Parking Garage Fires

Above photo by Midtown Mayhem


By Brian Butler


Fires in parking garages are low frequency events, which is why preparing for them is important. A vehicle fire inside of a parking garage may seem like a simple job, until you arrive to find two cars burning on the top deck under solar panels with no standpipe, or an O.O.S (out of service) FDC.   


Most fires in parking garages are burning vehicles. These PG fires can be difficult and may even have some structure fire similarities. When one or more vehicles are burning inside of a fire-resistive multi-story parking deck, it going to require a structure assignment response. (It's a fire burning inside of a structure.)


 If a single engine company is dispatched to a reported vehicle fire with no additional information, they may arrive to find a few heavily involved vehicles on the upper deck of a parking garage. When vehicles burn inside of a parking garage, reflex time almost always contributes to adjacent vehicles getting torched. More resources are going to be needed.


Fires in parking garages don't always involve burning vehicles as electrical fires can also occur in storage areas, mechanical rooms, EMR's (elevator machine rooms) offices, or solar panels. Additional incidents from EMS, stuck elevators, burst sprinkler pipes, and natural gas odors will also require a response from the fire department. 


TIP: When attempting to locate the source of a natural gas or propane odor inside of a parking garage, check for parked CNG/LPG vehicles nearby. They require badging on the vehicle to identify CNG/LPG. It's possible that a release is coming from a cylinder in the trunk area.


When engine companies are dispatched to vehicle fires, it's important for them to request additional manpower once it's determined to be inside, or on the top deck of a parking garage. They should be familiar with the protection systems that are in place, the FDC location, and any other attached occupancy present. Knowing if the parking garage is under a residential high-rise, adjacent to a train station, or attached to a mall entrance  tells the company officer what other problems to expect when arriving on scene. 


Most parking garage fires will have vehicles burning inside of them so in addition to your parking garage concerns such as standpipe locations, access, location of fire, wind conditions, reflex time and vehicle exposures, you will still have your vehicle fire hazards to consider such as compressed air cylinders, airbags, struts, batteries, magnesium, and running fuel fires. .  


REMEMBER A vehicle burning inside of a fire-resistive parking garage is just as dangerous as a room and contents fire in a high-rise apartment. Both fires will have their own unique dangers and extended reflex times. Modern day vehicle fires present far more dangers than the old conventional vehicle fires. They also produce more intense heat, thicker black smoke and explosion potential. With low ceilings, open space, and vehicles with plenty of fuel tightly squeezed together in PG's, expect exposure problems. 


Always wear your SCBA and face piece when fighting these modern day vehicle fires.

(Cover Pic) Houston Fire Dept responding to a fire in a parking garage with residential exposures. You can see the incredible amount of smoke produced by several burning vehicles. In addition to exposure problems, the potential for people trapped in the parking garage with zero visibility is very real. Imagine being dispatched for a simple "car fire," and arriving to this? Bring the TIC for this job. 

A running fuel fire at a mall parking garage resulting in several cars burning. 

Check the wind and ramp direction on approach. Choose the uphill upwind direction for fire attack. 

Problems here are exposure to other vehicles, access, low ceilings, reflex time, visibility problems (and commentary by clueless morons). 

SCENARIO: You're the acting officer dispatched as a single engine company to a reported 'vehicle' on fire with no additional information. Upon arrival you have two vehicles fully involved and heavy black smoke coming from the third floor of a fully vehicle-occupied six story parking garage with no standpipe

Are your crew members prepared to QUICKLY place a line in service?  

After you request additional resources, what actions do you take? 

Ask yourself:


*Do you go to a portable standpipe operation?
*Do you stretch a line up a ladder and over the wall?
*Is there a running fuel fire going down the ramp threatening other vehicles?
*Is there difficulty with visibility, finding the vehicles and stretching a line to reach them? 
*What size line do you stretch knowing you already have at least two vehicles on fire?

*Will water supply be delayed?

*Does reflex time change your tactics?


