Rapidly Changing Conditions — Part 1

On June 24, 2010, the Harrisonburg, VA, Fire Department was dispatched to a multi-family dwelling fire in the Copper Beech townhouse community on the eastern edge of the city. The initial-arriving engine company reported fire showing from the rear of...


On June 24, 2010, the Harrisonburg, VA, Fire Department was dispatched to a multi-family dwelling fire in the Copper Beech townhouse community on the eastern edge of the city. The initial-arriving engine company reported fire showing from the rear of two townhouses. The fire involving the...


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On June 24, 2010, the Harrisonburg, VA, Fire Department was dispatched to a multi-family dwelling fire in the Copper Beech townhouse community on the eastern edge of the city. The initial-arriving engine company reported fire showing from the rear of two townhouses. The fire involving the townhouse of origin was quickly controlled and search for extension and overhaul operations began immediately.

Approximately 34 minutes into the incident, a smoke explosion occurred in an adjacent townhouse, forcing six firefighters to rapidly evacuate the structure through the interior stairwell and second-floor windows. Fortunately, there were no serious injuries.

Our sincere appreciation goes out to Harrisonburg Chief of Department Larry W. Shifflett, Deputy Fire Chief Ian J. Bennett, the officers and members of Hose Company 4 (Rockingham County) and especially the members of the Harrisonburg Fire Department who provided their accounts so that other firefighters can learn and benefit from their experiences.

The Harrisonburg Fire Department protects a community of approximately 47,000 people within an area of just over 17 square miles in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. The community has a strong presence of college students and associated college housing as it is home to two universities, James Madison University and Eastern Mennonite University. The fire department operates out of four stations with four engine companies, one truck company and one battalion chief on duty. Minimum staffing is three personnel on each engine company and four on the truck company. The department responded to over 4,400 calls for service in 2009.

The Harrisonburg Fire Department has an aggressive automatic and mutual aid agreement with Hose Company 4, a fire department that serves the surrounding areas of Rockingham County, but houses its apparatus within the City of Harrisonburg. One engine from Hose Company 4 is added to all city structural assignments, one city engine is added to all Hose Company 4 structural assignments and the two departments cover for each other when one is unavailable on another call.

The Copper Beech townhouse community consists of three-story townhouses with a predominantly college student population. The units are constructed with wood-frame materials with wood-truss roofs. Due to a variety of construction methods, only a portion of the buildings are sprinklered, with no sprinkler heads in the attic space. The townhouses involved in this incident were about one year old.

The following is an overall account of the fire provided by Chief Larry W. Shifflett and Deputy Chief Ian J. Bennett:

June 24, 2010, was a warm day in the middle of a week-long heat wave. Temperatures were in the mid-90s with heat indexes approaching 100 degrees. At 10:32 A.M., a structure fire was dispatched by the Emergency Communications Center. A normal structural fire response for the city is three city engines, one Hose Company 4 engine, one truck company, one ambulance and the battalion chief. At the dispatch time, one city engine was on a medical call and one city engine was unavailable conducting pump testing. A second Hose Company 4 engine was dispatched to fill out the first-alarm assignment. Engine 26 arrived on the scene at 10:35, took command, and transmitted an initial size-up with fire on the rear of the structure extending up in to the second floor and attic. The incident was made a "working incident," which triggers several activities, including adding the additional city engine, notifying off-duty personnel, requesting utility companies to the scene and dispatching surrounding departments to fill city stations for any additional emergency calls. Engine 28 terminated the pump testing and responded to the incident. Engine 23 cleared from the medical call and also responded to the incident.

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