Multiple-Alarm Fire Destroys White Township Printing Plant

More than 170 firefighters from four counties responded to a multiple-alarm fire that destroyed a printing plant in White Township, Indiana County, PA, on Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2012. The fire caused $75 million in damage and left more than 200 employees out of work.

Firefighters were challenged early by not having enough water to supply master streams. Also, throughout the incident, out-of-county responders were unable to communicate by radio with command and Indiana County units.

The 75,000-square-foot metal building was constructed in the 1980s with several additions being built over the years with the last one erected in 2001. The metal-roofed building, which had no fire walls or fire detection or suppression system, pre-dated codes requiring sprinklers.

The local fire department, the Indiana Fire Association, was established in 1875. Today, the fully volunteer department has 65 members and operates out of two stations. The department protects Indiana Borough; Indiana University of Pennsylvania, with 15,000 students; the 250-bed Indiana Medical Regional Hospital; 90% of White Township; and portions of Armstrong and Rayne townships. The department provides rescue services, but all EMS is provided by Citizens Ambulance Service.

Initial operations

The Indiana Fire Association was dispatched at 8:37 A.M. to a reported commercial structure fire at Creps United Publications Co. at 40 Christy Park Drive in White Township. Firefighters were advised that a printing press was on fire. Responding on the initial alarm were Engines 102 and 108, both 1,500-gpm pumpers; Ladder 101, a 1,500-gpm quint with a 75-foot aerial ladder; Ladder 106, a 2,000-gpm quint with a 105-foot aerial ladder; and Heavy Rescue 105, with 22 firefighters under the command of Chief Charles Kelly.

While responding, Kelly saw heavy, black smoke coming from the area of the facility. On arrival, he saw heavy smoke from the entire roof line of the building. Ladder 106, responding from the west, reported heavy smoke at the rear, side C, and the west, side D, of the building. Company personnel advised Kelly that all employees had evacuated and were accounted for.

Kelly was concerned for firefighter safety due to the large size of the building and the heavy smoke. He ordered Ladder 106 to lay a five-inch line from a hydrant on Philadelphia Avenue near Shelly Drive to the A/B corner of the building. This hydrant was on an eight-inch water main. Ladder 106 then proceeded to the B/C corner and hooked onto a hydrant with a 100-foot section of five-inch hose. This hydrant was on a six-inch main fed from the eight-inch main on West Philadelphia Street.

Ladder 101 was ordered to position at the A/B corner of the building and hook onto the five-inch supply line laid by Ladder 106. The crew from Ladder 106, under the command of Firefighter Paul Koons, entered the building through a man door at the rear corner of side B, then advanced upstairs and encountered heavy smoke. The crew also faced intense heat and could operate its 1¾-inch line for only a few minutes. Readings on the thermal imaging camera topped 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit. The smoke was so heavy that firefighters could hear the fire roaring high in the ceiling area, but could not see any fire and their thermal imaging camera showed nothing. The crew evacuated the building and advised Kelly that it was unsafe to conduct interior operations.

Within the first 10 minutes of the incident, Kelly determined that operations would be defensive. Firefighters placed three 200-foot, 1¾-inch lines and two 200-foot, three-inch lines into operation to supply two ground monitors on side A. Crews placed three 200-foot, 1¾-inch lines into operation from Ladder 106 on side C. One ground monitor was also positioned on side C and supplied with a 200-foot, three-inch line from Ladder 106. Aerial master streams were placed into operation from Ladders 101 and 106. Indiana Engine 102 and Black Lick Engine 141 each placed a master stream device into operation. Indiana Engine 102 placed a ground monitor into operation on side C supplied with 250 feet of three-inch hose.


Command structure

Kelly established a command post at Philadelphia Street and Christy Park Drive, from where he could observe sides A and B of the building. Indiana Fire Association Third Assistant Chief Tom Moreau was assigned to C-side operations. Moreau reported heavy smoke and saw fire coming out of the storm drains. Command ordered that no personnel were to enter the building; this would be a defensive operation only. All personnel operating near the structure were ordered to have self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) on at all times.

Indiana Fire Association Second Assistant Chief John Compardo was assigned to the command post as the communications officer. His primary duties were the interface between command and the 911 dispatch center, incoming units and requesting additional mutual aid units and agencies needed throughout the incident. Indiana Fire Association First Assistant Chief Scott Schuller arrived as the officer on Heavy Rescue 105. He was assigned A-side operations with Captain Mike Empfield. Indiana County Emergency Management Agency officials and Citizens Ambulance Service established a firefighter rehab area at the Creps Annex. Upon arrival of Homer City, Homer City Captain Joseph Izzie was assigned as the staging officer.

Kelly made the first request for mutual aid at 8:49 A.M. for engines and mask personnel. The Homer City Volunteer Fire Department responded with Engines 182 and 183 and Rescue 181. The Clymer Volunteer Fire Company responded with Engines 154 and 155, Rescue 153 and Utilities 152, 158. The Coral/Graceton Volunteer Fire Department responded with Rescue 166, which has an onboard air compressor system for filling SCBA bottles. The Creekside Volunteer Fire Company responded with Engine 262 and Brush 263.

Also, at this time, the Pennsylvania State Police, Indiana Barracks, was advised of the fire and a request was made for the fire marshal to respond. Trooper Timothy Frew responded and remained on scene throughout the day taking photos and interviewing bystanders and employees. He also spoke with several firefighters in an attempt to determine the extent of damage inside the structure. Also, he requested the State Police helicopter from Troop Headquarters, which provided overhead photos to command as the incident continued.


Additional mutual aid

Additional mutual aid was requested from Indiana County for engines and mask personnel during the next hour. The Black Lick Volunteer Fire Company responded with an Engine 141, Rescue 143 and Utility 144; the Blairsville Young Mens Volunteer Fire Company with Engine 121 and Rescue 125; the Marion Center Volunteer Fire Association with Rescue and Air 195 and Engine 196; the Saltsburg Volunteer Fire Department with Rescue 131-1; and the Cherryhill Township Volunteer Fire Company with Engine 241. The Plumville Volunteer Fire Department sent Engine 352 and the Pine Township Volunteer Fire Company dispatched Engine 572; both were placed on standby at Indiana Central Station and were called to the scene in the late afternoon for fresh manpower.

Out-of-county departments were also requested. The Nanty Glo Fire Department, Station 43, from Cambria County responded with an engine to standby at Indiana Central Station, and Kittanning Township from Armstrong County responded with Ladder 310, a 105-foot aerial that was placed on standby at the scene. The Dauntless Fire Company, Station 22 of Ebensburg, from Cambria County responded with Ladder 223, a 100-foot ladder tower with a 2,000-gpm pump. The Greensburg Volunteer Fire Department from Westmoreland County sent an engine, a high-expansion foam truck and an air truck with an onboard air compressor.


Water supply

Kelly asked for a supervisor from the Western Pennsylvania Water Co. to respond to the command post. The supervisor directed Kelly to a hydrant on an eight-inch main 3,500 feet from the scene. Engines from Clymer, Cherryhill Township and Kittaning Township laid 3,500 feet of five-inch line. Two engines from Clymer were placed in the relay to supply Cherryhill Township Engine 241, which fed Indiana Ladder 101 with an additional five-inch line. They also made use of a manifold supply with a five-inch line that provided three additional lines on side A to the ground monitors.

The Ebensburg aerial was positioned on side C and supplied with a 200-foot, five-inch line from Indiana Ladder 106 and set up for aerial master stream operations. The Kittanning Township aerial was staged on West Philadelphia Street to provide coverage in case of additional calls. The high-expansion foam truck from Greensburg was positioned on side C in the area of the loading dock doors and supplied with a 200-foot, five-inch line from Indiana Engine 102, which was being fed with a five-inch line from Indiana Ladder 106. Over the course of operations, this unit used 150 gallons of foam concentrate that produced 3.5 million cubic feet of foam.

A rehab area was established on the front lawn of the Creps warehouse east of the fire building by Citizens Ambulance Service, the Indiana County Emergency Management Agency, the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army. Indiana Fire Association Medical Director Dr. James Dickson coordinated the evaluations of firefighters operating at the scene along with paramedics from Citizens Ambulance Service. Eight firefighters suffered minor injuries and were transported to Indiana Regional Medical Center. Food and drinks for the firefighters were donated by many of the community stores and citizens throughout the operation.

Ongoing operations

In the late afternoon, incident commanders requested heavy equipment to the scene to remove large rolls of burning paper. Rising Brothers Excavating and Don Huey Construction reported to the scene with heavy equipment that was used to move the rolls, which each weighed about a ton. They removed and pulled apart the rolls, which assisted firefighters in their extinguishing efforts. It is estimated that more than 100 tons of rolled paper was in the building at the time of the fire.

Operations began on the C/D corner. As each roll of paper was removed, firefighters used 1¾-inch lines from Indiana Engines 102 and 108 to extinguish the flames. A few columns of paper rolls were left in place to support the C/D corner of the structure. Once work was completed in this area, crews moved to the middle of side C and performed the same operations.

As this was being done, other crews entered the structure to extinguish remaining hot spots and perform overhaul operations. This process was completed at 3:30 A.M. Wednesday.

Kelly declared the fire under control at 2 P.M. Mutual aid units began being released after 4 P.M. The first units released were the aerial apparatus from Ebensburg and Kittanning and the foam truck and air truck from Greensburg. Other mutual aid units were released throughout the night. The last Indiana units left the scene at 4:34 A.M. Wednesday.

The Ligonier Volunteer Fire Department, Station 43, and Waterford Volunteer Fire Department, Station 44, both from Westmoreland County, responded to Indiana’s West Station at 9 P.M. and remained on standby until 8 A.M. Wednesday. Two engines and 10 firefighters responded so that Indiana crews could get much-needed rest. There were no other calls during the night.

Indiana units were recalled to the scene at 10 A.M. Wednesday to extinguish large rolls of printing paper that had reignited. Firefighters remained on the scene until 3:30 P.M. Firefighters were again called back on Thursday and Friday for burning rolls of paper. On Friday, the last remaining burning rolls of paper were removed from the building and extinguished.

More than 170 firefighters operated three aerial apparatus, five engines at the scene, four engines for water supply, one high-expansion foam truck and three air trucks at the scene. Over one million gallons of water was used from the municipal water system to extinguish the fire. Weather conditions were 65 degrees and clear with light winds. The origin and cause of the fire remains under investigation by the Pennsylvania State Police Fire Marshal and numerous insurance companies. Damage is estimated at $75 million and more than 200 workers are out of work. Company officials planned to begin rebuilding in the spring.


Lessons learned

The biggest problem was getting enough water to supply master streams. This was overcome with the long lay of five-inch supply lines and the help of the Pennsylvania American Water Co. and mutual aid departments.

Another major problem was communications. Currently, Indiana County only has three channels to operate on. The out-of-county units that responded had no operating frequencies on which they could talk with command or Indiana County units. Indiana County is in the process of a major radio project to place all units in the county on a high-band radio system and let all units working an incident communicate on a tactical channel. The system is scheduled to be operational by July.


From Indiana Fire Association Chief Charles Kelly: “The Indiana Fire Association would like to say thank you to everyone who contributed in some manner that day. All the firefighters, EMS personnel, Indiana Pennsylvania State Police, Indiana Borough Police, 911 dispatchers, Indiana County EMA, American Red Cross, Salvation Army, Pennsylvania American Water Co., Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, Indiana Borough Street Department, White Township Street Department and several others who may not be mentioned, your efforts are greatly appreciated.”


JAY K. BRADISH/IFPA, Firehouse® news editor, is a former captain in the Bradford Township, PA, Fire Department. He has been a volunteer firefighter and fire photographer for more than 25 years.