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As I watched the incident become more stable, I realized by listening to radio traffic that something was happening to the area telephone system. We were getting more and more radio traffic about mutual aid requests and people being unable to contact us. As fireground cell phone traffic became less dependable, it dawned on me that over 40 or more years ago, when I was just a kid, our long distance service to town was taken out for a few days by a large fire that exposed the telephone cables in the same alley a block northeast of my location. The rear sector confirmed my thoughts that the cables in the alley were badly damaged. I radioed dispatch to contact Sprint and tell them that I was sure I knew what was wrong and it was at my location. At that time, we were down to “carrier-to-carrier” cell phone service with most local and long distance land lines down on our side of the county due to the damage.
Over and over, I realized how close we came to disaster. This was a huge close call to:
- The crew on the roof and in the bucket.
- The crews operating in the street out front struck by the collapsing building walls.
- The operators/engineers of the aerial and the Kenbridge engine missed by the same walls.
- The crew in the alley and the interior attack crew.
All should have been seriously injured or killed, but only three were transported and then released after short checkups.
The town manager, county building inspector and I met and I give them a tour of the remaining structure. Because the incident was located on Main Street and due to the extent of the damage, it was decided that the gym and the restaurant should be demolished as soon as possible to avoid any chance of the public being injured. The business owners and their employees worked through the morning to salvage what they could before the building was leveled later that day.
After the fire, there was a big concern about fire safety and the enforcement of fire codes; however, so far our requests for our county to provide and enforce national fire codes (other than new construction) have fallen on deaf ears. We do plan to continue this fight. To me, my local government is using the fire department as “last-resort” responders and does not realize the importance and risk involved in not adopting and enforcing codes countywide.
Our lessons learned:
- As a volunteer department in a small community, we are constantly in a battle for money and manpower, and all that relates to “risk management” at any given time. Because of this, things like pre-planning every building and fire prevention do not get done on a regular basis. Sometimes, we are too busy covering calls, raising money and training to do everything to run a “perfect organization.” It is to easy to get sidetracked with the political part of running a fire department while other projects sit undone or unfinished.
We did not have an “official” rapid intervention team hoseline in place during either entry. A lack of manpower prevented this, and I feel that both crews felt they could do the attack without the fear of being trapped or injured, but this incident shows that you are truly never safe from the unexpected on the fireground.
Too often, we hear of firefighters being hurt or killed in buildings with no life hazard, but we forget that sometimes the emotions of an entire community are involved when the “Main Street” that we all grew up with is in danger of being destroyed. Firefighting is dangerous work, no matter what you do, and you need to always expect the unexpected and always learn from each and every incident and apply that to the next – which we have!
These comments are based on Chief Goldfeder’s observations and communication with the writer and others regarding this incident:
The “Main Street” fire – one we all dread. Not only are we under pressure to preserve the downtown of the community, but if you are “lucky,” local officials show up to “supervise” and offer their sometimes welcome/sometimes not support and advice. In this case, a positive relationship with the town manager (a former firefighter) was of value.
Due to the length of this month’s incident recap, with all of its excellent details, we will be brief with our observations. But as brief as we may be, firefighters and command officers reading this have many lessons learned or reinforced with this fire:
Plenty of help on the first alarm. As shown above, the chief put several mutual aid fire departments on the road, in addition to the automatic mutual aid, on the first alarm. So often, we are asked the question: How much help do we need on the first alarm? An easily answered question. Fire departments must pre-plan their buildings and as a part of that pre-planning, the “what’s needed” question is asked. Factors such as needed fire flow (based on height, size, construction, load and internal protection) help determine that. With that as your base, the tasks that apply to the building must be applied such as water on the fire (sizes of handlines, master streams, etc.), water supply, access, search, rescue (the type of occupancy must be included as a part of your pre-plan), venting and related tactical objectives.