Fireground Size-Up, Factories and Warehouses

Fireground Size-Up, Factories and Warehouses: A Special Two-Part Series (Part 1)
By Deputy Chief Mike Terpak

Fires that involve factories and warehouses are going to be resource intensive requiring a well-managed and coordinated approach. Their involvement can and will tax the capabilities of any size fire department. From the varying classes of construction to the large square footages and heavy fire loads; fire officers have to anticipate the difficulties and plan ahead.

For the purposes of this two-part series, we have identified the factory and warehouse as two different type structures. What some may consider as one category of building, could also be considered as two different type structures with varying areas of concern.

Factory is a word that represents a building used for the manufacturing of a product or products. Buildings associated with this reference can range in size as well as in use. A factory building can vary from a large, ten-story heavy timber building that is more than a hundred years old with a number of different tenants, to a modern one-story noncombustible building used for the manufacturing of one product that could span an entire city block.

Warehouse is another word that represents a building that is used for the housing and storage of a product or products. These buildings will also vary in size, shape, and construction. It is here where you may also find variations from a one-story limited combustible building, to a five-story heavy timber building of varying contents – all within a congested residential neighborhood.
Buildings referenced as a factory or warehouse have produced large losses of life and property throughout the years. Many of these historical fires have changed not only the way buildings are designed and protected, but also the way we fight fires in them.

SIZE-UP: The 15 Points/Operational Guide
The following is a review of the 15 size-up points for the factory and warehouse type building which can be brought to mind using the acronymn “COAL TWAS WEALTHS”

The classes of construction and their inherent concerns for a fire that may involve factory and warehouse buildings will depend upon their age and size. With any of these type buildings you may find buildings built of Class 3/Ordinary construction, Class 4/Heavy timber construction, or Class 2/Non-Combustible, Limited Combustible construction.

Barring the content concerns of the building, each type of construction will present their own set of concerns that fire officers must recognize. As a basic review, the Class 3 constructed buildings are specifically known for their numerous concealed spaces and voids for fire to travel through. Class 4 constructed buildings are known for their large wooden interior timbers and their eventual involvement, while Class 2 designed buildings are known for their unprotected steel and combustible roof deck.

When viewing the occupancy load of the two different buildings mentioned, concerns can vary based on whether the building is a factory or a warehouse.

Factories can have a significant occupancy load 24 hours a day. Depending upon the type of product or products being manufactured, workers may be present all hours of the day from the utilization of a second and third shift of employees. It is not uncommon in these type buildings to open a door to a factory building at four in the morning and find dozens of employees all at work. Obviously, this is an area where our pre-incident information becomes extremely valuable.

Warehouse occupancy loads will differ greatly from the factory building. Since the building is primarily used for storage, there is generally no need for a high occupancy load. People most associated with the operation of the warehouse will be responsible for the loading and/or removing of stock. Their presence usually follows normal business hours. In the evening hours, often the only occupant is a night watchman. If there are exceptions to this, your pre-incident information pertaining to a specific building will identify the added concerns.

Occupancy conversions: The occupancy load and status concerns for both the factory and warehouse listed above are based on their original or intended design. However, as many of us know, things can change. Anyone of these buildings, most notably the factory type building, can have a portion or its entire interior converted into another use. In many areas of New Jersey, we are finding these large buildings being converted into residential occupancies. When presented with this conversion, your size-up consideration will change most notably in the areas of the life hazard, the location and extent of the fire, and the strategy and tactics associated with those factors. This is another area where your pre-incident information can prove to be valuable.

Occupancy Contents: Occupancy content in both the factory and warehouse will present numerous concerns to the responding and operating firefighters. Depending upon the occupancy(s) within the building, these concerns can be numerous. From heavy fire loads, water absorbent stock, to hazardous materials; the concerns will seem endless. Information about the building’s content, storage methods, risks to the firefighter as well as the environment has to be identified. Accurate and up-to-date information from the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) will assist the fire department with their strategical and tactical decision-making.

As we have mentioned, a fire in a factory or warehouse is going to be resource intensive. With this thought in mind it is important to recognize the potential and request help early.

Fires in these types of buildings generally come in two sizes; small and large. Fires that are small on arrival will only stay that way for a short period of time. Efforts by the first arriving companies must focus around a well-executed and coordinated attack if success is going to be achieved.

Engine Company Operations, 1st Due: Initial decisions by the engine company officer will focus around what will be the quickest and easiest way to deliver the largest amount of water to the seat of the fire. This may involve the supplying of the buildings sprinkler system and stretching an attack hoseline, or operating a master stream or deluge monitor into the building. If your choice is an attack hoseline, the attack hoseline selection for a fire in factory and warehouse building must be governed by the following:

1. The building’s fire load. From the class of construction to the amount of combustible stock, you must expect it to be heavy.
2. BTU generation. Big fires are going to require big water. You will need the quenching capabilities of a large hose line(s).
3. The building’s square footage. Large open floor spaces with high ceilings will give the fire the opportunity to take possession of the entire floor area quickly.
4. Volume, reach, and penetration. From our association of all the factors listed above, you will need to provide a stream that is capable of reaching, penetrating, and controlling the fire. Medium size streams will not provide this, so stretch the big line.

