Fighting fires in convention centers
NFPA Journal®, January/February 2010
We were privileged to present a fire tactics workshop at the 2009 NFPA Conference & Expo® at Chicago's McCormick Place Convention Center (pictured), an immense facility that suffered a $52 million fire in 1967. Fortunately, the fire occurred when the building was minimally occupied. The potential for a large fire in a building that may be occupied by thousands of people undoubtedly necessitates pre-incident planning.
Finding and accessing the fire location is a key element of a pre-incident plan in any large, complex structure. Under normal conditions, it is a challenge to navigate through such a building using a building diagram and interior signage. Locating a fire when visibility is limited and people are rushing to exit would be extremely difficult.
The main entrance is not always the best route to the fire area, so contingency plans are a must. The pre-incident plan should delineate the best access locations for each building area. Often, security personnel will meet the first-arriving unit at a designated location to provide information and direct firefighters to the alarm location. However, fire conditions or injuries to security personnel require a Plan B.
Extinguishing the fire is usually the best way to save lives and property, but this is not always possible. Responders must know the probability of extinguishment and recognize areas that could exceed attack capabilities, such as large open areas packed with combustible display materials. Rate-of-flow should be calculated for compartments that have the potential to exceed the planned standard attack. Often, the standard attack will rely on interior standpipe systems, so the maximum flow from the standpipe system should be noted on the plan and compared to the calculated rate-of-flow for large open areas. Provisions should be made to augment the standpipe system or provide backup lines directly from fire apparatus when the rate-of-flow exceeds the flow available from the standpipe system.
Since the 1967 fire, McCormick Place and most other convention centers have been protected by sprinkler systems. While a properly designed, maintained, and operating sprinkler system significantly reduces the potential for a large, uncontrolled fire, sprinkler systems by themselves do not represent the complete solution. Conditions such as blocked sprinklers, closed valves, or a fuel load that exceeds the system’s design capacity can render the sprinklers ineffective. And management and event organizers may be reluctant to cancel or postpone a conference when the sprinkler system is out of service.
Fire companies that respond to convention centers should obtain a copy of the event schedule and conduct on-site inspections or familiarization tours whenever large events are scheduled. In a sprinklered convention center, the primary tactic is to support and back up the sprinkler system, and a contingency plan is needed for situations in which the sprinkler system does not control the fire. In cases in which it may be impossible to extinguish the fire, it may be possible to isolate the fire using fire lines or by securing fire compartments.
Evacuating thousands of people from a large, complex building during an uncontrolled fire requires tactics that fully use all available exits. The incident commander should identify the available exits and assign firefighters to help occupants to safety. Achieving the life safety objective is much easier when the fire is under control, although people in the immediate fire area could still be in peril, requiring search and rescue operations.
Property conservation will be a major concern due to high-value contents and the potential for discharging large quantities of water, so it is important to assign firefighters to cover or direct water to areas where it will do the least damage. Convention center personnel may be able to help in property conservation measures when they can be kept a safe distance from the fire area.
This column is adapted from the author's book StructuralFireFighting, available online or (800) 344-3555.