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February 6, 2003

The Proverbial Dumpster/Compactor Fire
By: Captain James Benjamin, M.S., CSHM, CFSI
Trash compactor or dumpster fires, quick and simple right?  Wrong!  As anyone who has ever fought one of these fires can tell you, these details can produce a tremendous amount of heat, toxic gases (just think about the items that are in the trash: tires, plastics, rubbers, chemicals, etc.) and other products of combustion..  Worst of all, these details generate a ton of work for the responding crew(s).  Let’s face it – dumpster fire with no threatened exposures create an inordinate amount of work to save nothing more than useless refuse.  Nobody wants to do it, so these details become an abrasive chore to everyone involved. 

“Attention Engine 45, respond to 123 E. Main Street for a reported dumpster fire.”  Sound familiar? Fire departments across the county hear this call transmitted on a daily basis.  As a general rule, these calls usually require a single company response, unless other exposures are involved.


Trash dumpsters and compactors (on the scale seen today) are a relatively new hazard.  The sizes and numbers are increasing almost daily and have become a permanent part of doing business in today’s society.  Do not let these fires draw on your emotions and cause you to make poor decisions on how to combat them.  Poor attitude (i.e., “another freaking dumpster fire”) equals a potential for poor command decisions.

As the initial arriving company, you cannot let your guard down.  There has been many a rubbish/dumpster fire that has escalated into a larger incident due to lackadaisical attitudes.  Arriving crews must still consider these basic fire ground priorities (no matter what the detail): scene and firefighter safety, vehicle placement, water supply (yes even on dumpster fires), exposures, topography, and location of the dumpster itself (is it connected to the building, is it under power lines, etc.?).  It is bad enough that you have to pull trash apart with hand tools – do not make it worse by having an insufficient water supply to combat the fire or with poor vehicle placement.


Any dumpster fire is an enigma (sorry, just could not call it a box of chocolates) because the exact contents are not known.  There can be aerosol cans, paints, chemicals, plastics, packing materials such as Styrofoam, and the list goes on and on.  By now, no one reading the WTC page should have to be reminded to wear their SCBA.  Nevertheless, I’ll make note of it.  Considering the unknown contents of a trash bin, there should be no question about whether you need to pack up.  However, I cannot tell you how many firefighters I have seen over the years holding a line over their heads trying to dodge the billowing smoke gasping for air.  Ridicules!  For the love of God, wear your SCBAs.  It is not macho, it is just plain DUMB!


So what is the best way to extinguish a dumpster fire?  Like with most types of details in the fire service, there are multiple ways to accomplish this task, some of which you might have heard of, others might be new to you.  Having a sufficient water supply is essential for all fire suppression activities, and dumpster fires are no different.  Remember that, depending on the placement of the dumpster, there is a high likelihood of exposures. Thus, having an appropriate water supply is of paramount importance.  With this in mind, there is no magic way in which to fire dumpster fires.  Some will be easy knock downs requiring limited water and manpower, while others will require copious amounts of water, equipment, and manpower. 

As most of you know, many of these fires require the use of handtools to break up and pull apart the trash in order to properly extinguish the blaze, a back breaking and time consuming job.  If you are lucky, you might be able to achieve extinguishments without having to pull the contents (doubtful, but has been known to happen), but crews usually still have to pull an attic ladder or a “little giant” so they can elevate handlines over the sides of the dumpster.  Or do they?

It has been said that necessity is the mother of all invention – how true!  I remember one particular call for a dumpster fire (early in my career) that my crew received after just taking up from a multiple alarm structure fire.  After having worked this structure fire, the crew and myself were pretty whipped.  While enroute to the detail, one of the rough necks said, “Hey LT.,  let’s just blitz it with the deck gun.”  Now, I could not tell you if it was because I was punchy and tired from working the previous detail, but his idea made sense. 

Instead of beating my crew to a pulp to extinguish some rubbish that has absolutely no value by setting up ladders and pulling hundreds of pounds of trash apart, it made sense to secure a water source and flood it from an elevated platform (if there was no danger of pushing the fire to the exposures).  When we arrived on scene, we found a small open top dumpster with active fire with no compromised exposures. 

After securing a water supply, we hit it with the deck gun.  The blitz worked surprisingly well, the water extinguished the fire and caused some of the trash to escape through the side openings, breaking apart the trash for us.  Might seem like overkill, but it was safer and made for a happy group of firefighters that evening.  In any event, the actions we take or do not take to combat these fires lay in our hands, so do not be afraid to use any and all tools at your disposal to make your job easier!

About the author: 
Captain Benjamin is a career Safety Professional for a global chemical company headquartered in Cincinnati.  He is also a Captain on the Glendale Fire Department, which is a historic residential community just North of Cincinnati, Ohio.  The Glendale Fire Department runs Automatic Aid (on all structure related calls) with the Woodlawn and Lincoln Heights Fire Departments in Ohio.  James has served the Glendale Fire Department since 1988 when at the age of 14 he joined as a Cadet.  At the same age, James joined the Springdale Fire Department Explorer Post (Post 911).  During his time as Explorer Post Chief, Post 911 was ranked 3rd in the Nation. 

Captain Benjamin holds both a Masters of Science Degree in Loss Prevention and Safety, as well as, Bachelors of Science Degree in Police Administration with a minor in Fire Protection Engineering Technology from Eastern Kentucky University.  Some of the professional certifications Captain Benjamin holds include:Firefighter II, National Registered EMT-B, Certified Arson and Explosion, Investigator/Instructor, Certified Safety and Health Manager, Certified Fire and Safety Inspector, and Certified Hazardous Materials Technician. 

Captain Benjamin is also an active member of the Hamilton County Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC).  He is also a member of the following organizations: National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA), The American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) Professional Member, National Association of Fire Investigators (NAFI), Institute for Safety and Health Management (ISHM), and the Fire Department Safety Officers Association (FDSOA). 

Prior to working as a Safety Director, James was employed by Eastern Kentucky University as an Adjunct Professor and taught courses in Fire Protection Engineering Technology and Fire ground Command and Tactics. 

In 1994 Captain Benjamin received the Lincoln Heights Fire Department’s Heroism Medal for a double rescue involving a man and his infant son who were trapped in a fully involved apartment fire. 

James is a native of Cincinnati, Ohio and currently lives in Glendale.  He is a second-generation firefighter; his father (deceased) was a firefighter with Glendale and his brother is a career firefighter for the Loveland-Symmes Fire Department in Loveland, Ohio.