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Controlling Collateral Water Damage

Issue 4 and Volume 3.

Once your firefighters successfully control a fire to the point of origin, an additional challenge then presents itself: What do you do with the water or foam after the fire’s out?

Water is the fire department’s most common weapon, and FireRescue routinely discusses mechanisms of maximizing water application onto fires. Additionally, the efforts of many fire protection professionals, building officials, fire marshals and property owners have resulted in providing sprinkler protection in many occupancies—a move that saves lives. Significant accumulations of water, however, are likely to be present both during and after most fire incidents. Some departments choose to ignore water, leaving the scene without addressing the problem. This, however, is a serious misjudgment that can result in nasty media coverage, raising a significant obstacle to the installation of fire suppression systems in properties in the future.

Contamination

Before going too far in de-watering a building, make sure the runoff water isn’t contaminated. In buildings with hazardous materials, it may be necessary to check with local or state environmental protection groups to determine if the water can be discharged directly outside or if instead it must be contained and removed as hazardous material. Fortunately, many buildings that use/store hazardous materials will likely have construction features that facilitate containment. A little preplanning will help you determine whether hazardous materials are present that will require containment or whether floor drains are present that will help remove contaminated water. Note: If floor drains and hazardous materials are present, it will be important to note where those drains lead in case contaminated firewater leaves the building through the drain system.

Damage Done

A major objective of fire departments should be to minimize property damage. The use of Class A foams and other water additives not only makes a bigger mess, but the now-reduced surface tension of the water may cause it to travel into nooks and crannies in the building that water alone would not enter. The control of fire suppression water should be a major objective after, and perhaps even during, fire control. The damage posed by water—and our response to it—depends in large part on whether the fire building is single-story or multi-floor.

Single-story operations
If firefighting water winds up on the ground floor of a building, it might be easier to deal with than water on upper floors or in basements. Simple tasks, like opening doors to the outside to let the water out, or closing interior doors to contain water, may go far in keeping the problem under control. If the water is contaminated, employ hazardous materials containment techniques, like diking materials to contain water or direct it to an area where it will cause little or no damage. Otherwise, locate floor drains, if these are present, and use squeegees or push brooms to move water toward them.

Multi-story operations
Fires above the ground floor, as well as ground floors with basements below, present challenges for controlling water damage. Runoff can quickly spread across floors, spilling into lower levels. Water coming through the ceiling can create havoc on the lower level, including ceiling collapse. If water is or will be coming through the ceiling to a lower level, you must evaluate whether to control the water or to move the exposed materials.

With multi-floor operations, electricity control will be important. Most ordinary buildings aren’t designed to be liquid-tight from floor to floor, meaning water can travel through electrical conduits into light fixtures, creating an electrocution hazard. Once the power is controlled, you’ll need to deploy portable lighting to continue to operate safely inside the building.

You’ll have to capture the water somehow. Trash cans located around homes or businesses can be placed under water leaks, but it’s important the trash cans themselves don’t leak. Some fire departments carry large trash cans on wheels that can be quickly deployed to upper floors to contain water leakage. Talented truckies can perform wonders with salvage covers, tarps and runners, redirecting water even to the point of guiding it out of windows. Dust off your basic training manuals and spend an afternoon or evening practicing making catch-alls, chutes and other tools to control and remove water in a multi-floor setting.

When multiple floors are exposed, it will be critical to keep water from running floor to floor. Use floor drains where they are available to catch water. Check ceilings for water buildup. This can be relatively easy to locate in buildings with suspended ceilings. The tiles will stain, show wetness and begin to sag. In plaster ceilings, look for moist spots. Beware that water may travel significant distances horizontally and show up in areas far from its source. To release the water, firefighters can poke holes in the ceiling, after placing a container under the location to prevent ceiling collapse. You can also place ropes or electrical cords (not powered) at the hole and drop them into the floor/container below to allow the water to follow the rope/cord into the container or floor drain.

Protect the Valuables

When working in watery environments, ensure that valuable items are covered with waterproof tarps. Good salvage companies will be very familiar with the proper use of water vacuums and salvage pumps. Salvage pumps—especially pumps that aren’t very particular about the quality of the water that they handle—can be very valuable assets.

A different tactic: Move valuable materials away from the water. Move items susceptible to water damage, such as electronics, as well as those items that can be moved easily. If possible, work with occupants to prioritize the materials to save. In offices, patent or lawsuit documents can be critical, and are therefore good candidates for receiving salvage priority. In homes, simply think what would be important to you or your family. In today’s world, computers and personal data devices are critical to their owners. Get items off the floor—onto desks or pallets—and keep in mind that water may be traveling across the ceiling while you are doing this.

Basements

Once water starts to fill a basement, or the lowest level of a building, it’s likely utility equipment will be exposed. Gas-fired equipment can have the pilot lights extinguished if submerged, resulting in a gas leak if intrinsic safety equipment doesn’t activate. Oil-fired equipment can present an oil leak hazard. If electrical equipment is exposed to water, it can be subject to shorting and ignite an additional fire. Therefore, you must control utilities in the basement.

In some cases, to evacuate the water, you may need pumps larger than typical electric pumps. But be very cautious before considering fire pumps for this purpose—debris in the basement could damage the pump, and the rapid removal of water could result in foundation damage if there’s excessive groundwater or other pressure outside the foundation.

Enter Sprinklers

If the building is sprinklered, it will be important for firefighters to know how to control them. First, preplan shutoff valve locations so you’re prepared before the fire. When a sprinkler valve is shut, a firefighter must be stationed at the valve for the remainder of the incident so they can turn the valve back on quickly if the fire rekindles.

After shutting off the main valve, firefighters must know how to open sprinkler main drain valves to drain the system more rapidly. This can reduce the water discharge in the fire area. Control water flow under open sprinklers by “chocking” the sprinklers or applying specially designed shut-off devices. But these tactics must be practiced in advance to be effective on the emergency scene. Tip: There are many new styles of sprinklers, some of which cannot be shut off with traditional devices. To keep the sprinkler discharge “umbrella” minimized while the system drains, hang a lightweight tarp from above the sprinkler.

Preplan for Salvage

Valuable structures such as museums and libraries will have special salvage needs and may require a “salvage alarm.” Truck, rescue or special salvage companies can provide this service. Pre-plan a special salvage alarm, with several truck and/or rescue companies that focus on creating the salvage group, freeing the incident commander to deal with the other needs of the incident. Units performing this function must have access to resources such as salvage covers, water vacs and pumps. It can also be useful to coordinate salvage arrangements with facilities that have maintenance crews capable of performing this work. Tarps can be stored near critical equipment, much like fire extinguishers are placed near fire hazards.

Conclusion

Aggressive, successful fire departments will find themselves with opportunities to minimize damage to property by controlling water damage. A truly professional department will not only assist a business or homeowner by controlling their fire, but will also do everything they can to help the occupant restore their life to normal. Incident commanders must consider addressing water damage even while active firefighting is underway.

Controlling water in sprinklered buildings is a tactic that requires preplanning and training. Don’t forget that safety is vital at this stage of the operation—the use of proper protective equipment, such as gloves, helmets and boots, is likely still necessary. Being prepared to control water damage will not only pay major dividends with the affected property owner; it will also prevent negative public perceptions of sprinklers and endear us to our customers.