On The Job California: Explosions Injure Los Angeles Firefighters At Combustible Metal Fire

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On Tuesday, July 13, 2010, a major-emergency structure fire in Los Angeles, CA, destroyed a large commercial building that manufactured and stored titanium golf clubs.

During the fire, two explosions resulted in injuries to firefighters and damage to apparatus and equipment. The involved structures were in South Los Angeles. Built in 1939, the structures are approximately 150 by 300 feet with both Type 3 and Type 5 (metal clad) construction. The first structure involved with fire consisted of brick walls and a heavy-timber bridge-truss roof; the middle section of the structure was wood-framed stucco walls with a metal sawtooth roof. The initial exposure building was a two-story wood-frame with stucco walls and a conventional flat roof. A breezeway separated these two structures and multiple other commercial building exposures.

The Los Angeles Fire Department was dispatched to a reported structure fire at United Alloys and Metals at 731 East Slauson Ave. at 11:43 P.M. Engine 21, Light Force 33 Task Force 14, Engine 46, ALS Rescue Ambulance (RA) 21 and BLS RA 833 responded with 30 personnel under the command of Battalion 3.

At 11:47, RA 833 was the first on scene and reported a large, one-story commercial structure with fire in the rear. One minute later, Truck 33 arrived on scene, assumed command and called for an offensive attack. At 11:52, the Battalion 3 chief arrived on scene and assumed command.

Battalion 3 requested two additional engines (Engines 57 and 66), two additional trucks (Trucks 66 and 10), Hazardous Materials Squad 4 and four additional battalion commanders (BC 13, 7, 11 and 1). By department standard operating procedure (SOP), Battalion 3 automatically received an additional rapid intervention urban search and rescue (USAR) task force (Truck 3 and Engine 3) and a division commander (DC 2).

Truck 33 initially reported heavy fire showing through the roof with heavy, black smoke from a large, primarily one-story commercial structure. Engines 21 and 14 were assigned to fire attack on the west (Division A) side of the structure. Truck 14 was assigned Roof Division with Truck 33. Battalion 3 established the command post on the southwest side of the structure and continued to press an offensive attack on the fire.

Truck 14 immediately reported conditions deteriorating on the roof due to the heavy volume of fire through the roof. Soon, Battalion 3 announced that a defensive attack would be used on the fire. Battalion 3’s immediate concern was the potential spread of fire to adjacent occupancies on three sides. DC 2 assumed command at 11:56 and reassigned Battalion 3 as the Operations Section Chief.

 

Greater-alarm resources

On arrival of the greater-alarm resources, Battalion 3 assigned Trucks 10 and 66 to Division D, Truck 14 was reassigned to Division A and Truck 33 reassigned to Division C. Ladder pipe operations were established on the three sides of the structure accessible by street. Trucks 14, 33, 66 and 10’s ladderpipes were flowing 750 gallons of water per minute. Two-and-a-half-inch hoselines were established on Divisions A and C with 1¾-inch hoselines as backup lines. On Division D, four 2½-inch lines were flowing water to help protect firefighters staffing the truck ladder pipes.

Numerous firefighters reported seeing bright-white flames with hues of green and blue; unfortunately, this information was not communicated to Battalion 3. At 12:11 A.M., BC 11 arrived on scene and was assigned Division D as the supervisor. USAR resources arrived on scene and were designated as rapid intervention and Battalion 7 was assigned as the safety officer.

As the fire progressed, the upper section of the wall on the D side of the structure collapsed. After the wall collapse, BC 11 recalled seeing white-hot metal and was about to instruct the trucks to direct their streams away from the white burning metals. Seconds later, at 12:26, about 40 minutes into the incident, a large explosion occurred and propelled burning shrapnel into the air and caused small fires north and south of the structure.

The Truck 33 and Truck 66 hoseline crews were blown backwards by the force of the blast. Truck 10’s hoseline crew was blown approximately 20 feet back and off the 2½-inch hoseline by the explosion. Truck 10’s officer was backing up the nozzleman and was hit with burning debris, causing burns to his hand and ear. Truck 10’s firefighter operating the ladderpipe had seen two white flashes and greenish plumes just prior to the explosion. When the explosion occurred, he turned his head to the left, causing pain and ringing in his right ear as white-hot debris showered him. Truck 10, a 100-foot aerial ladder, received several large dents and wooden ground ladders were ignited. Multiple hosebeds and hoselines on the ground were also burned through. The incident commander (IC) ordered a personal accountability report (PAR), which accounted for all personnel and identified two injured firefighters and an injured captain.

 

Lessons from earlier fire

At 12:30 A.M., the Deputy Department Commander (DDC) arrived on scene and assumed command. The DDC assigned DC 2 as the deputy IC and BC 3 remained the Operations Section Chief. The IC associated this incident with a similar incident that had occurred a month earlier just down the street (see opposite page). The IC maintained a defensive strategy and instructed all ladderpipes and hoselines to be directed away from what they now believed was burning combustible metals and to knock down fire surrounding those areas and protect exposures. The DDC spoke to the business owner, who confirmed that titanium products were stored in the structure and all personnel on the fire were advised. The fire was going to be allowed to burn itself out.

The Los Angeles Fire Department has a comprehensive list of standard operating guidelines (SOGs) and policies. However, the policy for the extinguishment of combustible metal fires was outdated. The policy called for copious amounts of water to be put on combustible metal fires.

A month before this incident, on June 11, 2010, the same business owner’s metal-processing facility, which is across the street and diagonally from this incident, had several small explosions and fire (see page 66). At that fire, 2½ hours of fire suppression operations with large volumes of water brought the fire under control. The fire involved a 150-by-100-foot area of combustible metal shavings in metal dumpster-style bins. No firefighters were injured, but a civilian worker was critically injured during the initial stages of the fire.

Over the next hour, most of the remaining fire had darkened down, and further discussions with the business owner indicated that the remaining two small concentrated fires appeared to be large ingots of stored titanium. The IC surveyed the fire during a face to face with the Division D Supervisor and discussed a change of strategy, to use large amounts of water for final extinguishment and to coordinate with Operations. Division D placed all personnel behind protective cover and informed Operations that his assigned companies were going to apply water on two remaining small fires that remained inside the structure.

This change of strategy was not universally understood or communicated to all Division Supervisors. Water from a ladderpipe in Division D was directed onto one of the two small fires, causing a second explosion. The second explosion blew out toward personnel and apparatus on Division D, and involved pieces of concrete from the remaining wall and metal. A PAR was immediately performed. No injuries resulted from the second explosion. A few minutes past 4 A.M., the incident was declared under control.

Seven personnel sustained injuries consisting of burns to hands and ears and possible concussion-type injuries. All personnel were treated on scene and three firefighters were transported to local hospitals. All personnel made a full recovery and returned to full duty.

The Los Angeles Fire Department’s Arson Investigation/Counter-Terrorism Section identified the point of origin on the north side of the building and reported the fire traveled throughout the structure over several hours. Titanium products were involved, but the cause of the fire was undetermined.

 

Value of training

This was a significant incident for those officers involved. Making certain that everyone goes home safely is ingrained into every officer. A sign that hangs over the entrance to the department’s training center, The Frank Hotkin Memorial Training Center, says, “Train as if your life depends on it, because it does.” The training and lessons learned have been burned into the memory of the involved personnel and officers.

Special thanks to Chief Kevin Kreitman of the Redding, CA, Fire Department for his assistance in the investigative report and the development of Los Angeles Fire Department policy relating to combustible metal fires.

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