Shortly after 8 P.M. on Thursday, Feb. 5, 2009, the Suffern, NY, Fire Department was dispatched for a reported structure fire at Washington Avenue and Washington Circle in the downtown area of the village. The initial response also included a heavy rescue from the Tallman Fire Department on automatic mutual aid for a firefighter assist and search team (FAST), regional terminology for what is also commonly known as a rapid intervention team (RIT). Less than 40 seconds later, Lieutenant Fernando Salvador enroute to the nearby Volunteer Hose firehouse confirmed a working fire at the Conserv Construction warehouse, a 180-by-130-foot masonry block structure originally built in 1925. Several additions had been constructed over the years, which resulted in not a single fire building but rather four interconnected structures. The roof was a mix of steel beam and wood truss. The fire load consisted largely of construction equipment and supplies, including bottled gases, flammable liquids and tires. There were no detection or suppression systems present, and the initial call came from a nearby business owner.
Arriving units found smoke issuing from a series of metal roll-up doors along the A side (Washington Avenue), as well as from the C and D sides of the structure. Firefighters were advised that that there were no occupants and that the main body of fire was near the C/D corner. Exposures in that area consisted of two single-car garages, several homes, an auto repair shop, a nail and beauty salon, and a 48-foot trailer used for storage. The side-B exposure was a fenced-in lot containing construction equipment. Battalion Chief Michael Stark was assigned responsibility for operations and began a 360-degree survey of the fireground. Deputy Chief Daniel McInerney assumed command.
The first-due Suffern engine (19-Tanker) hand stretched a five-inch feeder line to a nearby hydrant that was supplied by a six-inch main. The crew then began an interior attack through the front door using a 2½-inch line and a two-inch line. Suffern Hook and Ladder's 100-foot aerial platform (19-Tower) also set up on the A side with orders not to commit manpower to the roof. The truck company also began to force overhead doors with the use of a power saw after attempts at releasing them from the inside failed. During the initial phases, firefighters also removed compressed gas cylinders from the machine shop and put them in a safe place.
The second-due engine (19-1250) stretched a five-inch line from another six-inch hydrant and supplied both 19-Tower and a portable deluge set placed in use on side A. Mutual aid was requested from Mahwah, NJ, with Engine 115 (2,000 gpm), Ladder 2 (75-foot quint) and Tower 2 (100-foot aerial platform) responding. Both truck companies were stationed at the B/C corner for eventual elevated master stream operations and fed by Engine 115. Tallman unit 20-Tanker supplied a five-inch line to Engine 115 from a 10-inch main. One Suffern pumper (19-2000) and its 100-foot aerial (19-99) were out of service at the time.
Approximately 17 minutes after arrival, all crews were pulled from the building and a purely defensive posture taken. The amount and burn time of the fire, building construction and narrow aisles of flammables contributed to this decision, as did the lack of headway being made. According to Stark, "You expect that after a while you'll see the smoke color change and water come out the window. This wasn't happening." This strategy was validated 10 minutes later, when several explosions emanated from inside the building and fire brook through the roof. About 25 minutes later, the roof partially collapsed in the rear of the building. It should be noted that interior operations were confined to an area with steel beam roofing and not truss construction.
Orange and Rockland Utilities, called shortly after dispatch, cut service to the fire building, exposure D, and to transformers on the B side. Sloatsburg Pumper 15-1750 picked up a 10-inch main and, using a residential driveway for access, protected side-C exposures with a deck gun and handlines. Monsey Engine 7-2000 laid a five-inch line from 19-Tower and 19-1250 to a hydrant on the same main. When the cap on this hydrant was found to be frozen on, West Haverstraw Pumper 23-2000 was diverted from coverage to relay pump from another hydrant about 500 feet away. Highway flares were used to free the original steamer connection and both units went to work. Manpower was used for relief in A-sector operations, which had now assumed the "surround-and-drown" mode.
