On The Job: PENNSYLVANIA

On July 8, 2009, a six-alarm fire destroyed an entire block of row-houses in York, PA. The incident required a large mutual aid response because at the time, all front-line city fire apparatus with the exception of one engine were committed to a fire in a junkyard. Mutual aid companies responded to the rowhouse fire from as far away as Hanover Borough and several companies from Adams, Cumberland and Lancaster counties provided move-up companies. The fire displaced 61 residents and caused more than $2.6 million in damage.

The City of York rests in the center of the largest metropolitan area in York County. The York City Department of Fire/Rescue Services comprises the largest full-time cadre of firefighters in the metropolitan area. The first volunteer fire organization in York and the county was the Sun Fire Brigade, established in 1771. This grew in time to nine volunteer companies serving York. In the two centuries since, the service has evolved from an all-volunteer department to the largest combination department in York County.

Building Construction

The rowhouses, on Chestnut Street, were built between 1905 and 1920. All of the structures were of wood-frame, balloon construction with brick-veneer exterior walls. There were alleys between every other structure with a brick wall built to the top of the second floor. The third floor was a platform constructed on top of the second floor with void spaces between floor joists that ran the entire block of houses. All of the houses had a built-up tar roof. This fire involved a row of 16 structures. Structures 701, 705, 707, 709, 711, 713, 715, 717, 719, 721, 723, 725, 727 and 729 each contained 1,115 square feet; structure 703 had 1,140 square feet and structure 731 contained 2,087 square feet. Total square footage was 18,837. No fire protection systems were present, but all of the homes contained single-station smoke detectors.

Ongoing Incident

The fire at Consolidated Scrap Resources Inc. at 600 East Princess St. was initially dispatched at 1:59 P.M., and grew to a full first-alarm fire requiring mutual aid assistance from Manchester Borough. The call was initially reported as a trash fire in the scrap yard. Engine 99-5 arrived to find a large fire in a pile of scrap material 20 to 25 feet high and 100 to 150 feet in diameter. An additional engine was immediately requested on the assignment.

Upon his arrival, the platoon commander, Assistant Chief Greg Halpin, requested a third engine and the truck be added to the assignment. This left only one engine available in the city, so a callback of personnel was initiated. Firefighters used two 2½-inch handlines and an aerial master stream from the truck to bring the fire under control. Manchester Borough supplied relief crews at the scene. Halpin declared the fire under control at 5 P.M.

York City Fire/Rescue Services units were dispatched to a report of smoke coming from the roof of several residential structures in the area of 727 Chestnut St. at 2:51 P.M. York City Engine 99-9, a 1,500-gpm pumper; York Area United Fire & Rescue Engine 89-1, a 1,500-gpm pumper; Manchester Township Truck 24, a 95-foot tower ladder with a 2,000-gpm pump; and York City Assistant Chief 99-8 Larry Shroyer responded. Thirteen firefighters and four officers responded, along with five firefighter/inspectors from the Fire Prevention Bureau who responded from the junkyard fire.

Initial observations upon arrival were smoke showing from the roofline of four three-story residential structures at 725, 727, 729 and 731 Chestnut St. Engine 99-9 was positioned in front of 727/729 and fed by a five-inch hydrant supply line. An interior attack was begun immediately on arrival by two crews with two 1¾-inch attack lines from Engine 99-9. Truck 24 was positioned in front of 715 Chestnut St. and supplied with a five-inch line. The crew from Truck 24 made a trench cut in the roof, but the fire had already advanced beyond their point of operations. Engine 89-1 was positioned in front of 721 Chestnut St.

Crews could not initially locate the fire. Interior crews encountered heavy smoke and heat with very little fire evident. Numerous life-safety issues existed due to the connected, non-separated multi-family dwellings. Residents of the initial structures self evacuated with one exception. One female resident refused to leave and was evacuated by fire department personnel. The rest of the rowhouses were evacuated by York County Sheriff's Department personnel.

Working Fire Assignment

At 2:56, Shroyer requested a working-fire assignment. Service 99-1, a cascade truck; Manchester Township Heavy Rescue 24; and York Area United Fire & Rescue Engine 89-2, a 1,250-gpm pumper, were dispatched. Service 99-1 was staged and setup for cascade operations. Rescue 24 and Engine 89-2 were also staged and their crews were assigned as rapid intervention teams.

York City Deputy Chief Steve Buffington responded from the scrap yard fire. Upon his arrival at 2:59 P.M., he requested a second alarm. North York Borough Engine 25-2, a 1,250-gpm pumper; Spry/York Township Engine 19, a 2,000-gpm pumper; York Area United Fire & Rescue Engine 89-4, a 1,250-gpm pumper; and York City Truck 99-2, a 100-foot aerial ladder, were dispatched. Engine 25-2 was positioned at Mulberry and Granite streets and supplied with a five-inch line. Engine 89-4 also was positioned at Mulberry and Granite streets and supplied with a five-inch line.

