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Flashover, backdraft and smoke explosions. All hazards to firefighters — sometimes predictable, sometimes not, but we have to know what some "warning signs" may be. This month's Close Call will help us learn by taking us to a related event and reading the accounts of those who were there.
The Salem City, NJ, Fire Department is 100% volunteer, with 61 firefighters. It is comprised of four individually incorporated fire companies: Union Fire Company houses an engine and air support unit; Liberty Fire Company houses an engine and a quint; Washington Fire Company houses an engine and a wildland rig; and North Bend Fire Company houses and engine and a rescue. Each company has a battalion chief, captain and lieutenant. The city fire chief is elected by majority from the qualified members citywide. The department responds to more than 400 alarms per year, with an average of 36 working structure fires each year. Salem City measures 2.1 square miles, with 5,900 residents.
Our sincere appreciation to Chief Fred Ayars and the officers and members of the Salem and Pennsville fire departments for their assistance in this column.
This account is by Salem Fire Chief Fred Ayars:
We were dispatched at 12:41 P.M. for a working occupied building fire in the middle of our downtown business district. We are the county seat, it's lunchtime and it's a weekday. This immediately made me think of two things: lower manpower and increased foot and vehicular traffic. I called for the County Fire Police while enroute; I didn't know the extent of the fire, but I knew traffic would be bad on Broadway (State Highway 49). The first-alarm assignment was Salem Engines 6-1, 6-3 and 6-4, Quinton Engine 13 and Ladder 6, and Pennsville Ladder 5 for a rapid intervention team.
I arrived first on location with smoke pushing from second-floor front windows and the roof of a two-story taxpayer. Fire was visible in a broken-out window above the alternate entrance to the far-right occupancy. A female bystander said she thought someone might be upstairs. With the windows still secured and smoke pushing hard around the window frames, survivability was questionable. We had to get up there fast.
I assumed Broadway Command. Battalion Chief John Pelura had Operations. I ordered a second alarm at 12:45, which brought Mannington Engine 14 and Ladder 5. Rescue 12-7 (Reliance) covered the rapid intervention team. Engine 6-3 was out of service for routine maintenance, so its crew brought their only other piece, a brush truck (6-4a). That company arrived first and began to work the visible fire over that doorway until other units arrived. As Engines 6-1, 6-4 and 13 and Ladder 6 arrived, crews began to stretch the first line toward the second floor and open up for ventilation.
Salem County Fire Marshal 1 arrived and was sent around back to assess conditions and report. Ladder 5 and Engine 14 were sent to the Charlie Division to prepare for ventilation and fire attack if needed. Smoke conditions worsened out front, and Fire Marshal 1 reported fire conditions from the second floor rear. The third alarm was transmitted at 12:50, bringing Elsinboro Engine 15, Lower Alloways Creek Engine 18, and Alloway Engine 19 and Air Support Unit 19-7.
In front, I ordered a truck crew to the roof to open up. We were also opening the second-floor front windows to ventilate. The first line was in service in the stairwell, with firefighters trying unsuccessfully to make the second-floor apartments. The stair was too narrow to advance a second line up with them, and they reported they were unable to get into the hallway and make an apartment. I ordered a crew to try to get a line in from one of those second-floor front windows, hoping they could get to the fire and try to contain it until the interior crew could make headway.