The Hillcrest Fire Department was requested for a heavy rescue (6-Rescue) to assist similar units from Tallman and Suffern already on the scene and for a quint (6-75). This unit was placed near the C/D corner and supplied by Nanuet Pumper 8-1750 from a six-inch main. Nanuet's crew also became the FAST team. With the amount of master streams flowing, having an adequate supply became an understandable concern. An official from the Suffern Water Department was onsite at the command post, and an additional well was brought on line to augment the supply. At one point, consideration was given to drafting from nearby Lake Antrim, but this never became necessary (thankfully so, since the ground held a light snow cover and temperatures during the incident ranged from 16 to nine degrees Fahrenheit).
The duration of the event coupled with the weather conditions obviously created a demand for rehabilitation. Shortly after 10:05 P.M., the Blauvelt, Piermont and Tappan fire departments were called to provide relief crews, and the Ramsey, NJ, Fire Department for its mobile rehab vehicle, Unit 451. The Rockland County command van also responded. A Salvation Army canteen was on the scene and rest facilities were available literally right down the street at the Suffern Hose Company quarters. The Ramapo Valley, Spring Hill and Sloatsburg ambulance corps stood by along with Rockland paramedics.
Two firefighters were treated at the scene, one for a fall on the ice and the other for a foreign body in the eye. A third firefighter, with bruised ribs, was transported to Good Samaritan Hospital as a precaution. County Fire Coordinator Gordon Wren and five deputies assisted in coordinating mutual aid and monitoring radio traffic in the command post. EMS Coordinator Brendon Smith was also on scene. The Lady Warren Engine Company of Haverstraw and Empire Hook and Ladder of the Nyack Fire Department provided standby coverage during the incident. The fire was declared under control at 2:21 A.M. the following day, with the last apparatus cleared at 7:13 A.M.
While perhaps not a major incident by metropolitan standards, this event was the most significant challenge faced by Suffern firefighters in several years, and provided several worthwhile lessons for agencies of this size. The following thoughts were offered by the Suffern incident commanders and the Rockland County Fire Coordinator's Office:
- While providing a 360-degree survey of the fireground is essential, it does take time. Due to the size of the building as well as the nature of surrounding properties, about 10 minutes were needed to make a complete sweep.
- Always weigh risk vs. benefit, especially when in an interior attack. As is often the case, crews on the lines would have liked to stay longer, but it was apparent to those having a view of the "big picture" that sufficient progress was not being made to justify continued commitment to this strategy.
- All officers should have comprehensive knowledge of the capacities of mutual aid companies. For example, prior to this event, many were unfamiliar with all the features of the Ramsey rehab unit until they experienced it in operation at this scene.
- Establish the command post in a viable location and be sure it is sufficiently staffed. Changing conditions caused the relocation of the post, but overall staffing was good. Having extra eyes and ears from the Fire Coordinator's Office, mutual aid departments and other agencies took some of the load off of the incident commander.
- Accountability systems don't need to be high tech as long as you have one and it works. In this case, a manual system with periodic head counts served the purpose.
- Plan for communications needs of other departments. While the host agency and most of the departments involved share a countywide radio system in Rockland County, NY, two responding agencies came from New Jersey. Pre-plans were in place that addressed these needs.
- Ensure adequate communication between and with safety officers. Consider giving them their own channel or talk group, if possible, so that they may quickly and freely exchange information.
It is estimated that over 175 firefighters took part in suppression activities and that approximately 1.2 million gallons of water were used. There was extremely minimal damage to exposures. An interesting sidebar is that one of the firefighters turned out not to be a firefighter at all. An Orange County, NY, man was found at the scene wearing FDNY gear and subsequently arrested. He has apparently been charged with criminal impersonation in the past, and is currently awaiting a hearing. At the time of this writing, the cause of the fire is under investigation and is still not known. What is known, however, is that the valuable lessons learned during this incident will be put to good use in the future.