Cobb: Jersey City Firefighters Heed Worcester Lessons Months Later

They spoke. We listened. We Learned. Sometimes it's the lessons we learn from past tragedies that save the lives of the living. Never were such lessons learned more apparent than on March 22, 2001 when Jersey City, NJ, fire dispatchers transmitted...

The day after the seminar, Deputy Chief Tim Kearney and I met with the members of Worcester for lunch and we discussed the similarities in our two departments' size, equipment and operations, as well as the Worcester fire. Just a few weeks later Deputy Chief Tim Kearney would find himself battling some of the same circumstances as District Chief Mike McNamee had. Deputy Chief Kearney said that several times during the Jersey City incident he thought about the Worcester warehouse fire and the lessons learned.

The initial strategy at the Jersey City warehouse fire was an extremely cautious offensive operation: Several homeless occupants were rescued immediately and they reported other victims may be trapped (possibly more than a dozen.) Deputy Chief Kearney paid particularly close attention to progress reports from interior operations. Company officers utilized search ropes and thermal imaging cameras as they searched upper floors. Battalion chiefs were assigned to the interior to monitor fire conditions and track the location of companies. Engine companies inside the Jersey City cold storage warehouse doused the flames with water, trying to keep the fire in check on several floors while searches continued. A report stated that fire may have spread into the elevator shaft. On the upper floors, Ladder 12 radioed negative results on civilian searches. They reported that, due to heavy smoke and heat, they were unable to return through the stairwell. They were heading to the roof. As Chief Kearney assigned a rapid intervention crew (RIC) to find and assist Ladder 12, Ladder 12 had made it to the roof and found another stairwell with less smoke and heat; they were able to return to the exterior. Now 45 minutes into the incident, Kearney assessed the situation and determined that primary searches were completed where possible and ordered an immediate evacuation of the building. All members exited and were accounted for.

At this point Deputy Chief Kearney ordered a defensive operation, an expanded collapse zone was established and only aerial and unmanned master streams were used. The defensive operations began at approximately 1 p.m. on March 22 and the fire wasn't extinguished until 12:45 p.m. on April 3. The net result of this operation included several occupants rescued from a building that was a total loss and only three firefighters and two civilian's sustained minor injuries.

The day Worcester District Chief Mike McNamee spoke at New Jersey City University's "Safety and Survival Seminar," he may have spoken all the words, but it was the spirit of our fallen brothers, Paul, Jeremiah, Thomas, James, Joe, and Timothy, who said the most. We thank you, Worcester. We will never forget!

ROBERT "BUTCH" COBB, a Contributing Editor, recently retired as a Deputy Chief with the Jersey City, NJ, Fire Department. Chief Cobb was a member of the group who founded the Worcester Safety and Survival Seminar to honor the fallen firefighters. Cobb is the director of Community Hazard Mitigation for the Insurance Services Organization (ISO).