Early in the incident, Engine 32 operates its aerial at the intersection of sides A and B.
Photo credit: Photo courtesy of Pasco County Fire Rescue
Pasco County, FL, Fire Rescue met one of the biggest challenges in the history of the department on Nov. 24, 2010, the evening before Thanksgiving – a 42½-hour operation, the longest continuous operation at a building fire in the department’s history.
On Wednesday, Nov. 24, at 10:24 P.M., Communications dispatched a commercial assignment for a building fire in the Dade City Business Center. Responding companies were advised that a private security officer reported smoke from a building in the 134-acre complex. Formerly, the complex was home to the largest citrus-processing facility on one site in the United States. Following the citrus plant’s closing, the complex was purchased and began a transition into small business and light industry. Existing structures were divided into mixed occupancies using many existing large, warehouse-type structures.
The City of Dade City merged its fire department under contract with Pasco County in 2003. Pasco County is on Florida’s west coast, just north of the Tampa and Clearwater area, and measures 745 square miles. Pasco County Fire Rescue (PCFR) provides advanced life support (ALS) protection for the entire population of 475,000 and fire protection to all but three small municipalities. The unincorporated portion of Pasco County includes approximately 84% of the total land area.
PCFR responds out of 26 stations housing 27 engine companies and 21 ALS rescues. Its 430 career personnel are augmented by 188 volunteers. An aerial truck is used as one engine company and three other engines are elevated-stream devices. In addition, PCFR operates the Communications Division, which includes the primary Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) and Enhanced 911 (E911) center as well as dispatch for Fire Rescue.
The fire building was constructed in 1981 and attached to structures built in the 1960s. The complex was annexed into the City of Dade City following the fire department merger. The city chose to maintain its own fire safety division, which included state-certified fire inspectors.
Business park fire protection is supplied by a private water system with a fire pump drafting from a pond that supplies all hydrants, standpipes and sprinkler systems. The private system would be key during this extended operation. The former citrus-processing facility also had its own electric distribution center and the new owner was slowly converting it to the local power company.
The current occupant of the fire building is a distributor of “fragrance oil” products and had in excess of 200 55-gallon drums (some metal and some plastic) of the product. There was also a large quantity of material used to transfer the oil for retail use, including small bottles and a very large quantity of fragrance sticks that were to be saturated with the oil before distribution.
The fire building was apparently originally constructed as fire-resistive construction; however, many changes seem to have been made to the building since it was built. The complex is dealing with a fast-growing business center where occupants change rapidly.
Within six minutes of the dispatch, first-due Engine 24 entered the complex and reported heavy smoke in the area. Firefighters were led to the fire building by a security vehicle and soon located the source. Fire could be seen under an overhead rollup door and heavy smoke conditions were issuing from the 230-by-165-foot, three-story building. District Chief 34 arrived within two minutes and established Business Command.
Engine 24 and Rescue 24 deployed a 2½-inch pre-connect with two members acting as a rapid intervention team with a second line. An opening was created in the rollup door with a vent saw. Command requested a second alarm. Thus began a 42½-hour operation, the longest continuous operation at a building fire in the history of PCFR.
Engine 32 (ladder) was ordered to position to open up the roof on side A. A special call was issued for the next-closest aerial, City of Zephyrhills Fire Department (ZFD) Engine 1 (ladder). ZFD Engine 1 was advised to take the north side (C) of the building. The occupancy was labeled as All Natural Botanicals. As crews entered, it was evident that there was a large body of fire, but the size of the fire area was unknown, as were the contents. The business stored the oil in 55-gallon metal and plastic drums using racks two stories high in some areas.
Soon after crews began an interior attack, a muffled explosion was heard from inside. Command pulled crews out to determine the contents of the building, which at this time was presumed to be fully sprinklered, as are most buildings in the complex. Before a different tactical plan could be formulated, and within two minutes of withdrawing companies, a powerful explosion occurred, shooting flames out of the door that attack crews had used for entry. The explosion broke a large sprinkler riser on side A and blew a hole in the concrete block wall at the second-floor level. It was later discovered that an additional sprinkler riser broke on side B. The blast was heard by people in their homes two miles away. Firefighters said the entire building shook during the blast.
