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On Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2010, a four-alarm fire destroyed the Harvard Plaza office building in Southfield, MI. Early recognition of possible backdraft conditions prevented injuries to firefighters when a backdraft did occur. Recognizing that water supply would be an issue during a major fire with prolonged master-stream use, incident commanders notified the water company early in the incident to increase the available water.
The one-story, 42,000-square-foot building was built in 1968. Construction consisted of ordinary-wood frame with brick exterior walls. The roof was of flat membrane construction with a gable roof around the perimeter. There were two fire walls located on the north and south sides of the building. More than 40 tenants occupied the building, including law firms, medical offices, accounting firms and charitable organizations.
The Southfield Fire Department was dispatched for a report of a “smoke smell” in the Harvard Plaza at 29350 Southfield Road at 12:55 P.M. Responding on the call were Engines 3 and 5, both 1,500-gpm pumpers with two-person crews; Tower 5, a 100-foot tower ladder with a 1,250-gpm pump and a two-person crew; Life Support Ambulance 3 with a two-person crew, and Captain Ed Cary and Battalion Chief Keith Rowley in a command vehicle. While these units were responding, dispatch received multiple calls from the office building reporting that the smoke was increasing and that flames could be seen. Rowley requested Southfield Engines 1, 2 and 4, all 1,500-gpm pumpers, to respond to the scene.
Engine 3 and Ambulance 3 arrived on scene first and were positioned on side C. Occupants of the building were self-evacuating upon arrival of Engine 3. Engine 3 laid a 150-foot, five-inch supply line from a hydrant at the C/D corner. Engine 3 Lieutenant Niles Owen established “Southfield Road Command” and notified that the company was stretching a 200-foot, 1¾-inch attack line into the entrance on side C. Tower 5 was positioned on side C and supplied with a 100-foot, five-inch line from Engine 3.
Owens reported that the crew was doing a primary search using a thermal imaging camera because smoke conditions were rapidly getting worse. The crew was encountering moderate heat and heavy smoke in the northeast corner of the building. The fire had broken through the roof on the C/D corner and interior conditions were deteriorating rapidly. Rowley ordered the interior crew to evacuate the building.
Approximately 50 seconds after the interior crew exited the building, a backdraft occurred. The explosion blew out the entrance doors to the building on sides C and D. Heavy fire was now spreading from the B/C corner toward the C/D corner. Rowley had assumed command and ordered no entry into the structure and to begin defensive operations. At 1:05 P.M., he requested a mutual aid aerial from the Royal Oak Fire Department. Aerial 1, a 114-foot tower ladder with a 1,800-gpm pump, responded with four firefighters. Rowley also requested an additional engine from the Birmingham Fire Department at 1:08 P.M. Engine 2, a 1,250-gpm pumper, responded with four firefighters.
Royal Oak Aerial 1 arrived on scene at 1:10 and was set up for aerial master-stream operations on side B. This unit hooked onto a hydrant at the A/B corner of the building. Birmingham Engine 2 arrived at 1:12 and was positioned on side A. This engine was supplied from a hydrant on Southfield Road and placed its deck gun into operation
Fourteen minutes after the arrival of Engine 3, Rowley ordered all companies to begin defensive operations. Southfield Engines 2 and 3 placed their deck guns into operation. Tower 5 placed two aerial master streams into operation. Despite the use of master streams, the fire continued to rapidly spread to the east. Winds that reached 20 mph were pushing the fire into the east parking lot, where Engine 3 and Tower 5 were located. Both of these units had to be repositioned away from the heat and flames. The fire continued to spread, eventually involving the entire structure. The entire roof collapsed.