On Thursday, July 24, 2008, a three-alarm fire destroyed a portion of a commercial building in historic downtown Spokane. The three-story structure, known as the Joel Building, was a compilation of five buildings joined together, all with a single flat roof constructed of layers of wood board covered with a thick rubber membrane. A series of firewalls divided the roof into five separate areas. Interior walls were covered by gypsum wallboard and flooring materials consisted of carpet and wood.

The building was divided into three sections containing Dorian Photography, Churchill's Restaurant and 16 condominiums. Dorian Photography contained a security system, but no fire protection or detection systems; Churchill's contained a fire alarm system and sprinklers and the condominiums contained sprinklers. The condominiums were under construction and in the shell stage with no contents. Before the current occupancies, the entire building was a home furnishings and specialty store, Joel Inc. Even earlier, the building had housed a brewery, a refrigeration business and a car dealership.

The Spokane Fire Department was dispatched for a smoke investigation at 161 South Post St. at 4:30 A.M. Spokane Engine 4, a 1,250-gpm pumper, responded with three firefighters under the direction of Firefighter/Acting Lieutenant Shawn Poole. Upon arrival at 4:37, the crew of Engine 4 found a smoldering fire in a recycling dumpster on the north side of the Joel building. As the dumpster was pulled away from the building, flames were coming out of a pipe chase leading from the basement of the building. The main body of fire was in the south and southeast areas of the Dorian basement.

Initial Operations

Engine 4 was positioned on side Alpha of the building on Post Street. Firefighters advanced a 150-foot, 1¾-inch pre-connect to the area of the dumpster on the north side of the building and attempted to extinguish the fire in the dumpster and the pipe chase. Engine 4 was supplied by a five-inch line from a hydrant in front of the fire building on side Alpha.

Poole requested a full alarm dispatched at 4:41 A.M. Responding were Engines 1, 3 and 7, all 1,250-gpm pumpers, and Engine 9, a 1,500-gpm pumper; Ladder 1, a 110-foot aerial ladder with a 1,500-gpm pump; Ladder 4, a 110-foot tillered aerial; Rescue 1; South Battalion Chief Ken Kirsch and North Battalion Chief Joel Fielder.

Engine 1 was initially assigned to side Bravo. Firefighters advanced a 200-foot, 1¾-inch line to the access door on side Bravo. This door was heavily locked and forcible entry attempts using a halligan bar and a flat head axe were unsuccessful. Ladder 4 was assigned to side Bravo and assisted Engine 1's crew with forcible entry using a power saw to cut the hinges off of the door. Ladder 4 then raised its aerial to the roof of the fire building, where the crew performed trench-cutting operations.

Engine 1's crew advanced into the building and found heavy smoke and charring at the doorway. As the firefighters proceeded farther into the building, conditions improved. Returning to the entry area, firefighters found heavy fire at the basement stairs. Operating the attack line from this position had no effect on the fire in the basement and the crew left the area after running low on air. Firefighters returned to the Bravo side after exchanging air bottles.

Engine 3's crew, assigned to side Alpha, advanced a 200-foot, 1¾-inch pre-connect from Engine 4 through the front door of Dorian Photography on side Alpha and down an interior hallway. The crew could find no stairs leading to the basement or any fire. Heavy smoke was pushing up from the basement around the structural beams and through the floor. The crew backed out of the building and was sent in the loading dock area on side Bravo and found stairs leading to the basement. Engine 3's crew advanced a 1¾-inch line into the basement and found heavy fire. They retreated from the basement and repositioned with a 2½-inch line, making limited progress in extinguishing the fire in the basement. Engine 7 was assigned as the rapid intervention team. Engine 9 was positioned on side Delta and connected to the building's fire department connection at the Alpha/Delta corner with two 2½-inch lines from Engine 4.

Ladder 1 was positioned on side Delta and its crew from Ladder 1 was eventually assigned to interior operations, where the members opened up the first floor in two locations. First, an access hole was cut in the main hallway and a 2½-inch line from Engine 4 equipped with a Bresnan distributor was lowered into the basement. This line was passed off to Engine 3's crew. Ladder 1's crew opened another hole in the floor in Dorian's office area near the front window of the building and placed another 2½-inch line from Engine 4 with a Bresnan distributor into operation. This line was operated by Engine 4's crew. The crew from Ladder 1 was then assigned to basement operations to relieve Engine 3.