To further add to this decision, it is also important to remember that the square footages commonly associated with these size buildings will greatly affect the friction loss of a smaller deployed hoseline. Even when stretching from a standpipe outlet, especially in a very old building, the age of the system will have piping most likely full of sediment, rust, scales, and possible debris further restricting the hose line’s flow. Even if that wasn’t enough, it must be further anticipated, especially in the warehouse, where getting sufficient water to the base of the fire can be compounded from narrow maze-like aisles and varied stock arrangements. When these conditions present themselves, deflecting a heavy caliber stream off the ceiling not only attempts to control the flashover potential, but also allows a large curtain of water to rain on top of and behind obstructions/stock like a giant sprinkler head slowing the fire’s development. It is for the reasons outlined, that engine companies must stretch and operate the largest hose line available.

Engine Company Operations, 2nd Due: The second arriving engine at a warehouse or factory fire must ensure that the first due engine has an established water supply. This practice may require the second due engine to establish a water supply and become the supply pumper for the first arriving engine company. Once established, the second due engine company officer may have to commit his/her crew to assist the first due engine company with their hose stretch. This decision will be determined by the square footage of the building, building accessibilty, the fires location, and the Incident Commander’s direction. If not needed with this procedure, the second due must be prepared to stretch a second hoseline for either the purposes of backing up the first due engine company, or stretching a hoseline to the floor above.

Ladder Company Operations, 1st Due: Ladder Company officers must place their apparatus to ensure the maximum scrub area of their apparatus. Keeping in mind the different types of aerial apparatus available, placement must reflect their ability to access the building, the ladder objective, the exposure priority, and the arrival and placement of the second due ladder company.
Ventilation responsibilities will focus on the fire’s location within the building and the location of any endangered occupants. Roof and interior stair ventilation must be achieved in an attempt to control the fire’s spread, as well as remove smoke from the building’s stair shaft. Removal of smoke from the stair shaft through bulkhead doors, skylights, and freight elevator shafts not only attempts to rid the smoke for fleeing occupants, but also aids the firefighters in their advance.

Forcible entry in factories and warehouses has historically been difficult and time consuming. Members must expect heavy swinging doors, roll-down steel doors, screened gates, and steel shutters to name a few. Hydraulic and conventional forcible entry will be required.

Searches in these buildings will also be very demanding and time consuming. Thermal imaging with disciplined search rope procedures and SCBA air management is a must when entering buildings of this size and configuration.

Special Operations responsibilities: Upon arrival, Rescue and Squad companies must report into the Incident Commander and be prepared for difficult forcible entry assignments, large area searches, and extended roof operations to name a few. Your special operations request should also include a Hazardous Material Unit. They are always needed at a fire in a commercial building.

Marine Operations: In the event the fire building is on a waterway or is near the shoreline, Incident Commanders should make every attempt to establish and deliver “big water” via a marine operation.

Life hazard concerns to the firefighter are significant in these type buildings. Statistically more multiple firefighter deaths will occur in commercial occupancies, than when compared to any other type building we respond to. It is critical that the fire officer and firefighter recognize the most common challenges and plan for them.

Disorientation: The most common concern encountered is disorientation. Large buildings, some with open spaces, others with narrow aisles, maze-like configurations, and highly piled stock are pre-requisites for disciplined movement of firefighters. Strict control and accountability of members with the use of search ropes and thermal imaging are a few of the mandatory requirements when going to work in buildings of this type.

Fire Spread: Heavy fire loads and the rapid growth associated with the factory and warehouse is another life hazard concern for the firefighter. The building’s size, as well as the stock amount and configuration will often at times slow the engine company’s movement in getting water to the seat of the fire. The longer it takes to get water on the fire, the more opportunity fire has to travel.

High Ceiling Occupancies: One factor that contributes to the fire spread concern is the unusual height of the roof deck above the floor space. Factory and warehouse buildings are characteristic of this concern and must be referred to as high-ceiling occupancies. In buildings that have this type of association, conditions at the ceiling level can be producing roll over conditions, yet not observed or felt at the floor level. In many instances firefighters have been able to walk into a building with a light smoke condition at eye level, only to be caught in a violent flashover over the entire floor space minutes later. With ceiling heights in some of these buildings at levels 30 feet and higher, conditions above may be drastically different than conditions below. Any building that fits this description must be entered with caution, regardless of what is showing at the floor level.

Collapse: The building features and building loads are another consideration. Firefighters must be aware of any heavy machinery, roof-mounted water tanks, safes, hoppers, bins, and air conditioning units that may fall through burned out or weakened areas onto suspecting firefighters. Firefighters must also exercise caution when climbing on or working under loading dock canopies. Their design is intended to shield factory workers and stock from the weather as deliveries and pickups are made at a loading dock. With any fire exiting a loading dock opening, their integrity must also be questioned.

This concludes part one of my special two-part series on the complex concerns of operating at a factory and warehouse fire. I hope that you have found part one to be useful. Don’t forget to look for part two in the next issue of Jersey Firefighters Now, which is scheduled to be released in July.