‘A world of unknowns’: Garage fires pose unique hazards for firefighters

Fuel loads, overhead storage and exposure concerns make garage fires anything but ordinary

Many homes have a garage, perhaps even garages (plural!) based on the type of structure and/or the amount of land. Some garages are attached to the house and some are detached. But really, apart from the house, a garage is a separate building unto itself.

Many people think a garage is just a big box with a roll up door, but they are designed for specific purposes with various functions – and they feature unique hazards.

A garage is a world of unknowns in terms of what is behind the door. While the primary purpose is to store a vehicle, we all know how often that is not the case. Garages have become a multi-purpose building used for anything and everything for which the homeowner deems necessary. Many garages are used simply as a storage unit for the house, meaning just about anything could be in there. This is what makes the garage a world of unknowns.

When a garage catches on fire, it is quite often not a simple little fire – and we need to respond accordingly.

This month’s video shows the Los Angeles Fire Department’s response to a garage fire – a good example of what we can learn in terms of the common hazards that we’ll find in these structures.

The biggest hazard encountered will be the fuel load inside the garage. Seeing as these are often storage facilities for homeowners, firefighters can expect to find garages that are packed with a high fuel load. Besides a vehicle or two inside, which is a high fuel load, firefighters will find many only volatile products that can contribute to a quick fire spread and heavy involvement. Do not be surprised to find items that would be regulated/prohibited in a commercial building or industrial building right there in a garage.

Depending on the type of garage, another hazard will be overhead storage. Many homeowners will cram seemingly all their worldly possessions into every available inch of overhead storage or attic space. But garage attic space is not designed for storage of contents. The trusses are typically not designed to hold a load on the horizontal truss chord, although this is exactly what people do. They load up the truss members with everything – and it will be heavy. One garage fire to which I responded had a load of fence boards piled up the entire height of the attic and the entire width of the truss chord. That is a heavy load that will easily collapse under extreme heat conditions.

The last main hazard will be exposures. Regardless of whether the garage is attached or detached, the exposures of the main house and adjacent structure is a primary concern. With the high fuel load producing a high heat release rate with radiant heat transferring easily, any exposures nearby will soon ignite and become a new fire problem. Firefighters must immediately manage exposures to prevent fire spread.

Training time

After watching this video and reading this resource with your company, I encourage you to engaged in the following training:

  • Discuss what tactics can be employed by the first-arriving truck to stabilize the incident.
  • Go round the table to identify the variety of fuel loads and other hazards that could be found inside a garage.
  • Review collapse safety and train on entrapment scenarios.
  • Get out in the community, find houses under construction, and check out the modern method and materials used to construct garages.
  • Look at common exposures and the distance between garages, homes and neighboring structures, then discuss how best to protect exposures based on distance from the garage.

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