On The Job - Florida: Multi-Alarm Fire Destroys Polk County Warehouse

On Monday, Feb. 11, 2008, a multiple-alarm fire destroyed a 97,440-square-foot warehouse at the Central Florida Business Park in Polk County, FL. The one-story structure was built in 1974 of Type I construction with a metal roof on metal trusses and was equipped with an automatic sprinkler system. The warehouse was used for manufacturing and storing cardboard boxes for the vegetable-, poultry- and fish-packing industry. The facility also contained a wax-cascading operation for coating cardboard boxes. A fire wall separated it from a connected 300,000-square-foot warehouse of the same type of construction (exposure B). A total of 11 buildings were in the business park.

Polk County Fire Rescue was dispatched for an automatic fire alarm at the Packaging Corporation of America warehouse at 5300 Recker Highway at 5:28 P.M. Engine 15, a 1,250-gpm pumper, and Ladder 13, a 50-foot TeleSqurt with a 1,250-gpm pump, responded under the command of Battalion Chief Joe Stewart. Auburndale Engine 3, a 1,500-gpm pumper, responded on automatic mutual aid.

Upon arrival, Lieutenant Ed Taylor on Engine 15 reported heavy smoke showing from all openings in the structure with heavy fire visible in the center of the building and rapidly advancing outward. Employees had self-evacuated upon the arrival of the first units and were coordinating the removal of tractor-trailers that were exposed to the fire. Taylor assumed initial command and initiated defensive operations. Engine 15 was positioned on side A and supplied with a 200-foot, five-inch line from a hydrant. Ladder 13 was positioned on side A and set up for master-stream operations and fed via a 200-foot, five-inch line from Engine 15. The aerial master stream was directed horizontally through an open loading dock door toward the center of the building. Auburndale Engine 3 was positioned on side A of exposure B and hooked onto a hydrant with a 20-foot joint of soft suction. This engine connected to the building's fire department connection with dual 100-foot, three-inch lines.

Command requested a second alarm at 5:54 P.M. Polk County Engines 23 and 24, both 1,250-gpm pumpers, responded with six firefighters. Winter Haven Ladder 1, a 100-foot aerial ladder with a 1,250-gpm pump, and Lakeland Engine 21, a 1,250-gpm pumper, responded with seven firefighters. Deputy Chief Mike Linkins arrived at 5:46 and assumed command of the incident.

Four large steel rollup doors were located along the connecting wall of the B-side exposure, all of which could allow fire spread to the connected warehouse. Engines 23 and 24 were assigned to interior operations of the B-side exposure. These crews advanced three 2½-inch lines and two 1¾-inch lines into the interior of the connected warehouse. Engine 32 was positioned on side A and supplied by a 200-foot, five-inch line. Initially, this engine pumped two 100-foot, three-inch supply lines to two ground monitors placed in the loading dock to slow the spread of the fire and protect the fire wall of exposure B. Once the ground monitors were in place, the manpower from Engine 32 and Ladder 8 assisted the crews operating in the B exposure. Winter Haven Ladder 1 was positioned on side A, near the A/B corner, and fed by a 100-foot, five-inch line from Engine 32. Tanker 15 was staged and its crew was assigned to fire suppression operations.

Linkins requested a third alarm at 7 P.M. The Bartow Fire Department responded with Ladder 1, a 105-foot aerial ladder with a 2,000-gpm pump. This ladder was positioned on side C across railroad tracks and supplied with a 700-foot, five-inch hydrant line. This aerial master stream was used to protect the integrity of the fire wall and prevent the spread of the fire to exposure B.

Later, aerial ladders were repositioned to focus master streams onto the fire wall. Lakeland Engine 21 was positioned on the D/A corner to protect two exposures on side D and to operate on the seat of the fire. Engine 21 was supplied by a 400-foot, five-inch line. This engine placed its 50-foot TeleSqurt and a 200-foot, 2½-inch attack line into operation to protect the exposures. These exposures were manufactured buildings of lightweight construction used for offices. Later that night, a fourth ladder, Polk County Aerial Platform 1, was positioned on side D on a separate water system. This aerial was able to protect a portion of the fire wall that could not be reached by the aerials on side A. Bartow Ladder 1 was released at this time. Polk County Ladder 3 was requested at 9:40 and assigned to overnight operations.

Battalion Chief Dan Bartle declared the fire under control at 12:14 P.M. on Feb. 16. Mutual aid units were released throughout the night. The last Polk County units left the scene at 8 A.M. on Feb. 17. Firefighters responded with six engines; four ladders; one rescue and one tanker. Six hydrants on the municipal water system were used to supply 1,384,000 gallons of water needed to extinguish the fire. Firefighters encountered windy conditions during the early hours of the incident with gusts up to 30 mph.

An investigation by the Florida State Fire Marshal's Office and Travelers Insurance Co. is still ongoing at this time. Damage was estimated at $1 million to the building and $20 million to the contents.

Even though the building contained fire-pump-supported automatic fire sprinklers, they can be ineffective in containing a fire. Never let them give you a false sense of security. Limited-access roadways within the industrial park caused apparatus positioning problems once five-inch supply lines were laid. An off-duty battalion chief came up with an innovative solution to use two forklifts to raise a five-inch line to let a fuel truck enter the area and refuel apparatus.

The quick call for a second alarm and the initial orders to go with master streams was an important factor is saving the B exposure. Initial defensive operations with aerial ladders operating horizontally through loading docks were successful.

Several years ago, Polk County started a plan to standardize apparatus. All apparatus now carry five-inch supply lines, most have deck-mounted deluge guns and many carry small 600-gpm portable monitors. The small, lightweight ground monitors were an effective means to get large (500-gpm) streams into operation quickly with little manpower.

Recent training in deploying hand-lines deep into large buildings allowed the interior crews in exposure B to quickly deploy an effective defense against the spreading fire. Also, a strong fire prevention division has helped to ensure adequate fire hydrants and fire protection systems. Even though it appears the sprinkler system failed or was overrun, it worked by first reporting the fire and then protecting the side-B exposure in the event the fire breached the fire wall.

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.