As Americans obtain more and more personal possessions, the resulting overabundance of “stuff” has fueled the growth of the storage industry. Storage facilities are found in every part of the country, rural and urban. If you haven’t had a fire incident in one of these storage facilities in your response area, it’s just a matter of time.
Storage facilities range from simple, metal-framed, metal-clad mini-warehouses to new, multi-story, climate-controlled buildings. Another popular trend: converting older warehouses and industrial-style buildings into storage facilities.
This month’s quick drill focuses on one of the most common storage facility types: the one-story, strip-style mini-warehouse. Most are metal frame with an exterior metal clad or concrete tilt-wall construction.
Fires in mini-warehouses have historically been manpower-intensive, fast-moving fires for two reasons: the construction of each unit and the fire load. As a result, you must preplan a sound fireground strategy of locate, isolate and extinguish.
Mini-warehouses can range from very small, with just a few units, to complex facilities with 500 or more units. Individual unit sizes start as small as 5 x 5 feet but can be 10 x 30 feet or larger. Doors are standard 6' metal walkthrough or metal rollups. These units are normally separated by metal framework with sheet metal, which makes extinguishment difficult due to the size of each unit.
Although most facilities have regulations prohibiting storage of items like flammable liquids or hazardous materials, fire load will also be a concern due to the fact that there’s little or no control over what’s stored in each unit. When renters load their units, most will take advantage of every inch of space, resulting in very heavy fire loads. Each unit will reveal a new surprise. One may be loaded with newspaper or furniture and the next a dissembled 1956 Chevy. Most units will not have water or electrical service or any fire-detection or suppression systems.
Many fire codes don’t require rated separation between storage units. One of the most common problems is a gap at the top of the unit wall and the roof, which allows fire and smoke to move horizontally over other units. The larger the fire load, the farther the fire will travel. If other units contain tightly packed material to the ceiling, or if very combustible materials are stored, fire will leapfrog down the complex from one unit to the next.
Fire companies must move quickly to get ahead as the fire moves through the overhead air gaps. If the unit involved features another row of units on the backside, you may need as many as five handlines to control horizontal extension and extinguish the involved unit. The walls dividing each unit will limit stream reach and penetration.
If heavy smoke conditions are present, it may be difficult to pinpoint the units involved. Use a thermal imager to reduce the time needed to control horizontal extension.
Access to a mini-warehouse is one of the biggest challenges to responding fire companies. Many mini-warehouses are built on odd-shaped lots that can’t be used for prime commercial developments, or built using the backside of a commercial lot. This results in tight turns and long narrow driveways, making the positioning and placement of apparatus difficult.
Mini-warehouse driveways may be 200–500 feet long or longer. Using short, pre-connected handlines will necessitate positioning apparatus in the driveway. Be prepared to deploy longer handlines than normally used at residential incidents.
Observe the mini-warehouses in your response area to best determine apparatus positioning that allows for the deployment of multiple handlines. Apparatus positioning should also focus on providing the initial pumping apparatus a continuous water supply.
Another access issue: security fences surrounding the complex, usually standard chain-link high fences with security or razor wire on top.
Some complexes will use the long, rectangular shape of the building to limit access to units, positioning them along the outside perimeter of the building, where they’re only accessible from inside the complex.
If the complex was constructed under a modern fire code, it should feature additional gates around the complex. The front entrance will normally be the largest and most-used gate in the facility. It may be controlled by an on-site electrical touch pad or by an attendant. Many complexes will have an apartment where someone lives on the property year-round to improve security. This is usually the only life hazard during normal operation, except for people loading or unloading items into units.
Forcible entry needs at a mini-warehouse can be extensive. Every unit will have some type of padlock on it. Even the vacant units will have locks to keep people from dropping off unneeded items when cleaning out their own unit. If the renter is behind on their monthly payment, you may find two locks, the renter’s lock and the management lock.
Forcible-entry tools are essential at mini-warehouse incidents, including a rotary saw with plenty of extra blades, a set of irons and a duckbilled lock breaker for the padlocks. Carry several sets of tools for opening units on the backside of the involved units to check for extension. You may be fewer than 30 feet away as the crow flies, but the long driveway can make moving from unit to unit more difficult.
If the door hasn’t been damaged by heat or fire, you should be able to force the padlock and raise the door. Note: Always block it open.
If the door or door tracks have been damaged, you may have to cut the door using the rotary saw. If several doors are damaged, you’ll need plenty of blades or a good diamond-tip metal blade.
Mini-warehouse fires can be deceptive, and you shouldn’t underestimate their ability to challenge your crew. Drill on the warehouses in your response area so that when the inevitable fire comes, your crew is ready to position apparatus effectively, deploy multiple handlines, locate and access the fire and extinguish it with minimal spread to exposures.
Drill 1: Preplanning
Step 1 Take photos of a mini-warehouse complex in your response area. Include photos of construction factors, such as the air gaps above each unit, forcible-entry problems and access issues.
Step 2 Review photos with your crew to discuss how to handle these incidents in your department. Also provide a drawing of the complex layout. Most storage complex managers can provide such a drawing.
Step 3 Discuss apparatus placement with regard to deployment of longer-than-normal handlines and water supply. Also review how to deploy multiple handlines to prevent extension in several directions.
Step 4 Review the forcible-entry tools required at a mini-warehouse incident, including irons, rotary saw with metal cutting blade and other special tools such as a duckbilled lock breaker.
Step 5 Review techniques for cutting overhead metal doors with a rotary saw. Have each member demonstrate how to change out blades.
Drill 2: Practicing on Site
Step 1 Make arrangements with the operator of mini-warehouse complex in your response area to conduct a drill at their complex. You can often drill after normal business hours.
Step 2 With your crew, perform a walkthrough of the complex, reviewing access issues, apparatus placement, forcible-entry needs and construction features.
Step 3 Select a unit that will challenge your crew’s ability to position their apparatus, deploy handlines to the area of involvement and cut off extension to the rest of the building. Mark the selected unit with an orange traffic cone.
Step 4 Based on the discussion in Drill 1 or existing department standard operating procedures, allow your crew to position their apparatus and deploy handlines to the selected unit.