The evacuation signal had been sounded before the explosion, and now command announced all companies would change to a defensive attack. The strategy was quickly changed to containing the fire to the original fire building. Exposures of like-type buildings were on sides A, B and D. Side A had a covered breezeway of lightweight-steel construction connecting the fire building to one used for marine repair. Side B was attached via a metal roof at the third-floor roof line. Most dramatic was side D, which was a drive-through area at the first-floor level and attached by common wall at the second- and third-floor levels. Exposure D contained a 10,000-pound tank of anhydrous ammonia used in manufacturing. The D-exposure building was over 500 by 200 feet in size.
Command requested a third alarm and established a Level II staging area at the entrance to the facility for those units responding on that assignment. Two battalion chiefs had arrived and were assigned to side C and accountability, respectively. The next-in battalion chief was assigned to staging. One additional ALS unit was requested and assigned as the medical unit.
The rupture of the sprinkler riser immediately became an issue, as the riser could not be shut down without shutting down the entire fire system, which would mean the loss of all water from hydrants as well. The closet municipal hydrant was over a half-mile away.
The explosion had initiated a dramatic change in strategy. The building was thought to be fully sprinklered, but an investigation later showed that there were no sprinklers in the fire area on the first floor. The strategy now was to contain the fire to the first floor and the building of origin while command worked to determine the contents and the resources needed to keep the fire from spreading to attached buildings. It was obvious that the tactics necessary would require additional manpower, so a fourth alarm was requested.
A close inspection from crews on side A determined that exterior walls were bulging. The precarious condition of the building and dealing with exposures attached to the fire building caused additional concern. Add the presence of a large amount of hazardous material in one exposure and what apparently was a large amount of flammable liquids burning, and another strategy session was held with Emergency Services Director Anthony Lopinto (the fire chief), Training Chief Tim Reardon and command.
Side C was issuing heavy smoke. Battalion Chief Greg Gude (side C Division) directed ZFD Engine 1 (ladder) to flow water into this area. Even though only smoke could be seen, the fire stream was making an effect on the fire conditions. This would prove key to the operation as it moved into the next stage. The owner of the complex and the business manager advised several chief officers that the second and third floors were vacant with no storage at all on the upper floors. It was decided to continue the current tactics until daylight when a better evaluation could be made.
Lines had been stretched into the D exposure that housed the anhydrous ammonia to cool the tank if necessary. Also, a courtyard lay was stretched to upper floors of that building since the standpipe was not working. Engine 24 breached a wall and opened another overhead door at ground level on the A/D intersection and applied a master stream, knocking down a large amount of fire.
Once one of the damaged risers could be shut off, the increase in water pressure allowed another master stream to be operated on side A. A breach was made in the concrete wall near where several explosions and a large amount of fire could be seen throughout the night. The application of this second ground monitor master stream knocked down most of the visible fire on the original fire floor.
During the night, fire emitted from side A several times and impinged on the metal roof breezeway, causing concern for the integrity of that structure. Command directed that personnel and apparatus not be positioned under this roof structure. This limited the access to side A, where the only openings into the fire area existed.
Signs of structural collapse were showing on the upper floors of the fire building. The captain on the aerial company advised that the roof operations were not safe. Ventilation for the fire building could be accomplished only by opening three overhead doors that were on side C at the third-floor level.
Division D was created and assigned a separate radio tactical group for its operations. Two engine companies and additional manpower were assigned to this area. Early in the operation, the first floor was monitored for conditions. Hoselines were placed at the top of stairwells to stop any potential spread of fire into this building. Command was notified of extreme heat and increased smoke on the upper floors of this exposure, but no fire could be found. Not being able to place crews inside the building hampered efforts as crews fought to keep the fire contained to one area of the building.
Command declared the fire under control around 7:30 the next morning. At that time, several companies were released, including the mutual aid aerial operating on side C and the third aerial. This announcement would prove to be premature.
Crews from the oncoming shift began to relieve those who had been on the scene all night. Command was transferred to battalion chiefs who were also coming on duty. A full report was given by staff who had worked the incident since the call was received. While it is not uncommon for crews working an incident at shift change, it is rare that the operation had been going on all night and would continue for an extended time.
