On The Job - New York: Heavy Fire Load, Limited Access at Perth Furniture Store

On March 20, 2008, a multiple-alarm fire destroyed a furniture store on Route 30 in Perth, NY. Delayed notification and limited access to the heavy fire load in the basement hindered firefighting operations, but training, pre-planning and attention to fireground safety helped lead to a successful outcome.

The one-story, wood-frame building was constructed in the 1970s with a wood-truss roof with composition shingles. The building also had a full basement. Each area was comprised of 7,500 square feet. The basement (used as a storage area) was accessible from ground level at the sides and the rear. The basement had no windows with a man door at the north and south ends of the building. The front of the building (showroom) was at street level and lined with full-length display windows. No fire protection or detection systems were present in the building.

The Perth Volunteer Fire Department was dispatched to reported "smoke in the building" at the House of Furniture at 4179 Route 30 at 4:21 P.M. Responding on the first alarm were Engine 12-1-1, a 1,500-gpm pumper; Engine 12-1-2, a 2,000-gpm pumper; Tanker 12-2-1, a 1,500-gallon tanker with a 1,250-gpm pump; and Tanker 12-2-2, a 2,300-gallon tanker with 22 firefighters under the command of First Assistant Chief Michael Quinn.

Upon arrival, Quinn was informed that the building had been evacuated of two employees and two customers. Finding smoke on the first floor, Quinn immediately requested mutual aid from the Broadalbin Fire Department for Tanker 2-2-1, a 1,800-gallon tanker with a 500-gpm pump; Water Supply Truck 2-4-2, a 1,500-gpm pumper; and Engine 2-1-2, a 2,000-gpm pumper. Perth Engine 12-1-1 was positioned in the parking lot in front of the store. Perth Engine 12-1-2 laid a 300-foot, four-inch line from Engine 12-1-1 to a nearby creek and set up to draft to supply water to the fireground engine. It was determined that the fire was in the basement and a four-member crew led by Captain Kurt Opalka advanced a 200-foot, 1¾-inch attack line through the main door on the west side. A second crew led by Second Assistant Chief Jamie Rossi began a secondary attack on the south side of the building, advancing a 200-foot, 1¾-inch foam line.

There were two service doors in the basement used for furniture deliveries, one 42 inches wide and the other a seven-foot overhead door. Both doors were locked from the inside and crews had to force entry. Opalka's crew made entry into the basement, where the firefighters encountered heavy smoke and intense heat. Upon entering the basement, Lieutenant Scott Friedlander used a thermal imaging camera in an effort to locate the fire; there was a 640-degree temperature reading on the camera. Another two-member crew advanced a 250-foot, 1¾-inch attack line to the overhead door on the south side of the building where Rossi and Captain Paul McNeil were advancing into the basement.

As additional firefighters arrived on scene, backup crews were assigned to both of the initial crews. Interior crews were experiencing high-heat conditions and zero visibility because the basement had no windows for ventilation. Additional mutual aid was requested from the Hagaman Fire Department. Hagaman Engine 5, a 1,500-gpm pumper; and Tower 9, an 85-foot platform tower ladder with a 2,000-gpm pump, responded with four firefighters. Several firefighters, led by Deputy County Fire Coordinator Bruce Heberer, breached a large hole in the rear concrete-block basement wall in an attempt to vent heat and smoke for the interior crews. By the time this was accomplished, the fire was well advanced and conditions were continuing to deteriorate. Quinn ordered the evacuation of the building, approximately 15 minutes from the time the first crews entered.

Defensive operations were initiated with aerial master streams and numerous ground lines being placed into operation. Perth Aerial 12-6-1 was positioned in front of the building and supplied with an additional 300-foot, four-inch line laid by Hagaman Engine 5. Hagaman Tower 9 was also positioned in front of the building and fed by a 300-foot, five-inch line laid by Hagaman Engine 5 from the creek. A portable deck gun was set up on the south side of the building and supplied with a 250-foot, 2½-inch line from Engine 12-1-1. Firefighters placed two 150-foot, 2½-inch lines into operation from Engine 12-1-1; two 250-foot and two 200-foot 1¾-inch lines into operation from Engine 12-1-2. Broadalbin Engine 12-1-2 placed its deck gun into operation at the front of the building.

After the fire was brought under control, Broadalbin Engine 12-1-2 was sent to Perth's station for standby. Hagaman Rescue 4 was requested to the scene and established a rehabilitation area for firefighters. Fulton County EMS Coordinator Rick Voorhees was in charge of the firefighter rehab and the Johnstown Volunteer Ambulance Service provided an ambulance for standby at the scene.

Quinn declared the fire under control at 7 P.M. Mutual aid units were released at 9:45 P.M. and Perth units returned to station at 10:30. Sixty firefighters operated four engines, two aerials, one heavy rescue, one mobile cascade/command truck and one water source truck at the scene. The temperature was in the mid-30s and snow showers were occurring with strong wind gusts at the time of the fire.

The cause and origin of the fire are still under investigation by the Perth Volunteer Fire Department, Fulton County Fire Coordinators Office and insurance company representatives. Damage was estimated at $500,000 to the building and $250,000 to the contents. The fire department lost 300 feet of 1¾-inch hose and a nozzle when firefighters evacuated the building.

Among the problems encountered during the incident:

  • An apparent delay in the notification of the fire department occurred as the fire was already well advanced in the basement area upon arrival of the fire department.
  • A heavy fire load was present in the basement.
  • Limited access to the basement area hindered firefighting operations. Forcible entry was required on both of the main doors for access into the basement.
  • Ventilation in the basement was hindered by the fact that there were no windows in the basement. Crews eventually had to breech the concrete block wall on the east side (back) of the building to provide additional ventilation. Initial apparatus positioning was a problem as the first-due engine had to be repositioned as the fire eventually consumed the entire building.

Successes included:

  • Continued training and pre-planning of buildings were critical factors in the successful outcome of this incident.
  • There were no civilian or firefighter injuries. All firefighting personnel went home safely after the incident. A critique was held after the incident. A topic of discussion was whether firefighters should have abandoned the hoseline or struggled more to bring it with them as they retreated in case they would have needed it for protection. It was agreed that considering the facts and their position in the building, it was best in this situation to abandon the hoseline. Quinn and Fire Chief Peter Watrobski stressed that firefighter safety is always the number-one fireground priority. Command decisions must be made quickly regarding the safety of firefighters as conditions on the fireground change.

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.