"Street Sense": The Path To a Safe, Effective Response

On Saturday, May 5, 2007, a quality horse by the name of "Street Sense" won the Kentucky Derby. The colt did not surprise many at Churchill Downs in the annual "Run for the Roses." In 2006, this horse was the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and knowledgeable horseracing fans knew of the work ethic and proven record of the winner.

On this same date, just five hours later, a West Philadelphia, PA, arson fire would challenge a group of first responders. Hard work and a proven record for compassion would be tested. It was shortly after 10:30 P.M. when a police officer on patrol saw a heavy column of smoke in a residential neighborhood. The Philadelphia fire communications center was notified and in less than one minute fire companies were dispatched. On arrival, the first engine company, Engine 57, found heavy fire racing along the wooden ceilings of three "open air" porches. Flames were lapping over the porch onto the asphalt roofs. Fire was extending into the front bays on the second floor of the three properties. Window glass was breaking and flames were spreading. Suppression, search and evacuations were critical. Conditions were deteriorating and a full-first-alarm assignment was requested.

For me, as the on-duty deputy chief, the radio transmission "painted" an accurate description of a situation. Enroute, I heard the request for a second alarm. I knew from the Brief Initial Report (BIR) and subsequent "five-minute" progress reports that this emergency incident would require all the knowledge, skills and abilities of the members of Division One/Platoon C.

Upon arrival, and being updated by a battalion commander, I was informed that fire was traveling above the space between the "tongue-in-groove" combustible ceiling and the wooden joists supporting the roof assemblies. A path into the front second-floor bays was predictable. Weather conditions added to the problem. A cold front was creating a swirling wind. Smoke was showing from a dozen homes as command was transferred.

Organizing the scene was the top priority. Decisive decision-making was the best bet. An offensive mode was selected. A formal command post was established. Three chiefs' aides with a background in communications and accountability practices were given the duties of tracking companies and monitoring two radio channels. A link between the fireground and the communications center was necessary to monitor any activation of an emergency signal from a firefighter or paramedic. A third alarm was struck with companies proceeding to a staging area.

The fireground was divided into operational and logistical sections. A battalion chief was assigned to supervise the attack teams. Three engine companies would directly fight the fire. Each engine company had a separate property. Each of the rowhomes had an interior firewall, which helped in the confinement process. The main fire buildings were designated as Division Alpha. In the exposures, two battalion chiefs were responsible to "get ahead of the flames and stop the spread." Engine and ladder companies were assigned. The tasks were labor-intensive: opening the wooden ceiling, ventilating the second-floor windows, conducting a search and using 1¾-inch hose streams to stop the wind-driven flames. These chiefs were designated as Division Bravo and Division Delta.

The rear of the properties was a monumental undertaking. A newly promoted battalion chief would be tested. Division Charlie would be his baptism by fire. Over 50 attached homes only had a few feet of separation between the shingled bays. The potential of a conflagration was severe. In fact, a "fire storm" occurred in this same neighborhood after a May 1985 police confrontation with an urban radical terrorist group called "MOVE." In the aftermath of the "MOVE" standoff and fire, which killed 11 citizens and destroyed 62 homes, the lesson, from a fire perspective, was the rapid deployment of heavy water lines in any congested area with narrow rear allies. Another battalion chief was assigned as the Roof Division supervisor. Squad and ladder companies with power saws created a trench cut, while engine companies with mobile water lines protected exposed properties.

Logistically, a battalion chief and a four-person engine company were assigned to collect accountability slips and survey the area for available hydrants. An air/light unit was dispatched to exchange and replenish breathable air cylinders. Lastly, a special call for assistance at the command post brought an experienced battalion chief. Evaluating fire and smoke damage was important. Providing accurate information on the displaced residents was vital. Adults and children were escorted to a nearby shelter and news reporters were waiting for a statement.

After nearly 90 minutes, the blaze was confined. At 12:48 A.M., the fire was under control. Companies were rotated. The required period in the rest and rehab area was extended. From the command post, a demobilization plan was necessary to maintain a systematic approach to the termination phase. Before "taking up," I did a 360-degree size-up of the site; the scene was devastating. The Cobbs Creek section of the City of Philadelphia was once again "hard hit" by a criminal act. Structures, cars, an electrical transformer and a utility pole were damaged. Four homes would have to be demolished. Three senior citizens were transported to hospital for non-life-threatening injuries. Seventeen adults and four children would be temporary displaced with a high level of anxiety. Nearly three dozen residents were waiting at the shelter to return to a smoke-stenched house with water-soaked and ruined rugs. The American Red Cross and the electric company would incur needless expenses.

In reality, the impact of a large fire can "spin" into many secondary issues. Some are economic, some are emotional, but they all point to the dire need for personnel to be properly prepared. After 34 years as a firefighter, officer and incident commander, I know that the need to share "street experiences" makes the most sense. "Street Sense" is more than the name of a horse. It is the path to a safe and effective response. Hard-working men and women, regular training, meaningful critiques and having a solid set of standard operating procedures will improve the odds of success. The horse named "Street Sense" is a champion because of a single afternoon. First responders make a daily difference in a more important race — "runs" that save lives and protect property. Be proud of our history and be ready for the next emergency.

Chief Concerns is a forum addressing issues of interest to chief fire officers. Opinions expressed are those of the writer. We invite all volunteer and career chief fire officers to share their concerns, experiences and views in this column. Please submit articles to Chief Concerns, Firehouse Magazine, 3 Huntington Quadrangle, Suite 301N, Melville, NY 11747 or to editors@Firehouse.com, with "Chief Concerns" in the subject line.

WILLIAM SHOULDIS is a deputy chief with the Philadelphia, PA, Fire Department, where he has served in line and staff positions for over 34 years. He is currently assigned to the Operations Section with responsibility for the downtown high-rise/business district. His past assignments include special investigations, safety officer and director of training. Shouldis is an instructor in the department's Officer Development Program and at the National Fire Academy. He has a master's degree in public safety.