All fire departments should be trained in industrial firefighting applications. Most firefighters become familiar with their retail districts while running EMS and vehicle-related calls, but it's rare to be called to heavy manufacturing and industrial occupancies for anything other than fires and fire alarms. Fire prevention bureaus often handle inspections in these hazardous occupancies, so suppression crews rarely get a peek until showtime.
These unfamiliar structures with their heavy fire loads and exotic processes pose those low-frequency/high-consequence threats that need to be brought to the forefront several times each year. The first step is this process in familiarization: knowing the location of entrances and exits, lock boxes, annunciator panels and remotes, tunnels, and hazardous storage areas, as well as areas with high security, electronic locking devices or total flooding systems. It's also critical that every firefighter understand egress routes and locking system overrides.
These incidents also require strong, visible command on the training ground as well as the fireground. As chief officers, set the example by being appropriately dressed and establishing communications early. Set up in a good outside spot where you can see at least two sides of the building. Request the tactical channel and assign reconnaissance to the rear and on every floor to get the full picture. Set up staging and accountability, and be ready to add extra alarms if anything is showing or working. Even a small fire problem can be a huge salvage job or a pollution control problem.
In preparing for industrial fires, review the use, selection and abilities of specialized extinguishing agents. Many firefighters only get the chance to use firefighting powders and portable extinguishers in the academy, and the opportunity to apply and observe the properties of chemical extinguishing agents is limited. Knowing the quick knockdown of “Purple K” or BC powder, the insulating effect of ABC powder, and the sheer power and noise from a large CO2 unit builds the necessary confidence to use these industrial-grade extinguishing agents.
Recall the lessons from the 1993 Newton, Mass., incident where firefighters were called to an industrial plant for a 55-gallon sodium drum fire and elected to use graphite on a water-reactive Class D fire. The plant employees had put too much product in a drum to be burned off. Firefighters proceeded to use the extinguishing agent the plant had on hand, but the shovel used to throw the powder on the fire had moisture on it. The resulting explosion and subsequent fire burned 11 firefighters — six seriously, one critically, and one extremely critically. We can't assume that firefighters will know the actions and consequences of specific extinguishing agents unless we arm them with the facts.
One agent frequently gets displaced from the training schedule. The cost of foam concentrate and the environmental restrictions for capturing spent foam are two concerns that frequently arise when planning an industrial firefighting drill.
Many training officers use dishwashing soap in place of the more expensive firefighting foam. A case of biodegradable dishwashing concentrate costs less than $30. Pour a one-gallon jug into a five-gallon foam concentrate container and use a standard foam eductor, attack line and foam nozzle. I have conducted this drill to show the difference in foam consistency when using a foam nozzle versus a typical automatic combination nozzle.
What about training with larger foam streams or master streams? Many airport fire protection agencies maintain an aircraft training prop where foam is frequently used. These sites are equipped with collection basins, oil and water separators, and other mechanisms to allow the safe and legal discharge of foam solution. Even if your training doesn't include an aircraft scenario, the ability to safely discharge foam concentrate while training to use foam solution is worth the trip.
Many of these agencies provide training for a fee. Often, there is a discount for airport mutual aid agencies. At Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, the training facility also is equipped with a live-fire industrial warehouse prop. It is available to fire departments on an annual basis for a reduced fee.
Another skill that is critical at industrial fires is working with expanded personnel accountability systems. Most firefighters and fireground commanders are very comfortable with a one-alarm accountability system. As we add the complexity of multiple entry control points and active firefighting operations above and below the fire floor, the potential for losing firefighters dramatically increases.
To test the effectiveness of an expanded accountability system, conduct a battalion-wide drill in which companies arrive in response order to a known target hazard and get assigned to different sides of the building. Assign the crews into a large commercial. Don't tell the company officers that the objective of the drill is accountability. You will be amazed at the number of things that can go wrong when you ask firefighters to enter the building from the “C” side and report to Division 2 on the east end. Have another set of engine companies simulate heading for the seat of the fire on Division 1. Many of your passports will never leave the firefighters' pockets or the engine company dashboard. Announce a sudden hazardous event or call for a PAR and then assign an accountability officer in the middle of the incident.
The transition from a single-point accountability system to a more formal system may never fully occur, but this is a set of skills that must be constantly developed, evaluated and practiced until it's automatic. If they can't pull it off in broad daylight with nothing showing, imagine the scene at 3:30 a.m. with fire showing from a large commercial roll-up door.
Firefighters also must know how to move cold smoke in these massive buildings, so conduct a pollution control drill. These horizontal units react similarly to their vertically expanded cousins, but a stack effect may be present in the large, single-story warehouse occupancies and must be dealt with. After the smoke has traveled away from the fire area, it is diluted with the fresh air in the building and then will stratify and just hang there waiting to be removed. Many current building codes allow a deletion of curtain boards and draft stops; as a result, the smoke removal problem may be more difficult. Use a non-toxic smoke generator, a PPV and built-in HVAC to conduct the drill. Typically, the company management will be more than happy to set up a drill on an off day or a night shift.
Industrial fires represent a significant economic loss to our communities, and they also have the potential to injure and kill firefighters. Not only should we train on what we should be doing at these calls, but also on the one or two things that we should never do. If these pertinent negatives exist, they should be added to each pre-plan or caution notes and communicated to all personnel.
Consult the January “American Heat” for an update on tactics at industrial fires. For more information, visit www.fetn.com.
John Linstrom is the education consultant for FETN. He served more than 20 years in fire departments in California and Texas before retiring with the rank of assistant chief. Linstrom is a National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer graduate and adjunct instructor. In addition, he's a member of the Federal Mass-Fatalities Recovery Team and California Task Force 6.