Working Fire

Kirsch, the incident commander, declared a working fire at 4:53 A.M. Pumper/Ladder 11, a 1,500-gpm pumper with a 75-foot ladder, responded and command staff consisting of Assistant Chief Brian Schaeffer and Deputy Chief Dave Leavenworth as well as off-duty division and battalion chiefs were paged. Pumper/Ladder 11 was assigned to side Charlie and was set up for water tower operations. After finding the hydrant across the street from the fire building inoperative, the crew assisted the crew from Engine 7 hand jack a 600-foot, five-inch supply line to a hydrant at the intersection of Third and Post Streets. Ground ladders were setup on the Bravo and Delta sides of the building for firefighter egress.

Kirsch requested a second alarm at 5:16. Engines 13 and 18, both 1,250-gpm pumpers, and Ladder 2, an 85-foot aerial platform with a 1,500-gpm pump, responded. Engine 13 was assigned to side Bravo and assisted Engine 3 in placing a 2½-inch hoseline with a Bresnan distributor through the floor inside the loading dock area of the building. Engine 18 supplied Engine 9 with a 200-foot, 2½-inch line. The crew made entry into the building on the Delta-side second floor to check for extension. Firefighters encountered medium smoke conditions, but no fire extension was found on any of the floors at this time. Schaeffer, the Delta Division assistant chief, ordered the crew to set up additional 2½-inch lines with hotel packs on the second and third floors in anticipation of fire extension to these areas. Ladder 2 was positioned on side Delta and set up for aerial master stream operations.

After meeting face-to-face with Kirsch, Schaeffer assumed command and requested a third alarm at 5:48 A.M. Kirsch was assigned Operations Section chief. Engine 14, a 1,500-gpm pumper, and Engine 16, a 1,250-gpm pumper, responded. He also requested Spokane County's Type III Incident Management Team to the scene.

Engine 14 laid a 400-foot, five-inch supply line from a hydrant at Lincoln and Second streets to side Alpha. Engine 16 was assigned to the staging area and crewmembers were assigned as a rapid intervention team on side Delta and assisted with personnel tracking. Engine 81 from Spokane Fire District 8 was also included on the third alarm and the personnel were used throughout the incident in multiple assignments.

Spokane County's Type III Incident Management Team is staffed three teams deep and members in each position are on call on a two-week cycle. The team was supported by a command vehicle with a 17-kilowatt generator, all-hazard communications dispatch positions for four operators, conference area with five LCD video screens, on-board wireless network and available microwave downlink from helicopter. Critical command positions were filled including logistics section chief, planning section chief, liaison officer and public information officer. Schaeffer, a member of the Type III team, retained command of the incident and approved the team's Incident Action Plan (IAP) for the next 12 hours. The remaining positions responding from the Type III Team supported the existing structure in place and were able to bring information from the field and contribute to the development of the IAP.

With the third alarm, Post Street Command also requested mutual aid from various departments. The Spokane Valley Fire Department responded with Ladder 10; Spokane County Fire District 9 responded with Engine 92 and Spokane County Fire District 10 responded with Engine 101. All units were assigned to provide coverage for the city.

Defensive Attack

Despite an aggressive interior attack in multiple divisions, the fire continued to spread within the Dorian portion of the building and interior conditions deteriorated to an unsafe level. At 7:12 A.M., all crews were ordered to evacuate and interior operations were abandoned. Aerial master streams, deck guns, portable monitors and exterior hoselines were placed into operation. Engine 13 manned a monitor and a deluge gun supplied by Engine 4 on side Alpha. Ladder 2, positioned on side Delta, used its platform in an aerial attack of the fire. Multiple 2½-inch lines were used by crews on sides Alpha and Bravo into openings in the burning structure. Ladder 1 operated an aerial stream fed by a 400-foot, five-inch supply line laid by Engine 14 from a hydrant at 2nd Avenue and Lincoln. At 7:40 A.M., the first floor flashed over.

Foam Operations

Foam operations were started after the fire was determined to be defensive utilizing Engine 4. One 2½-inch line from a portable foam generator with a 5-hp motor and sock assembly was operated through openings in the first floor and a basement window on side Bravo. The effort was an attempt to fill the basement with 20-to-1 expansion Class A foam to smother the seat of the fire that was unreachable by hose streams. Approximately 25 five-gallon buckets of foam were used in the operation with very good results in partially filling the basement and smothering the majority of remaining fire.

Post Street Command declared the fire out and on "fire watch" at 5:50 P.M. Firefighters contained the fire to the part of the structure occupied by Dorian Photography. Churchill's Restaurant suffered heavy smoke and water damage and the condominiums suffered smoke damage. Two firefighters were injured, one requiring hospitalization. Off-duty Spokane firefighters staffing reserve apparatus were released beginning at 6 P.M. A continual fire watch was in place for four days. The last Spokane unit left the scene at 7:24 A.M. on Monday, July 28.

