On the Job: Rochester: Rochester Crews Wage 7-Hour Firefight At Abandoned Auto-Parts Factory

John Caufield reports on a fire that became one of the largest incidents in the history of the Rochester Fire Department, challenging its resources, command structure and pre-planned strategies.


Rochester, NY, like many other U.S. cities, has many large, vacant or abandoned industrial complexes. These structures, once bustling with productive activity, now stand empty, contaminated and in disrepair. In spite of the best efforts to secure the buildings, they often become havens for the...


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Rochester, NY, like many other U.S. cities, has many large, vacant or abandoned industrial complexes. These structures, once bustling with productive activity, now stand empty, contaminated and in disrepair. In spite of the best efforts to secure the buildings, they often become havens for the homeless and those involved in illegal activities. The expense of demolition and clean up is prohibitive and neither the municipality nor the owner seem willing to incur the cost. So the buildings go largely unnoticed, except by those who live in their shadow, until catastrophe strikes.

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Captain Dan McBride/Rochester FD
The fire involved an abandoned six-story structure that was part of a nine-building complex. Within 15 minutes of the first alarm, all six floors of the building were well involved.

ROCHESTER FIRE DEPARTMENT

Chief: Floyd A. Madison
PersonneL: 535 career firefighters
Apparatus: Eight engines, nine quint/midi companies, one heavy rescue
Population: 225,000
Area: 35 square miles

At 10:39 P.M. on Friday, June 20, 2003, fire was reported in an abandoned, six-story brick building, part of a nine-building former Delco (General Motors) automobile-parts manufacturing plant. Within 15 minutes of the first alarm, all six floors of the block-long building were blazing with flames exploding 50 feet over the roof. The fire became one of the largest incidents in the history of the Rochester Fire Department, challenging its resources, command structure and pre-planned strategies.

Heavy Fire on Arrival

The fire was reported as sparks coming from the abandoned factory building at 350 Whitney St. From the moment the fire was reported, 100 on-duty firefighters awaited the on-scene report from Engine 5 and Battalion 2 Chief John McDermott. A backup 911 call brought Engine 13 and the line deputy chief. Engine 5 arrived within two minutes and reported heavy fire visible from the number 4 side of the complex; Battalion 2 arrived simultaneously, from the number 3 side, and immediately requested a second alarm.

Initially, fire was visible from the first three stories of Building 1, involving about 80 feet of the center section; within five minutes, it had completely taken hold of the building. Deputy Chief John Caufield arrived on-scene about one minute behind the first-arriving units and immediately struck a third alarm, also special requesting an additional battalion chief in an effort to quickly sector off the inferno. The request for a third alarm activated an automatic response from Fire Chief Floyd A. Madison, Executive Deputy Chief Ralph Privitere and additional staff officers.

Immediately upon arrival, McDermott ordered an exterior attack. Collapse zones were established as Caufield assumed command, McDermott was assigned to sector 4 and Battalion 1 Chief Gene Michael was assigned to sector 2; sector 3 was not assigned initially due to limited access (railroad tracks).

The first-arriving ladder company, Quint/Midi 8 took a defensive position in the courtyard on the number 1 side of building 1, immediately placing their tower ladder in service. (In the Rochester Fire Department, a quint/midi, or Q/M, company is a two-piece company staffed by one officer and five firefighters. The quint apparatus is positioned for truck or engine work, depending on its anticipated arrival on-scene; i.e., first, second or third due. The midi unit is staffed with two firefighters and functions as a mini-pumper or hose tender. Midi units also respond on service and EMS calls.)

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Captain Dan McBride/Rochester FD
A ladder pipe operates on the exposure to the left of the original fire building. The heavy fire and embers threatened nearby factories and about 20 homes.

Due to the rapid fire extension, Quint 8’s position was vulnerable to the impending collapse of Building 1; however, its tower ladder was limiting the fire spread to Buildings 2 and 3. Quint/Midi 6 was brought into the courtyard area, on the number 1 side of exposure Building 3, and placed its ladder pipe and deck gun into service, letting Quint 8 relocate to a safer position.

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