Automatic Fire Alarm Becomes High-Rise Scare

Before we get to this month's close call, we congratulate California Highway Patrol Commander Captain Gordon Graham on his retirement. Many of you know Gordon as one of the biggest fans of the fire service and an expert in fire service risk management...


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The lieutenant of Ladder 2 and his follow-in firefighter entered a seventh-floor window to conduct rescue operations. Ladder 1 was deployed on the C-side of the building where the main body of fire was concentrated. The Ladder 1 lieutenant and his follow-in firefighter responded to the sixth floor for rescue operations. Engine 3's operator charged the exterior standpipe connection, providing adequate water to the discharges on the building's upper floors.

Deputy Chief 2 arrived and was briefed by the incident commander as to actions taken and planned. He then assumed command of the fire. Due to the concentration of activity in front of the building, the deputy chief established the incident base in the ground-floor lobby and assigned a firefighter as his aide. He also designated a captain as safety officer and appointed a lieutenant as fourth-floor staging officer.

Faced with numerous reports of trapped occupants, command ordered a third alarm, summoning all off-duty WFD personnel and requesting on-scene assistance from New Castle County volunteer fire companies, as well as citywide cover-ups. Engine 25 with a chief, Engine 16, also with a chief, and Engine 17 with another recall chief were first to arrive and took up assignments assisting WFD firefighters on the upper floors. Ladder 11 arrived and was positioned on the A-side of the building. As WFD chief officers arrived, they were deployed to provide relief for first-in supervisors, while arriving off-duty firefighters were pressed into service as well.

Sometime during the height of the fire, a Wilmington firefighter, alone, most likely out of air and disoriented, appeared in a seventh-floor window in need of help. Spotting Ladder 1's aerial device, the firefighter dove from the window ledge toward the waiting arms of another firefighter, who was atop Ladder 1 making his way to rescue his brother firefighter. Both men's efforts were successful.

Nearly 150 residents fled the burning apartment building, many suffering from smoke inhalation. EMS personnel attempted to triage, treat and transport the injured, while keeping a watchful eye on the rescuers. The New Castle County EMS chief and assistant chief supervised a total of four advanced life support (ALS) and 10 basic life support (BLS) units. Rehab for exhausted fire personnel was established and maintained to monitor the condition of rescuers. Progress reports streamed into the incident base regarding the removal of occupants, injury updates and fire suppression efforts. Relief crews were in place from the sixth to the ninth floors, searching rooms again for occupants and looking for any spread of fire.

At 9:45 A.M., two hours after the initial alarm was received, command placed the fire under control. The injury toll was great. Six firefighters and 22 residents were transported to area hospitals, with one occupant sustaining serious smoke-related injuries. Firefighter injuries consisted of lacerated hands, a broken thumb and physical exhaustion. Over 125 firefighters, dozens of EMS personnel and many unrecognized individuals worked to contain this incident.

The building suffered significant structural damage on the sixth and seventh floors, coupled with collateral damage throughout the building making it uninhabitable. City License and Inspections, Public Works, representatives from the mayor's office, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the Wilmington Fire Marshal's Office investigated the cause of the fire and addressed the path forward for residents. The fire investigation led to the arrest of the 60-year-old male resident of the apartment of origin, who was charged with starting the fire and failing to notify authorities in a timely manner.

The "all-hands" effort of everyone who responded to this fire kept a bad situation from becoming far worse. While significant, the injury and damage toll was managed effectively by the cooperative, professional response of all personnel.

The following account is by Warren Jones, a former fire chief and editor of the Delaware Fire Service News:

This account of the fire at Wilmington's Crestview Apartments told how that firefighter stood on the windowsill and jumped from the seventh floor of the structure during the height of the fire. He dove for, and made it to, the extended aerial of WFD Ladder 1 with a waiting firefighter.