An investigation into the cause and origin of the fire was conducted by Spokane Fire Department; the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and private insurance investigators. Due to structural collapse, it was several days before the scene was stabilized to allow for entry into the building. The investigation concluded on Nov. 17. Investigators were unable to agree on a cause of the fire. Damage was estimated at nearly $5 million.

Lessons Learned

  • Incident management — Type III Incident Management Teams are traditionally used in the Pacific Northwest for frequent wildland fires and pre-planned events. Since 9/11, Spokane's team has aggressively trained and adapted its system to an All-Risk philosophy, which was extremely helpful in this incident. The team's participation in this incident was critical, especially in the support functions. The Logistics Section facilitated the rehabilitation, feeding and temporary sheltering of the nearly 100 firefighters and staff that were on scene as well as on-site fueling and repair of apparatus, which was critical to the success of the incident's objectives.

    Realizing that this incident was evolving and causing a significant safety hazard to the public and firefighters, it was critical to have alternatives established that were in compliance with command's intent. The Planning Section prepared a Plan B and a Plan C using the team situation unit leader's GIS capability and predicting tools.

  • Coordinating personnel — Another critical objective of the Planning Section was to devise a plan to replace all of the initial on-scene firefighters with incoming firefighters during the initial few hours of the incident. This was successfully completed using Spokane Battalion Chief Bob Hanna as a resource unit leader and using the department's staffing program "TeleStaff" on site with a connection through a mobile data computer. Simply replacing an entire shift during an incident without sacrificing progress and safety is almost an incident within an incident and should be treated as a separate objective.
  • Operations Section chief — The use of an Operations Section chief on an incident without branches in moderate-scale incidents is normally discouraged, but in this case it was extremely beneficial. After the incident commander set the incident's objectives and overall leader's intent (with the team's input), it allowed the Operations Section chief to develop tactics and resources to accomplish the objectives. As the incident commander, it allows you to step back and remain strategic. In this case, the Spokane Fire Department had a serious injury (Poole was transported from the scene and later hospitalized with a severe chest injury requiring hospitalization due to a fall in the initial attack on the fire; see sidebar above) during the incident, which required a significant amount of time and effort to coordinate the transportation and notification of family. Division Chief Rich Kness accompanied and remained with Poole in the emergency department as departmental procedure. Although Poole's condition was being passed along to the members on scene through the liaison, the injury and resulting close call weighed heavily on everyone's mind.
  • Liaison — Another contributing factor to the incident's complexity was the amount of water runoff created from the firefight that was threatening a historic hotel and several downtown businesses. The geographic location of the fire was 50 to 100 feet above the threatened buildings and created the need to use a liaison to the city's public works director, which resulted in the placing of sewer vacuum vehicles at downhill locations from the fire to mitigate the threat of water damage to the buildings below. The liaison officer interacted with several other agencies, including Public Health, Spokane Clean Air Authority and Streets Department.
  • Time — Obviously, time escaped many of the personnel on scene. It is easy to become focused on the fire and not to consider the amount of time that has transpired. In this case, it would have been extremely beneficial to have 10-minute reminders from dispatch to help keep the incident commander, Operations Section chief and division supervisor's situational awareness heightened toward the time factor.
  • Public information — The Type III Team's Information Unit was staffed with a qualified public information officer from the Washington State Patrol (a Type III member); City of Spokane (the mayor's staff) and a member from the Spokane Valley Fire Department (Type III member). While the incident commander approved the messages being delivered by the unit, strengthening the group by three allowed better customer service to the media, which in essence is the public.

    In the case of the fire, there was an incredible amount of concern regarding the toxicity of the smoke and the injured firefighter. The Information Unit was also integral in setting up meetings with the incident commander and all three building owners as well as briefing the mayor and her command staff.

  • Basic firefighting — Firefighting is inherently a dangerous occupation. In this incident, aggressive firefighting, good tactics and supervision by chief officers saved two-thirds of the historic building and prevented a catastrophic collapse. A collapse would have threatened adjacent commercial buildings as well as an elevated railway critical to commerce along the Eastern Seaboard.

"No building in Spokane is worth the life of any of our firefighters and as incident commander I was very forward and direct with reinforcing the Spokane Fire Department's Risk Management Plan," Schaeffer said. In a complex incident, risk management should be revisited every time a strategy is changed and/or a significant benchmark is hit.

JAY K. BRADISH/IFPA, Firehouse® news editor, is a former captain in the Bradford Township, PA, Fire Department. He has been a volunteer firefighter and fire photographer for more than 25 years.