Preplanning the contents and building construction, while performing walk-throughs and training, builds confidence in responding to these low-frequency events


The most important strategy to combat a commercial structure fire is building preplanning.

AP Photo/Stephan Savoia

Editor’s Note: The FireRescue1 Academy includes the Fire Reality Training Video “Large Commercial Building Fire.” Visit the FireRescue1 Academy to learn more and to schedule an online demo.

Commercial occupancies require the same basic fire behavior knowledge as any other type of structure. However, there are major differences to consider, including the large area of the building itself, as well as the fact that the fire load inside can vary in a wide range of combustible material. With that in mind, the most important strategy to combat a commercial structure fire is building preplanning.

Preplanning building construction and fire loads

Preplanning must be kept current and be up to date with the known commodity produced or stored inside. The fire response to a building with cardboard boxes is much different than one with 100,000 automobile tires. Further, building construction can be diverse even within one industrial park, and older buildings may have received renovations over the years, with undocumented improvements that have not been inspected.

Firefighters should work on pre-incident plans and develop a detailed knowledge of each building’s contents. This is a great opportunity for a training event each week or shift, particularly if there is a significant number of commercial buildings in your district. All department members should conduct a walk-through of every commercial building if possible. Though a giant undertaking, the information gained far outweighs the effort.

RPD and preplanning practice makes perfect

The recognition-primed decision (RPD) model was developed in 1985 by Dr. Gary Klein, describing how firefighters make important decisions quickly at an emergency scene. Klein’s theory was that firefighters reach back to a past event, either an emergency or training session, that best fits our current situation and applies that course of action to bring the event under control. In many districts around the country, large commercial fires are far and few between, so it is imperative that we take the time to train on every task that would come into play at such an event.

Fire crews must be out in the district and in the buildings. While there, have crews run through different scenarios of building fires, discuss the contents of the building and what reaction it will have once it is burning. Examine the doors and what it will take to force them open if required. Check with the owner or manager and see if you can get on the roof and even ladder the building. This is preplanning to the extreme, but what outstanding training for your crews. They are in their gear, throwing ladders on a building and gaining experience.

Even though it’s training, department members are still gathering valuable information, such as that they will need a 35-foot extension ladder to get to the roof on the C-side of the warehouse at the corner of Smith and Jones. Have your driver connect to the fire department connection (FDC) and lay out to the nearest hydrant. Have the crew stretch handlines to the rear overhead doors, as if this were an offensive attack and they were preparing to make entry.

If you are able to go to the roof, have the crew discuss the tools and equipment required if they were assigned to vent the building. Once they identify what they need, have them gear up and assemble supplies on the roof. Going through the motions will pinpoint deficiencies every time. Someone will not have their gear on correctly or someone will forget a piece of equipment, while someone else may not be able to operate the saw correctly. You will be surprised what can be missed, but it’s much better to find it now rather than later, when later is in the middle of an emergency. At least now, you can correct the issue and move forward.

Preplanning builds confidence on the job

Commercial structure fires have taken a significant number of firefighters’ lives. It goes without saying that the way we train for these fires can make a difference in whether you go home or not when a real emergency comes in.

Many years ago, I was assigned to a rescue company and dispatched to a large warehouse with a fire in the rear of the building. A fellow crewmember and I entered the front of the structure and made our way to the rear, in an attempt to locate and extinguish the fire. My younger, less experienced partner asked me if we should be in the building. I was not prepared for that question, and momentarily had second thoughts.

However, I knew I had trained for this and felt that I was adequately prepared to conduct a large-area search and extinguish the fire. I knew I was able to handle the assigned task and proceeded to do the very best I could to bring the situation under control. We should work to develop firefighters such as this, that are committed to their task at hand and will not hesitate to do the job.

Be safe and train hard!

Chief Keith Padgett serves as the Fire and Emergency Medical Services Academic Program Director with Columbia Southern University within the College of Safety and Emergency Services. A 42-year member of the fire service, Padgett previously served as fire chief of the Beulah Fire District in Valley, Alabama, and as the chief/fire marshal for the Fulton County Fire-Rescue Department in Atlanta. He is presently the Co-Chair of the Fire and Emergency Services Higher Education (FESHE) EMS curriculum workgroup. He also served as a Specialty Educational Board member for the IAFC Executive Fire Officer Program (EFOP) Section as the chair of the Professional Development/Higher Education sub-committee as well as a director-at-large board member on the IAFC’s Safety, Health and Survival Section. Padgett completed the Executive Fire Officer (EFO) Program through the National Fire Academy and has a Chief Fire Officer Destination through the Center for Public Safety Excellence (CPSE). He holds a master’s degree in leadership with an emphasis in disaster preparedness and executive fire leadership and a bachelor’s degree in public safety administration. Connect with Padgett on LinkedIn or via email.