On The Job - Indiana

Jay K. Bradish describes firefighting operations at a fire that leveled a four-story warehouse and damaged several other downtown structures

On Sept. 14, 2007, a seven-alarm fire destroyed a four-story warehouse and damaged several other buildings in downtown Richmond. The warehouse was built in the late 1890s of typical brick-and-heavy-timber construction. The flat roof was covered with rubber membrane and tar. The footprint of the...

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Once the fire separated the units on the south side of the tracks, a south side command was established. Richmond Assistant Fire Chief Jeff Gindling and C Platoon Battalion Chief Jerry Purcell were in command of the south-side operations. Due to the operations on the south side not having enough water for effective fire streams, it was decided that a tanker shuttle would be necessary to supply these units. At 4:38 P.M., Crawley requested a tanker shuttle to provide water for operations on the south side of the railroad tracks. Responding were Boston Tanker 82 (2,150-gallon capacity), Centerville Tanker 13 (1,800 gallons), Economy Tanker 103 (2,400 gallons), Fountain City Tanker 24 (2,000 gallons), Webster Tanker 23 (carrying 2,400 gallons) and Williamsburg Tanker 23 (2,400 gallons). Tankers shuttled water from a hydrant at 15th and West Main streets, five blocks away. This hydrant was chosen after the water company informed command that it was fed by a 12-inch main. The tankers were all of the quick-dump variety, and were self fed from the hydrant without assistance from a pumper. A five-inch supply line was left on the hydrant for easy fill-up of the tankers. The Richmond Police Department set up roadblocks so that the tankers would not have to negotiate traffic while traveling the five-block route. Two 2,500-gallon portable dump tanks were set up at North 15th Street, next to Chuck's Steak House, and connected with a jet siphon. Centerville Engine 11 drafted from the dump tanks and relayed to Richmond Truck 2 and Engine 4. The tanker shuttle operation was used for about four hours to supplement the operations taking place on the south side of the tracks. All the hydrants were fed from the north, which is where all the other fire units were connected to the water system.

Firefighters contained the fire using four aerial master streams, four ground monitors, three truck-mounted master streams and numerous handlines. Crawly declared the fire under control at 2:03 A.M. the following day, 11½ hours after the initial alarm. The last Richmond units left the scene at 6 P.M. The department responded dozens of times over the next three days to extinguish hot spots. Nearly 10 million gallons of water was used to extinguish the fire from six hydrants and the tanker shuttle.

A two-week investigation by the Richmond Fire Department and insurance company investigators determined that the fire originated in an electric motor in a pump and auger setup in the basement. Damage was estimated at over $12 million to the Primex building and $5 million to the contents. Damage at the JHG building and contents also was estimated at $5 million. The Richmond Fire Department sustained about $40,000 in damage to equipment, including a thermal imaging camera, multiple joints of hose, hand tools and heat damage to some of the apparatus.

Command officers said they faced several problems during this fire:

  • Communications - When an incident involves a large number of firefighters and everybody needs to talk to command, communications can become overwhelming. Also, be aware that outside agencies have their way of communicating that may differ from the fire department's methods. There were too few radios on scene and after a few hours, the batteries started going dead.
  • Manpower - There were not enough personnel early in the fire.
  • Complacency - The Richmond Fire Department makes a dozen runs to this location every year that result in nothing.
  • Exposures - The heat from the fire was so intense that exposures were the largest problem.

As noted by command, the following factors contributed to the successful outcome of this incident:

  • Experience - Richmond's last big fire was in January 2007, so everything was still very fresh in everyone's mind.
  • One-call system - In the past, using the fire department's emergency call-back system, someone would start calling and the process could take hours. With the one-call system, one call notifies everyone at the same time. Off-duty personnel responded to the scene within minutes.
  • Mutual aid - Practicing mutual aid responses paid off. The ability for so many departments to work together made for a successful outcome of the incident.
  • Water supply - After the January fire, the city's water mains were mapped. During this incident, that helped in choosing the best hydrants for water supply. Even though Richmond has a good water supply, it was not enough for this incident.
  • Command structure - A critique was held with all personnel; the staff critiqued its progress and then a critique was held with the emergency management agency, dispatch, police and county departments.
  • Crowd control - Firefighters had never experienced a crowd control problem as bad as the one at this incident. Consider use of all types of law enforcement. Once mounted police arrived on scene, the problem was over in minutes.
  • Pre-planning - Even though the building had not been pre-planned recently, several Richmond firefighters had worked there and were familiar with its layout. These firefighters were called to the command post in order to gain insight and then attached to crews where they could help with their knowledge.
  • Training - Work more with outside agencies. Create an updated set of protocols for use at large incidents. Develop new standard operating procedures (SOPs) for how and where to report during a callback; keep communications and accountability SOPs current.

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.