The fire had been contained to the original fire building throughout the night and thought to be under control. Firefighters would soon find that the unique configuration and changed occupancy of the complex would exacerbate the problem of stopping the fire.
As the new shift was doing a size-up, smoke from the upper floors increased significantly. Crews were investigating the source when areas of the roof ignited. The one remaining aerial was on side A and its stream could not reach this new fire area. Moving this apparatus was time consuming, and a large area of the roof was burning by the time a fire stream could be applied from side C.
ZFD Engine 1 (aerial) was recalled and positioned at the A/D intersection. Exposure D again became a concern as the roof of the fire building was now in flames near this exposure. With two aerial streams flowing, it took close to an hour to knock down the roof fire. Simultaneously, an interior crew reached the fire area inside the building by breaching a wall from the adjoining D exposure on the second floor. This is when it was discovered that there was indeed a large amount of material stored on the second floor, which was similar to a mezzanine. This area was hidden from view from the crew operating at the first-floor level.
This attack crew determined that the second floor was loaded with products from the original business, including pallets of cardboard and material used for incense sticks. This is the area that the occupant and owner had both assured firefighters was vacant. Once this material ignited, the fire spread to an enclosed stairwell leading to the third floor. Enough heat was generated that the door melted, letting heat and smoke penetrate this area. Hours into the incident, the heat from this stairwell ignited the roof material.
The original design of the building was that the third floor was a “cold storage” area and had heavy insulation in the roof and doors. This material ignited the next morning, creating a different area of fire that could only be fought using aerial streams from two ladder companies.
The continuing threat to exposure D where the ammonia tank was housed caused concern. It was later learned that what appeared to a firewall between the two buildings actually did not meet the floor line between the second and third floors. This was the cause of the increased heat levels in exposure D and had the upper floors of the exposure building not been vacant would have certainly added to the fire spread.
Personnel from the relief shift extended additional lines into the vacant second floor, where they breached a concrete block wall to gain access to the only remaining area of fire in the original building. This operation was conducted simultaneously with the application of aerial master streams in an all-out effort to stop the fire before it spread into exposure D.
Once knockdown was achieved for the roof and second floor, efforts were turned toward overhaul. Adding to the challenges, insulation material between partitions and walls covered during remodel also ignited. While this material was smoldering in most areas, it had to be cut out by hand before complete extinguishment could be accomplished.
Two engine companies operated through the night on hot spots. The Dade City Police Department established security until the cause-and-origin team could get into the building. More than once that night, the engine companies dealt with flare ups. On Friday, the third shift to be involved in the operation reported to the scene with three engine companies to finish the overhaul operation. Mounds of material were sifted through to ensure the fire was completely out.
The Florida State Fire Marshal’s (SFM) office handles cause-and-origin investigations in the City of Dade City. A SFM investigator was dispatched to the scene early in the operation. Due to the extent and complexity of the incident, the SFM activated a task force consisting of members of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) as well as its own investigators. Before the team could enter, the investigators required the building to be declared safe by a structural engineer. The cause has yet to be announced.
Challenges included a large fenced complex with limited access, occupancies that change without the knowledge of PCFR, a water system that was compromised by the early explosion, inaccurate content information provided by on-scene occupant and owner, and the inability to shut down power to the fire building without affecting the entire complex.
The structure itself provided additional challenges. The area of origin was two stories high while most of the building was three stories. Covered breezeways between buildings and heavy smoke further limited access. Ladder companies could not ventilate due to access and building configuration, and several interior wall changes had been created during remodeling.
The fact that the buildings were constructed for citrus processing added several hazards, including a seven-foot indentation in the first floor that was the size of a swimming pool. During overhaul, one firefighter fell into this area, which was filled with water from broken pipes. Fortunately, the department had provided a training class that demonstrated how to self-extricate from water while wearing turnout gear and the member was not injured.
Afterwards, Lopinto published a departmentwide memo complimenting all involved for a job well done. A challenge that this department had not faced was met and overcome without any serious injuries to personnel. The fire was kept in the building of origin because of the strategy and tactics adopted that night. Only one firefighter required transport the first night of the incident for a minor injury and after being treated and released, he returned to duty his next shift.