On The Job: Rhode Island

A general-alarm fire tore through a five-story, U-shaped, 217,000-square-foot mill at 85 Fairmount St. in Woonsocket, RI, on June 7, 2011. At the height of the fire, with the mill complex fully involved and major structural collapses occurring, some 250 firefighters and command staff were involved in the attack, using multiple ladder pipes, deck guns, portable monitors and handlines. A major concern was the presence of hazardous materials, as the building had been used to manufacture and store many chemicals and other dangerous products.The mill was built in 1889 by the Woonsocket Rubber Co. and later was sold to the United States Rubber Co. The complex was once the largest rubber-goods factory in the world, sitting on eight acres along the Blackstone River in the city’s Fairmount Section. The mill closed in 1932, but was reopened in September 1941 to meet World War II demands. The company manufactured barrage balloons, 10-person rubber attack boats, and wading and lifesaving suits. The mill remained in operation until the 1960s and then was reopened by Tech Industries, a manufacturer of plastic jars and caps for the cosmetics industry until 2009. The building was purchased by American Wood Pellet in December 2010 and was undergoing renovations prior to the new owner’s occupancy. The mill structure had an operational fire alarm system, but the sprinkler system was disabled at the time of the fire.


Initial Alarm

Woonsocket Fire Control received a tilt intrusion, or trouble box, for the building at 7:30 P.M. This type of alarm usually is a one-engine response per the fire department’s standard operating procedures (SOPs). Deputy Chief Tom Williams (Chief 1), the on-duty commander, asked for a full first-alarm assignment to be sent as a precaution because of the vast size of the building. Engine 1 arrived first due, radioing “nothing showing” and that they had to open a locked gate at side A. Engine 2 sat on a hydrant as they arrived on scene. Engine 3, Tower Ladder 2 and Williams reported to the east stair tower to review the annunciator panel, which was not showing any device in alarm.

Williams drove 360 degrees around the complex as Engine 1 climbed the stairs in full gear carrying high-rise packs and tools to investigate. Engine 3 and Tower Ladder 2 were assigned to investigate the west stair tower. Williams also did not notice any smoke showing as he investigated the other three sides of the complex. As the chief positioned his car in the main lot on side A, he noticed white smoke coming from the third-floor windows on the west side. Captain David Souza of Tower Ladder 2 also noticed the same conditions where he was investigating. Engine 1 stopped on the second floor, walked eight feet into the warehouse and were greeted with a sea of flames along the entire ceiling. They did a quick about-face and bolted to the safety of the east tower. Within seconds, the white smoke turned into heavy, churning, brown smoke that was under pressure from the second and third floors.

Williams radioed to Fire Control that he had a “Code Red,” the region’s term for a working fire. He requested Squad 4, the last piece of the city’s apparatus not assigned on the first alarm, to the scene and for a safety officer to be called in. Heavy fire was now pushing out of four windows on the third floor. Command had all companies sound their air horns and for Fire Control to transmit the evacuation signal on the radio channel. A personnel accountability report (PAR) was conducted and confirmed that all initial-response personnel were safely out of the building and accounted for.

Williams requested a third alarm to be sent to the scene and for Northern Control to back-fill the empty firehouses in the city. Northern Control (the Smithfield Fire Department) is one of the state’s four control points for Intercity Mutual Aid and handled all of the relocation and alarm-level requests for the city’s dispatch center.

Williams assigned Captain Paul Russell of Engine 3 to the east tower side as Division 1 and Souza to the west tower side as Division 2 to oversee mutual aid companies. The main section of the mill was now becoming fully involved and rapidly extending into the wings, causing a severe radiant heat threat to sides C and D. Woonsocket Engines 1, 2 and 3 were positioned in the side-A lot to deploy deck guns, portable monitors and large-diameter hose (LDH) to Tower Ladder 2’s master-stream devices.


Exposure Issues

The exposures were as follows: Side A was a large parking lot with two free-standing office buildings and a garage; side B was the Blackstone River; side C had a railroad line, several apartment buildings and businesses along River Street; and side D had three multiple dwellings and a mill-style complex similar to the fire building. A propane tank farm consisting of two 30,000-gallon tanks and delivery trucks was a half-mile west of the fire. The Providence and Worcester Railroad line ran directly behind the complex. Command knew that an 80-car ethanol train was due to be in the area some time during the fire. Fire Control called the railroad dispatch center to request that the train be stopped. There were several large electrical transformers around the complex that needed to be secured by National Grid Utilities.


