Central PA Bravest
March 1, 2012
Grocery Store Fires - Not Just Bread, Butter and Beans
by Gary R. Ryman
Milk, eggs, coffee; the next time you visit the local grocery store, look up from your list at this common occupancy and the fire suppression issues presented. Grocery stores are carrying a wider variety of merchandise in bigger quantities than every before. Beyond food items, there is lighter fluid, motor oil, Styrofoam cups and plates, and other high fire challenge commodities. In larger stores, stock values exceeding ten million dollars are not unusual. Generally in a fully sprinklered grocery store, a fire would be expected to be quickly controlled by sprinklers, usually five heads or less. There are, however, a few areas of these stores which can cause some interesting challenges for firefighters.
Rear stockrooms are becoming smaller and more congested. The trend toward increased sales space and smaller support areas increases the density of storage and fire challenge in these areas, and periods right after a delivery will be the worst. This can make reaching the seat of a stock room fire far more difficult. In addition, it could result in delays in controlling utilities, as electrical panels and access to the switchgear which are typically located here may be obstructed.
The front canopy of many stores appears like an innocuous cover for shopping carts and sale flyers and a place to display a large sign or insignia for the store brand. In many cases, the interior is plywood, resulting in a sizeable combustible concealed space attached to the main store. The strip center stores in which many grocery stores are present, have similarly constructed canopies. Few of these are provided with sprinkler protection. Fires can be ignited by lights, signs, or other electrical ignition sources, and are not uncommon. If there are openings between the rear of the canopy and the main store, fire can and will spread into the main store. Even if cut off by a rated separation, extensive smoke can be expected in areas of the store. Extensive opening up of the canopy front, and from below is critical for water application along with interior crews to check the extension of fire into the store.
Reaching this area inside the store can be difficult, particularly in smoky conditions. Most stores have not easily located stairwells to this level. Offices, break rooms, and similar support areas are usually present along a corridor adjacent to the canopy. Some older stores have walkways or catwalks with observation posts for Security personnel. Others have extensive storage of seasonal displays and similar items, increasing access difficulties. At a minimum, an Engine and Truck company should be assigned to this area and a thermal imaging camera can be invaluable. The on duty store manager can provide timely assistance in locating the stairway, and providing some information on the layout which will be encountered.
As with many public occupancies, search can be challenging. Each aisle should be quickly covered. Don’t forget restrooms; not easily located in many stores, which you know if you’ve ever needed to use one while shopping. Food preparation areas around the perimeter walls such as bakeries, deli, and the like also need to be checked along with the rear stock area.
As in any commercial structure, the sprinkler protection is your best friend. Ensure that one of the first arriving engines ties into the fire department connection to supplement the system. Make sure sprinkler control valves are open and don’t close them prematurely.
Smoke removal by the standard methods is important. Beyond the life safety implications, overall damage can be reduced by prompt ventilation.
If power needs to be cut for an extended period, refrigeration will be down. Salvage covers or tarps over the open case freezers commonly found in stores can help reduce the temperature increases in these units and improve salvage potential.
Grocery store fires can present some interesting challenges. The layout can differ from store to store even within the same chain, so don’t assume one is identical to another. Familiarity increases the likelihood of a safe and successful operation. Pre-incident knowledge of your first due grocery stores can help make a fire there into a bread and butter incident.