Firefighting risks at strip malls highlighted by FEMA and NIOSH

October 31, 2023

Ensuring firefighter safety in strip mall operations

Recent findings indicate a significant risk to firefighters when combating fires in strip malls. Strip mall fires, while infrequent, pose considerable dangers due to their unique construction features.

A new bulletin by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) brings this issue into the limelight, offering precautions and guidelines for fire departments.

Challenging conditions inside strip malls

Strip mall fires are described as low-frequency, high-risk incidents for firefighters. Unique construction features of these establishments contribute to:

  • Limited entry and egress.
  • Elevated heat release rates.
  • Heavy fuel loading.
  • Confusing maze-like layouts.
  • High potential for entanglement.

Furthermore, when firefighters operate in spaces filled with merchandise and furnishings in zero visibility, the risks of disorientation and losing directional awareness escalate.

NIOSH’s guidelines to reduce risks

To address these challenges, NIOSH has made public a bulletin titled: “Preventing Deaths and Injuries to Firefighters Working at Strip Mall Fires”.

The document contains vital recommendations for fire departments. In addition to highlighting the risks, it provides insights for forming an effective incident action plan and the right strategy.

Insight from a real incident

The report also presents a case study from a 2016 strip mall fire in North Carolina. Tragically, this fire led to the in-the-line-of-duty death of a volunteer firefighter.

The study goes in-depth about the challenges faced during this incident, emphasizing the bulletin’s recommendations.

This comprehensive six-page bulletin from NIOSH has the endorsement of major fire service organizations.

Notable names include the U.S. Fire Administration, International Association of Fire Fighters, International Association of Fire Chiefs, Underwriters Laboratories Fire Safety Research Institute, and the National Volunteer Fire Council.

FSJA Comment

With the evolution of building structures and designs, ensuring firefighter safety remains a paramount concern.

Strip malls, though not frequent sites for fires, present a myriad of challenges due to their construction.

By highlighting the inherent dangers and offering detailed recommendations, the NIOSH bulletin serves as a crucial guide for firefighting teams.

Understanding these risks and following established guidelines can make a significant difference in safeguarding our brave frontline responders.

As we analyze the tragic event in North Carolina, it becomes evident how pivotal this information is for the fire community at large.

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