Combustible Metals and Officer Safety

NIOSH recently issued its report on a recycling facility fire that occurred on July 13, 2010, in which seven career fire fighters were injured while fighting a fire at a large commercial structure containing recyclable combustible metals. At 2345 hours, 3 engines, 2 trucks, 2 rescue ambulances, an emergency medical service (EMS) officer and a battalion chief responded to a large commercial structure with heavy fire showing. Within minutes, a division chief, 2 battalion chiefs, 3 engines, 3 trucks, 4 rescue ambulances, 2 EMS officers and an urban search and rescue team were also dispatched.

An offensive fire attack was initially implemented but because of rapidly deteriorating conditions, operations switched to a defensive attack after about 12 minutes on scene. Ladder pipe operations were established on the 3 street accessible sides of the structure. Approximately 40 minutes into the incident, a large explosion propelled burning shrapnel into the air, causing small fires north and south of structure, injuring 7 fire fighters, and damaging apparatus and equipment. Realizing that combustible metals may be present, the incident commander ordered fire fighters to fight the fire with unmanned ladder pipes while directing the water away from burning metals. Approximately 2 ˝ hours later, two small concentrated areas remained burning and a second explosion occurred when water contacted the burning combustible metals. This time no fire fighters were injured.

Contributing Factors

  • Unrecognized presence of combustible metals
  • Unknown building contents
  • Unrecognized presence of combustible metals
  • Use of traditional fire suppression tactics
  • Darkness

This incident brings to light the many operational and safety issues affecting operational deployment and command and control of incident involving combustible metals. These incidents require a clear understanding of the tactical protocols required to safely manage and mitigate fire incidents.

Take the time to discuss this event with your company or condense and distribute within your battalion, division or organization.

Operational and Training Questions:

  • What training and education have you attained on combustible metals fire? Are you prepared to handle the first-due or initial command?
  • How prepared are your Company Officers and Incident Commanders in addressing Strategic and Tactical operations at incidents involving combustible metals?
  • Does your fire department, company or jurisdiction have the resources to command, control and mitigate such an event?
  • Are you aware of properties, occupancies and structures in your jurisdiction that contain process, store or have primary or ancillary combustible metals risk, hazards or exposure concerns?
  • Are they pre-fire planned, are those plans up to-day?
  • Are you and your organization prepared?
  • What are the gaps within your company of department related to strategy, tactics, command and control of incident involving combustible metals fire?
  • Do you have protocols and SOPs for addressing combustible metal fires in various occupancy situations? How about for vehicles and MVAs?
  • Take the time to do an on-demand tabletop discussion or expanded exercise

Remember its not only the Building and Occupancy Issues…but mobile also;

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Chris Naum

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