On Feb. 20, 2003, the nation's fourth-deadliest nightclub fire occurred in the Town of West Warwick, RI, killing 100 people and injuring nearly 300. The emotional impact on the responding firefighters continues. Many will not discuss the incident; some still receive medical care. Legal...
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West Warwick's fire chief (Chief 1) called enroute at 2322, directing FA to implement the state's Mass-Casualty Incident (MCI) Plan through the Metro Control Center (Cranston's FA). This author could not access the 2003 plan components nor verify its effectiveness. An MCI trailer did respond from the state airport. At 2323, Rescue 1 notified FA that 10 victims were being transported, with five in critical condition; four rescues were on scene; at least 10 more were needed and they had 50 to 75 injured. A Warwick police officer, observing medical supplies dwindling, directed "gun trauma kits" retrieved from patrol cars. Command requested a commercial bus to transport ambulatory injured at 2326.
Arriving at 2324, Chief 1 ordered another call-back of off-duty members. The DHS report stated a cascading telephone call-back system was used. Also, off-duty members monitoring personal scanners began returning. Radio transmissions show West Warwick's Special Hazards, Rescue 2, Reserve Rescue 3, and Reserve Engines 5 and 7 responded. Off-duty dispatchers and the FA supervisor augmented the dispatcher on duty. Neighboring FAs monitoring fireground communications notified their off-duty command and EMS supervisory staffs. Many responded to the scene. Both NIST and DHS reports noted out-of-town chiefs and EMS supervisory personnel assisted the incident commander at the command post, acting as a resource group, serving as inter-agency liaisons and supporting functions such as communications, triage, supplies, staging, rehabilitation and public information. Chief 1 assigned two safety officers, one each from Warwick and West Warwick. Warwick supplied the rapid intervention team.
Within two minutes of Chief 1's arrival, Engine 1 and Ladder 1 reported the front entryway clogged with about 20 victims. Chief 1 requested all available manpower to the front and requested an additional 15 rescues. By 2330, three handlines and master streams from Engines 2 and 4 were in service on side A. At 2336, FA was advised live wires were down on side B. At approximately 2340, what remained of the barroom roof either burned off or collapsed. Command called for an accountability roll call. A partial collapse of the side A wall at the sunroom windows at 0015 hours initiated a second accountability roll call.
Four engines and one tower ladder operating three deck guns, one ladder pipe and numerous 1¾-inch handlines were used in suppression operations. The DHS report stated the equivalent of a four-alarm structural assignment responded to the scene, for West Warwick station coverage and manpower relief. INTERCITY radio traffic confirmed Metro Control requesting fill-in companies from Coventry and East Greenwich; departments designated by the mutual aid box system to move up on the third and fourth alarms. Due to the inaccessibility of records, no attempt will be made to list each responding apparatus.
The Providence Journal published a list of participating agencies from Rhode Island and southern Massachusetts, with a partial list of responding units. That list, the reports, and telephone and radio recordings indicate at least 22 engines, eight ladders, three special hazards, two squads and 57 rescues were involved. Commercial companies and independent ambulance corps provided another 15 to 20 ambulances.
Multiple fireground and INTERCITY radio transmissions requesting all available rescues and all available manpower may have resulted in assets self-deploying. Some agencies radioed both West Warwick and Metro Control on the INTERCITY to offer assistance. INTERCITY traffic was continuous and frequently overlapping. Some communications between RCCs and agencies were made by landline. Additional resources were also requested from the scene by out-of-town chiefs via their respective proprietary frequencies and cellular phones. The DHS report Annex A — Fire Department Operations acknowledged maintaining accountability on scene and determining what local resources were still available was challenging.