Beware Falling Victim to “Residential Mentality”

I got some bad news this week that I had been dreading for years. It finally came to a head during a fire in a large commercial building on which we were first-in. This incident shouldn’t have been a big deal at all, but it turned into a third-alarm fire before it was over.

I started feeling the effects before the fire was even out, and the longer it went, the worse I felt. When we got some relief and went to rehab, things only got worse. My chest was tight. I noticed other members looking at me funny. I had an uneasy feeling deep inside and this fire had made the signs and symptoms show themselves–and it scared me.

No, I wasn’t having heart problems, but I did have a very bad case of one of the worst things a fire company officer can have: I had residential mentality. I had seen it many times before in others and had told myself as I came up through the ranks that I wasn’t ever going to allow myself to contract it.

What Is Residential Mentality?
Residential mentality (let’s call it RM) is when we take strategies and tactics from residential-type structure fires and try to make them fit other types of fires, such as those in commercial buildings.

Most often, RM is developed over many years of fighting fires in a lot of one- and two-family residences. Just like the old saying, “Use the right tool for the right job,” you must have the right tactic for the right fire. When you respond to incident after incident in residential structures, you develop a set of operational tactics that work for those incidents. The problem occurs when you respond to something other than your bread-and-butter house fire–structures like big-box stores or strip malls–where those habits that you have developed over the years are very much out of place.

Let’s take a look at a few “symptoms” of RM.

Retaining Water
Big fire equals big water. A vast majority of house fires are handled with a couple of 1¾” handlines, with back-up lines in place. Although small handlines offer great mobility, they may lack the flows needed to control a well-developed fire in a commercial building.

Commercial buildings will normally have a lot of square feet and heavier fire loads than you normally see in residential-style structures. This is where larger-capacity lines make a big difference in terms of gpm, stream reach and stream force.

The most important thing to remember about line selection: You must know when to reach for something bigger. Just because that 1¾” is the most used line on the apparatus doesn’t make it the correct choice at every fire. Know when to say when. Every apparatus should have at least one larger high-flow line–and every crew should be ready to use it.

Preconnect Paralysis
Over the years, almost all fire department apparatus have made the shift to preconnected handlines ; some don’t have anything other than preconnects. As we go about our daily responses to residential house fires, we become dependent on these preconnects–but they may not be long enough for use in commercial buildings and apartments where longer lines are needed due to the layout of the building.

The preconnected handline allows for quick and easy line deployment, but limits your ability to make longer lines than those that are loaded in each hosebed. This often leads to apparatus having several preconnects of different lengths and sizes in an attempt to cover as many different scenarios as possible.
As a drill, test how quickly and efficiently your company can extend its longest preconnected handline an additional 50 or 100 feet. Take into account the friction loss that longer lines produce and look for methods to overcome it, like leading off with larger line sizes or the use of wyed lines or manifolds.

The bottom line: Make sure you’re not handcuffed by preconnects. There will come a day when you’ll need to deploy a line longer than your preconnect, so be ready.

Difficulty Concentrating
Any time you’re on the way to a commercial building fire, a light should go off in your head to remind you to shift into a different gear and focus on the dangers associated with fires in larger buildings. But we sometimes lack that focus, and instead get caught up in the energy of the call.

A key aspect on which to concentrate: building construction. Many commercial buildings use wide-span trusses. Whenever you’re out of ideas for your company-level training, the danger of truss construction is always a good fallback topic–one that can save firefighter lives.

Don’t take your house fire tactics to a commercial building that has a well-developed fire in the truss space of the building. You may be able to get by with them at a house fire, but it poses a much different safety problem at a commercial building.

Labored Breathing
The fire service has made many advancements in both its awareness and operating procedures associated with air management for interior crews. We’ve all pushed the limits of our air supply when operating at a residential structure, knowing that in most cases we are only a few steps from being outside. But that builds complacency. If we take that same complacency to commercial buildings and manage our air supply the same way, we place ourselves in danger–not to mention those who may have to come to our aid if we call a mayday due to running out of air. Remember: It takes as much air (or a little more) to get out as it did to get in.

Another point on air management at commercial buildings: Stay on the handline or use some type of search rope when operating in large, open spaces.

Excessive Risk-Taking
A continuous water supply from a good water source is one of the basics of effective firefighting. Apparatus water tanks have grown over the years, and many departments have developed the ability to aggressively control residential fires by starting their fire attack with their on-board water supply.

This is a dangerous tactic at commercial building fires because you may not be able to quickly move outside when you run out of water, like we often do in house fires. Several of the points outlined above have a direct impact on the need for a water supply, such as fire flow requirements and the size of the building. Don’t commit your company to an interior attack that can’t be controlled by tank water unless you first establish a continuous water supply.

Don’t Get Infected
These are just a few of the things to consider as you perform a self-exam to determine if you have a case of RM. Take the time to discuss the RM signs and symptoms with your company.

Don’t be a victim of residential mentality.

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