Option #1 If it's not that deep into the garage and the stretch is short, humping a dry 1 3/4 line up a ground ladder with two men isn't that difficult and is one option for this scenario. (Multiple vehicles, go 2" or 2 1/2) Your extra engine for water supply should have already been requested and dispatched. Having 500-700 gallons of tank water and a hand line capable with at least 150 GPM for these vehicle fires should do the job. (Magnesium-let it burn)  


Option #2 Stretch the line from the pumper, up the stairwell. This will depend on the location of fire, distance, access, configuration, stairwell doors, and length of stretch needed to reach the fire. 


Option #3 Depending on manpower, or truck response, place an aerial/tower up to the third floor for access, or run a handline off a tower ladder and stretch from there. 


Option #4 For a long stretch, or more than 3 decks high, grab some rope and the high-rise pack, or a few donut sections of 1 3/4 hose with a nozzle, head up to the 3rd or 4th deck and lower the rope, hoisting up a 2 1/2 line over the wall with a gated wye, making your temporary standpipe. This works especially well for trucks that already have a similar set up in the rear bed. Connect the 1 3/4 to the gated wye and stretch up to the fire deck. (The vehicle is a total loss anyway)


Firemen aren't drones. There's more than one way to fight a fire. Have a plan A and B.

GET WATER ON FIRE = EVERYTHING BETTER.


Company officers should run these scenarios through their head BEFORE something like this happens when pre-planning parking garages in their response area, especially their first due district. These EXACT scenarios are rare occurrences, but they do happen. Go out and find that one parking garage without a standpipe, or the one with solar panels on the roof with electric hybrid cars plugged into charging stations. Find that parking garage under the residential building, or the one attached to the mall entrance. Not all parking garages are the same, and we want to be prepared for those rare events that occur in the fire service.​ 


Below photos by Brian Butler (Trenton N.J)

Site Content

Rope Container

For parking garages and mid-rises in your response area, carry a plastic bottle with 50-75 ft of utility rope with attached carabineer for hoisting hand/supply lines up open stairwells, fire escapes, and exterior of building when standpipes are O.O.S. 

No Standpipe? Make One..

There are several ways to make your own standpipe, and get water to upper levels of a parking garage. Click here for more...

Preplanning

Find the parking garages in your response area that may be a problem when it comes to fire protection. This PG has no sprinklers, or standpipes. 

Access

Some parking garages can be difficult for fire apparatus trying to get close to the structure. Preplan these garages, and prepare for long stretches before an incident happens.

Underground Parking

Wood-frame residential mid-rises with underground parking will pose many problems for firefighters. Roll down security doors, exposed utility runs, and smoke entering the building are major concerns.

Visibility

Locating the standpipe in an underground parking garage during a vehicle fire can be difficult. Take in consideration any (protected) stairwells, ventilation systems, and alternative hose stretches from the entrance doors. Some of these underground garages go several levels below grade.

Parking Garage Fire Video

There are several options for fire attack, which will depend on apparatus and manpower. For this fire, stretching 1 3/4 preconnects through the door and up the stairs is the alternative to the blitz attack. With delayed water supply, we don't want to waste any water. However if there's a hydrant close to the pumper, a blitz attack may not be a bad option. Dump the tank as you're hooking up to the hydrant while the attack team is stretching to the fire location.

(Pictured above left) Parking garage under an office building in Trenton N.J. The building FDC is separate (as is the pump room) from the parking garage FDC, which is located in the rear on another street. (Above center) Parking lot with overhead canopy constructed of lightweight steel bar joists attached to solar panels. (Above Right) Underground parking garage in residential building.


Many parking garages are built adjacent to, or directly under the structure. A parking garage underneath a building could pose many problems for a single engine company arriving to a reported car fire. Calling a structure assignment should be done immediately. Besides exposure problems, smoke may enter the building through open areas, elevator shafts, doors leading to lobbies, stores, hallways, and open residential exterior windows, setting off fire alarms all over the building. Employees, shoppers, residents on upper floors looking out the window may see the smoke and panic believing the building is on fire. People have clogged stairwells, escalators and elevators thinking it's the towering inferno. Additional manpower will make this operation much easier. These PG's are common at malls, hospitals, office buildings, arenas, and residential high rises.  


