NFPA Releases Report on Phoenix Supermarket Fire

The firefighter who died in a supermarket fire in Phoenix, Ariz., lost contact with his company in the sprawling structure, becoming disoriented while trying to exit the fire in a large, cluttered building, according to a report released by the fire investigations unit of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).

The firefighter died in the blaze on March 14, 2001 after sounding a mayday call. Several others were injured.

"The majority of fires are in smaller residential occupancies," said Robert Duval, NFPA's senior fire investigator, who evaluated the response to the fire at the request of the Phoenix Fire Department. "Firefighters get into a mindset where they're used to that environment."

In a building with high ceilings and wide-open spaces, firefighters have a harder time keeping track of each other and their location in relation to the exits, and can venture too deep into the buildings, he said. "Fire conditions are also harder to monitor while inside these larger buildings," Duval said.

The fire began in debris stored outside the supermarket, which was part of a shopping plaza. It spread to the supermarket's rear stockroom and then to the roof. As one engine company fought the exterior fire, other companies entered the supermarket and surrounding stores in the plaza.

Visibility worsened as smoke filled the building. Fifteen minutes after entering the supermarket, one firefighter from Engine 14 reported that his low-air alarm was sounding. The Engine 14 captain directed the three firefighters with him to exit the building with him as a team, following the hoseline. As they were leaving, two firefighters lost contact with the hoseline because someone tripped. After the captain exited, he discovered that two members of the company had not gotten out. At this point, the first distress call was heard from one of the two lost firefighters.

Several crews of firefighters reentered the building, following the hoseline that Engine 14 had used, to try to find the missing firefighters. One of the lost firefighters followed the sound of voices and radios and was able to leave with the others' help. The other firefighter was also found, and briefly gained contact with the hoseline. But he suddenly stood up, apparently confused after inhaling smoke, and left the hoseline, walking deeper into the building.

Several Rapid Intervention Crews were sent to search for the missing firefighter. He was eventually found collapsed in the meat preparation section of the store. It took several additional crews - and 32 minutes - to remove him because he was far from the exit and there were many obstructions. The firefighter was pronounced dead at the hospital.

Efforts to extinguish the fire were hampered by the size of the building and construction features such as a partial mezzanine in the supermarket stock room and a combustible roof deck. "Companies must take additional precautions to make sure they stay in contact with each other, especially in larger buildings where one can easily become disoriented," Duval said.

NFPA's fire investigations unit documents some of the most significant fires and incidents throughout the world. The objective of these investigations is to determine what lessons can be learned from these incidents. The information is then made available to the fire safety community and to be used in developing future codes and standards.

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