Rapid Response: Walmart facility fire highlights safety hazards of massive enclosed spaces
Fires in expansive structures – in this case 1.2 million square feet – can quickly overwhelm fire protection systems and crews
On Wednesday, March 16, just prior to noon, the Plainfield (Indiana) Fire Department along with surrounding jurisdictions responded to a 1.2-million-square-foot Walmart distribution center fire in Plainfield. Plainfield Fire Chief Brent Anderson reported that Plainfield crews were in the area training, arriving on scene within 3 minutes of the dispatch.
Chief Anderson reports crews encountered “heavy smoke and fire conditions inside the warehouse and immediately reported zero visibility. We fought the fire for about half-an-hour before it got well ahead of us, and we had to pull all crews out.” The attack then took a defensive stance, and widely shared pictures and video show the fire consume the warehouse.
The chief reports that a mayday was called for two missing firefighters, but those firefighters were found safe and the mayday was quickly canceled. Amazingly, there have been no significant injuries to the hundreds of workers who had been in the facility at the time the fire ignited. As of this writing, one firefighter had experienced a minor injury but was able to return to the scene.
Many local, state and federal partners are gathering to investigate the circumstances of the fire, as there is currently no cause or sprinkler-system information available.
A quick review of the audio traffic gives three critical takeaways that likely had significant impact on this incident outcome:
- “We’re having trouble getting out in here (radio). Can we monitor a talk-around channel?” (Note: Bi-directional amplifiers (BDAs) are critical to communications success in buildings of this size.)
- “Water on the fire, fire under control, open the bay doors.”
- “Shut down the sprinkler riser.”
Why it’s important
When it comes to fires of this magnitude, the first critical factor is the clear danger to firefighters. These incidents cannot be treated like routine building fires. Further, the commercial impact to the community and an already challenged supply chain is undeniable.
This is not the first distribution center fire to challenge firefighters in recent months. The December 2021 fire at a 1.4-million-square-foot QVC distribution center fire in North Carolina was, at the time, declared the largest structure fire in North Carolina history. Its cause remains under investigation.
Expansive spaces on fire spell bad news for firefighters. In this case, the 1.2 million square feet (roughly the size of 21 football fields) quickly became an inferno, overwhelming both a sprinkler system and firefighting crews. We don’t need to look much further than the tragic, albeit much smaller, Charleston Super Sofa fire in 2007 to understand how dangerous large open-space fires can be.
The decision to go defensive is never one firefighters take lightly, but it is a decision we should all support when rescues are not imminent and the fire conditions have overwhelmed the available resources. Would any of us really have the immediate capabilities to fight this fire? If we let the building systems work, then maybe. No matter what, multiple alarms should be an immediate call at the first indication of this kind of working incident.
The real question is this: Shouldn’t we have the capabilities to fight this? Aren’t the fire suppression systems supposed to be designed to keep this from happening? Sure, they’re supposed to be designed that way. We have to be critical in our steps to control these fires and clearly communicate our directives. The audio is difficult to listen to and paints a difficult picture for those of us not there.
Listen to the audio here:
We don’t yet know the circumstances in Plainfield, but here’s some of what we’ve seen as a result of other investigations in large-scale fires:
- Excessive and/or mixed non-compatible combustible (or caustic, poisonous, etc.) stocking
- Stocking that a suppression system was not designed to handle
- Stocking too close to sprinkler heads
- Poorly designed (or non-existent) rack suppression systems
- Interior alterations completed without consideration of fire protection systems
- Empty or out-of-inspection-cycle portable extinguishers
- Lack of fire department engagement in development, inspections, preplanning, etc.
- Insufficient fire department staffing and/or equipment
- Political engagement that allows short-cuts in code enforcement
The Indiana distribution center fire is too fresh to have reliable cause information yet; however, we should expect an extended investigation and trust the fire department will be conducting a safety investigation report of their own.
This will be a difficult investigation for sure – I suspect difficult for some to accept.
Fire service leaders have a vested responsibility to be a part of this investigation and to uncover the circumstances that allow our members to be put in harm’s way, often unnecessarily – in this case in a fully sprinkler-protected building.
As we continue to examine this massive blaze and other similar fires, let’s be clear – fire protection systems are not simply about sprinkler installations. Frankly, the sprinkler system is the last resort. Smoke alarms, heat sensors, corridor closures and fire doors, portable fire extinguishers, alerting systems, inspections, preplanning and permitting are all part of the system. A lot goes into fire protection systems in buildings of any size, and again, it’s not just about sprinklers.
We’ll continue to follow the developments of both this and the QVC facility fire, in hopes we work together to develop strategies that minimize these situations.
In this episode of the Side Alpha podcast, Chief Bashoor explores fire protection systems in residential areas as well as larger facilities, like the Walmart distribution center: