Massive Storm Poses Unique Risks - Part 1

Dealing with nasty, weather-related storms is nothing new to firefighters. When any of us heard about the massive storms that hit the mid-Atlantic coast within the past year, we naturally thought about “before and during the storm” issues. From departments and communities preparing and taking care of our families to apparatus staffing and deployment, power lines down, structural collapses, rescues, communications and so much more, it’s enough to challenge any fire department anywhere.

One area that firefighters must give thought to fire department response and operations to structures after the storm. We have all seen destroyed and heavily damaged structures, but what about those that fall between being OK and being destroyed; i.e., those that can be or are in the process of being rebuilt or raised?

Department makeup

The Margate City, NJ, Fire Department (MCFD) consists of 34 career firefighter/emergency medical technicians (EMTs). They respond to all fire, rescue and EMS responses within an area that measures about 1½ square miles and are actively involved with automatic and mutual aid. They also provide community services such as ongoing education and fire prevention activities. The department staffs two stations approximately 1½ miles apart and has an administrative staff of two, Chief of Department Anthony Tabasso and Deputy Chief Daniel Adams. It operates under a four-platoon system, with each platoon having eight personnel assigned to it with a captain as the shift commander and a lieutenant assigned to Station 2. The MCFD operates one quint, two engines (one in reserve), three command/utility vehicles, three ambulances (one in reserve), two water/ice rescue vessels, one hazardous materials response trailer, one hazmat decontamination trailer and one air cascade trailer to be used county wide. The MCFD responded to 1,831 emergency calls in 2011 and 2,291 emergency calls in 2012.

My sincere thanks to Chief Tabasso, Deputy Chief Adams and all the officers and members of the MCFD for sharing this unique story. Their experiences, along with the numerous photos and documents, let us add another dimension in our ability to size-up on arrival – and, even more critically, sizing-up before the fire.

This account is provided by MCFD Deputy Chief Daniel Adams:

Margate City is located on a densely populated barrier island with a population that varies from approximately 8,500 residents in the winter, to a summer population of 40,000 or more. The Atlantic Ocean borders our east side and the bay is on our west side. We are bordered by Ventnor City to our north and the Borough of Longport to our south.

Margate City is predominantly comprised of single-family and multi-family residences. There are also four high-rise buildings, including a dedicated senior citizen complex. Also there are two schools, four pre-schools, six houses of worship, 10 “target-response” buildings (high-hazard response buildings for which we have an automatic mutual aid plan with our neighboring fire departments) and approximately two miles of residential and commercial docks and marinas.

Our proximity to Atlantic City casino gambling makes Margate City an ideal location for casino workers to reside, yet Margate City receives no Casino Reinvestment Development Authority money to supplement the impact on our aging infrastructure and schools. The City of Margate is currently renovating Fire Station 1 at a cost of $2 million. Since August 2011, the MCFD has been responding from our Station 2 and from our neighboring fire department, the Longport Volunteer Fire Department’s Station 3.

Storm season

During the summer and fall of 2012, the City of Margate was struck by two large storms, the first being a “derecho” that occurred on June 30. (Wikipedia defines a “derecho” as a widespread, long-lived, straight-line windstorm associated with a fast-moving band of severe thunderstorms.) During this storm, the MCFD responded to approximately 45 responses in a six-hour period. At the height of this storm front passing through, we responded to two structure fires in the Borough of Longport; one was a historic church that was destroyed and the other was a single-family dwelling that was struck by lightning. At the storm’s peak, we lost all radio communications, so we were dispatching fire apparatus to calls via cell phones and Direct Connect. It was several hours before the radio system was completely restored. In addition, the department responded to several more calls that were related to the storm over the next several days. This storm caught us by surprise as we had no warning that it was approaching and no preparation period.

For Hurricane Sandy, we had several days’ notice to prepare. The fire department administration developed a plan of action, advising all of our personnel that they would be required to report for duty and to prepare for being away from their families for up to three days. We advised them to bring in enough provisions for a three-day period as well.

On Sunday morning, Oct. 28, we moved out of Longport Station 3 and set up for long-term operations at a senior citizen complex in the northwest corner of our community. We planned to staff both the senior citizen complex and our Station 2 during the height of the storm. We contacted the owner of our local supermarket, Casel’s Marketplace, and the owner told us to take whatever food and provisions we needed for the fire and police departments. We stockpiled food at the police department, Station 2 and the senior citizen complex.

During the evening of Oct. 28, we started to bring in each shift, staggering them over a two-hour period until all department personnel had reported for duty. We had a meeting with all of our officers at 8 P.M. and we set the plan into action. Operational periods were set up and personnel were assigned by platoon to each operational period with four officers assigned to each operational period. The operational period that we initially started with was six hours, but as the storm surge worsened, we changed it to four-hour periods to give personnel a break from action sooner. We placed our front line Quint 24 and Ambulance A-20 out of service and left them at Station 2. That station is on high ground and there was no water at or around it during the storm surges.

High tides flood homes

The first high tide came at around 7:30 A.M. on Oct. 29. This tide was very high and flooded more than 60% percent of the City of Margate. During this time, we were responding to a number of calls in our 1989 Suburban and other ancillary vehicles. We had to abandon the Suburban in a high parking lot and personnel were rescued by the Margate Police Department’s 2½-ton truck. We retrieved the Suburban three hours later, when the tide receded by about a foot to three to four feet of water, in a public works dump truck.

Calls were coming in for residents who wanted to be evacuated to a shelter or to a friend’s house on higher ground. We developed a plan with our police department to put an officer and three firefighters in cold-water immersion suits with two police personnel in the 2½-ton truck. They responded to all calls for evacuation. We assigned an officer and a firefighter to the public works dump truck to respond to any other calls that came in. During the height of the storm, we responded to a fire involving a vehicle parked in a driveway and next to the house and another car. At the time, the winds were sustained 40 to 50 mph. The crew used a fire department engine to respond and took a back road, a dirt road, to get around high water and make it to the scene safely. The crew quickly extinguished the vehicle fire with a 1¾-inch line and the only additional damage was to a car parked nearby. It was right around this time that the Atlantic County Office of Emergency Management issued a countywide no-response clause due to excessive winds.

As the second high tide approached, we noticed that very little water had receded in the city; in fact, when the second tide hit, we had areas of town that had never seen flood waters until Hurricane Sandy made landfall. Chief Tabasso was one of the people affected. He has lived in Margate City for more than 55 years and had never had any water in his home, but the lower level was flooded during the second high tide.

During the storm, we had to open a “shelter of last resort” at our local Jewish Community Center. The owner of Casel’s, Howard Seiden, provided Chief Tabasso with a key to the supermarket and we went in there to get food and provisions for the shelter, including dog and cat food for family pets. We made two additional trips to the supermarket to keep the food and provisions stocked at the shelter, which was staffed by four firefighter/EMTs and a police officer. At the height of the storm, we sheltered 60 people from the City of Margate, Longport and Ventnor City. During the storm, we rescued more than 55 people from their homes and responded to 240-plus calls for service. The calls continued to mount during the days and weeks to follow, as we were now dealing with aftereffects of the flooding. n

 

Next: A new challenge for firefighters

 

William Goldfeder presents “Fireground Command, Control and Accountability: The Fire Time Line,” “Firefighter Injury and Death: ‘Simple’ Dwelling Fire, ‘Complicated’ Results” and “Swiss Cheese and the Fireground” at Firehouse Expo 2013, July 23-27 in Baltimore, MD.

 

WILLIAM GOLDFEDER, EFO, a Firehouse® contributing editor, has been a firefighter since 1973 and a chief officer since 1982. He is deputy fire chief of the Loveland-Symmes Fire Department in Ohio, an ISO Class 2 and CAAS-accredited department. Goldfeder has served on numerous National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) committees. He is on the board of directors of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (representing the Safety, Health and Survival Section), National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, September 11th Families Association and National Firefighter Near-Miss Reporting System. Goldfeder and Gordon Graham host the free, non-commercial website www.firefighterclosecalls.com. Goldfeder can be contacted at BillyG@Firefighterclosecalls.com.

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