Defensive Operations

Woonsocket Engine 4 tagged a hydrant on a 20-inch main at River and Fairmount streets and laid into Blackstone, MA, Ladder 1 on side D. Cumberland Hill Engine 41 also set up this side to protect the multiple dwellings on Fairmount Street that were receiving severe radiant heat. Bellingham, MA, Ladder 1 squeezed through these apparatus to protect the A/D corner of the complex. Burrillville companies with drafting capabilities were assigned to a site along the Blackstone River to supply the scene with unlimited water. The draft site these companies used was created as part of a pre-plan for the vacant mill that was an exposure on side D. Williams stated that water supply was not an issue at this fire due to the pre-planning.

Command requested an additional six ladder trucks to the scene due to embers that were now threatening numerous structures along sides C and D. Several spot fires ignited along the River Street exposure. Fires on the rooftop of the L&R scrap metal yard’s office, the ties along an abandoned train bridge over the Blackstone River and some areas of brush were all quickly doused. Lincoln Ladder 20, a Smithfield engine and ladder, a Millville, MA, engine and ladder, Central Falls Engine 1, along with Woonsocket’s reserve ladder all were placed into operation along River Street. Staging for the out-of-town companies was the parking lot of Grossman’s Bargain Outlet due east of the fire.

A general alarm was now sounded, bringing in companies from 40 minutes away. The original mill complex was now fully involved with major collapses of the structure occurring. Approximately 250 firefighters and command staff were on scene. At the height of the fire, eight ladder pipes along with numerous deck guns, portable monitors and handlines were playing water into the collapsed shell of the mill and protecting the exposures.

The ethanol train did attempt to proceed from Providence through Woonsocket to Worcester, MA. The train was stopped about 100 yards short of the railroad crossing at River Street. The train cars were determined to be empty, but were forced to return to Providence until the fire was placed under control. The train did pose an issue to the mutual aid apparatus as it blocked crossings along the route to the scene, stalling the out-of-town companies.

Brand patrol in the Cold Spring Park area was handled by two engines and a ladder. A 1,000-gpm foam trailer was brought into the scene and placed front and center of side A once the major portion of the front collapsed in.


Logistical Needs

The command staff also had several other matters to deal with. The weather during the fire was warm and humid. Drinking water was distributed around the fire scene and cooling fans were supplied to the rehab sectors. Scene lighting was acquired from the water and highway divisions. Fuel was brought into the scene by private vendors to refill the apparatus. Frozen-lemonade trucks also responded to the scene to pass out refreshments to the exhausted firefighters. The Special Signal Association’s canteen truck provided food and drink.

The 100 off-duty Woonsocket firefighters were told to report to their shift deputy chief for ease in accountability and knowledge of their members. An EMS sector was established to evaluate any injured or exhausted personnel. A physician from Landmark Hospital responded to the scene as a precaution.

Hazardous materials were also a concern. The building was used to manufacture and store many known and unknown chemicals and products throughout its history. The 122-year-old, oil-soaked, heavy-timber flooring of the complex also contaminated the water runoff. The acrid smoke that sat throughout the city also concerned the officials and residents.

A mobile command center was brought into the scene for unified command to plan the events of this extensive operation. Residents were forced to evacuate their homes throughout the neighborhood due to smoke and or power loss. National Grid reported that about 600 residents were without power during the fire.


Investigation & Recap

The Rhode Island Fire Marshal’s Office responded to the scene to assist Woonsocket fire investigators and police detectives in determining the origin and cause of the fire. After interviewing workers in the building, the officials determined the cause as residual heat from a blowtorch used in cutting plumbing on an upper floor about two hours before the fire broke out. The company had not sought a permit from the fire department for the use of a blowtorch, which is required by code. There should have been a fire watch detail on scene prior to the start of this type of work. No charges were filed against the current owners, authorities stated.

Engine 6, the first-due pumper to this address, was located at 504 Fairmount St., roughly 10 blocks away. The firehouse was closed in 2009 due to budget cuts. Ladder 1, the first-due truck company, was also browned out in January 2011 due to economic demands on the city. The city has seen many cuts over the years. Manpower is now 23 on shift with two members in the dispatch center. The city does approximately 12,000 runs a year.

Mutual aid companies that covered the empty firehouses handled 30 runs while the fire was raging out of control. One firefighter was transported to Rhode Island Hospital after he suffered a heat-related injury and fell, striking his head on the front bumper of an engine.