Buffington requested a third alarm at 3:12 P.M. North York Borough Engine 25-1, a 1,250-gpm pumper; Lincolnway/West Manchester Township Engine 5-1, a 1,500-gpm pumper; and Shiloh Fire Company Truck 2, a 105-foot tower ladder with a 1,750-gpm pump, responded. Truck 2 was positioned in front of 703 Chestnut St. and set up for aerial master stream operations. Engine 5-1 was positioned west of Franklin Street on Chestnut Street. This engine was supplied with a five-inch line and fed Truck 2. Engine 25-1 was positioned at the rear of 727/729 Chestnut St. in the alley and supplied with a five-inch line. This engine supplied several handlines as well as its elevated master stream device.

Buffington requested that fourth and fifth alarms be transmitted at 3:15 P.M. Responding on the fourth alarm were Manchester Township Engine 24-1, a 1,500-gpm pumper; Dover Township Engine 9-2, a 1,250-gpm pumper; Jacobus Engine 18-1, a 1,250-gpm pumper; Strinestown Heavy Rescue 26; and West York Borough Truck 1, a 75-foot aerial with a 1,500-gpm pump. The fifth-alarm assignment included York Area United Fire & Rescue Engine 89-3, a 1,500-gpm pumper; York New Salem Engine 8-1, a 750-gpm pumper; Thomasville Engine 3-1, a 1,500-gpm pumper; and Spring Grove Truck 4, a 103-foot snorkel with a 1,250-gpm pump. Engine 24-1 was positioned on Hudson Street near Sherman Street and hooked onto the hydrant with a five-inch line, then stood by as an additional water supply. Truck 1 was positioned at Chestnut and Franklin streets and set up for aerial master stream operations, supplied by a five-inch line.

At 3:20, Buffington requested a sixth alarm. Dallastown Borough Engine 35-1, a 1,500-gpm pumper; Dover Township Engine 9-1, a 1,500-gpm pumper; East Prospect Heavy Rescue 42; and Red Lion Borough Truck 34, a 100-foot aerial, responded. Engine 9-1 was positioned on Chestnut Street east of Mulberry. This unit was supplied by a five-inch line and fed Truck 99-2.

Firefighters mounted an aggressive interior attack for nearly 1½ hours using 15 handlines. With conditions continuing to deteriorate, Buffington ordered crews to evacuate the structures at 4:13 P.M. Defensive operations were initiated with firefighters operating five elevated master streams, five blitz fires, two 2½-inch attack lines and two deluge guns.

Buffington declared the fire under control at 6:34 P.M. Mutual aid units were released at 8:30 P.M. The last York City units left the scene at 8:08 A.M. on July 9.

Conclusion

The Chestnut Street incident was handled as one large incident with three different sectors — east-side operations, west-side operations and rear operations. Approximately 150 firefighters operated at the scene. Twenty engines were dispatched to the scene, with eight used for operations and the remaining 12 for manpower. Twelve additional engines were dispatched for cover assignments. Seven trucks were dispatched to the scene with five used for operations. Four additional trucks were moved for cover assignments. Five rescue companies were dispatched to the scene and one for cover assignment. Two cascade trucks, one salvage truck and one mobile communications vehicle also responded to the scene. Nine hydrants supplied approximately 4.1 million gallons of water to extinguish the fire. Three firefighters suffered minor injuries. No civilians were injured. The weather at the time of the fire was clear and hot.

Investigators from York City Police, the Pennsylvania State Police Fire Marshal's Division, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and a K-9 unit and personnel from the Dauphin County's District Attorney's Office conducted a 4½-hour on-scene investigation. It was determined that the fire originated on the second floor of 727 Chestnut St. and spread throughout the block via openings in construction. Damage was estimated at $1,764,400 to the buildings and $850,000 to the contents. Approximately $5,000 worth of fire equipment was damaged.

Lessons Learned

  • Problems: Water supply was hampered by another large fire in the city. Construction of the buildings worked against firefighters by providing a concealed void space the length of the block. The need to evacuate an entire city block was daunting, but with the help of the county sheriff's office and the Red Cross for shelter, the task was well handled. One residence contained a large quantity of firearms ammunition and black powder. Ammunition began to go off during interior operations as well as black powder exploding, cause a change to completely defensive operations.
  • Successes: Early recognition of a well-advanced fire and the need for heavy streams and appliances. No civilian injuries. The department feels that it was prepared as well as it could have been considering all of the factors. This incident outstripped the department's resources, but with good box-alarm planning, it filled the resource requirements very quickly.

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