Click here to see video of a condo complex burning with parking space below. What are the IC's concerns at this fire? (Click here to see how it started)


 REMEMBER: It's not always necessary to connect to the floor below when using a standpipe in a parking garage, especially the roof deck. Multiple vehicle fires on parking garage roof decks under seven stories are ideal for aerial and tower ladder use. The tower ladder is your standpipe.


Other issues of concern in parking garages are PRD's, PRV's, solar panels on the roof, hydraulic elevators, corroded dry standpipes, and your typical vehicle fire hazards (running fuel, airbags, struts).

Chicago Parking Garage Fire

In downtown Chicago, a vehicle fire in a parking garage spread to five additional vehicles burning all six cars. This fire took place during business hours with occupied highrises above and adjacent to the parking deck. 


New updated video shows thick smoke and sounds of explosions as firemen do an excellent job of going right to aerial operations.

Fire in an HVAC unit housed on the roof of a parking garage with attached office building. Many onlookers and employees thought the office building was on fire.

Dallas parking garage fire kills three  

Subdivision of parking garage located underneath a skyscraper office building with over 2000 employees during work hours.

ABOVE: In December 2014, three people were killed in a thermal storage tank at a Dallas parking garage  in a mechanical equipment room located under a high rise office building. Approximately 2,800 employees had to evacuate the building.  


 

REMEMBER: Parking garage fires are not always going to be vehicles burning inside.  


The workers killed were in the mechanical room in the thermal storage tank which is part of the HVAC system for the building. 


SIZE UP starts when the alarm comes in for a reason. In this incident, company and chief officers responding already know from the buildings occupancy and time of day that thousands of employees are working, there's an underground parking garage, traffic and crowd control will be an issue with over 2500 panicking employees running out of the building at the site of thick black smoke below their offices. This also means that life safety/rescue is going to be the incident commanders top priority. Locating people in the large sized parking garage who may be overcome by deadly smoke-carbon monoxide will be a major task requiring additional resources. This fire went to 3 alarms. 


With no visibility and thick black smoke pouring out of the entrance and exit points of the garage, it is imperative to gather information on the location and extent of the fire from fleeing civilians, security officers, building maintenance crews, or activated fire protection systems if possible. 


It's important that companies preplan parking garages in their response area, especially underground parking areas. Know how to access them from inside the building and outside, positioning the engine close to the vehicle entrance point to see if it's possible to stretch in from the apparatus. Also look for any exhaust fans and mechanical rooms/pump rooms locations. 


Older parking garages may not have standpipes or sprinklers. Be prepared for portable standpipe operations, ladder placement, or long stretches for upper deck fires. Take into consideration any friction loss concerns. Preplan all of the parking garages in your response area on training day. How many are located under residential structures? Which ones don't have any standpipes? Which ones are attached to hospitals, office buildings, and target hazards? Are there solar panels on top deck?  


TIP: Fire departments carry anywhere from 1 1/2 single jacket high rise hose to 2 inch double jacket hose for standpipe operations. If several vehicles are on fire, consider using your 2' or 2 1/2 line off the standpipe. Standpipes are well capable of 250 GPM's. 


NEWS: Imagine arriving to this? Massive New Years Eve fire in parking garage destroys 1,400 cars in England.


FINALLY: NEVER ATTEMPT TO DRIVE INTO A PARKING GARAGE WITH A FIRE TRUCK!! 

Video

Several vehicles burning, running fuel, explosions. Determine the wind direction, ramp direction and best method of attack before committing. Most parking garages have dry standpipes; are they enough to handle the job? Would it be beneficial to utilize the tower ladder or deck gun for quick knockdown before committing lines? This will depend on manpower and water supply. 

Windows in parking garages will just add to the problem because when they fail, they are a hazard to pedestrians and firefighters below. Reflex time has already contributed to three vehicles burning and debris falling to the ground below. This was a good aggressive interior attack by the Houston Fire Dept.

Like high-rise fires, reflex time is a factor with parking garage fires. Ground ladders were used to pull a handline up to the 3rd deck for fire attack. It's possible this garage did not have a standpipe, or it was a better tactic to not use it.


For more on parking garage fires, click here...