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Five Hackensack, NJ, firefighters died on July 1, 1988, while fighting a fire at an automobile dealership. The firefighters were in the bowstring-truss building when the roof suddenly collapsed. Three of the firefighters were killed in the middle of the service area where the garage doors are open after the truss roof and heavy ceiling collapsed. The two other firefighters were trapped in a rear storage room and could not be rescued.
We present a look at the changes within the Hackensack Fire Department in the 20 years since the tragedy. According to the fire department's website, "This fire, the worst tragedy to befall this department, caused sweeping changes in many aspects of firefighting not only in Hackensack, but the whole country. The memory of these nine brave men will live in our hearts forever."
The Hackensack Fire Department went fully paid in 1914 and the last new firehouse was built for Engine 2 in 1950. Current department strength is 99. Manpower has dropped from a high of 117 in 1978. Under a schedule instituted in 2001, there are four groups of 18 to 24 members working 24 hours on and 72 hours off. The department operates four engines, one ladder company and a rescue company under the command of a deputy chief each shift. There are three firehouses and the headquarters station. In 2007, the department responded to 8,796 calls. There were 2,896 fire responses and 5,720 EMS calls.
It was on July 1, 1988, that 10 Hackensack firefighters manning two engines, one ladder and one chief officer responded to a reported fire at the Hackensack Ford automobile dealership. During the operation, fire was discovered burning in the truss loft above the service area. The truck company vented the roof. Engine companies attempted to attack the fire through two hatches in the ceiling of the service area. An order to evacuate the building was given, but no units acknowledged the radio transmission. Three firefighters were trapped and killed when the heavy ceiling collapsed in the service area. Two firefighters were trapped in a rear storage room and radioed for help. They died before anyone could get to their position because of the truss collapse and heavy fire conditions.
Among the factors cited in the incident were a failure of the command structure, insufficient and ineffective radio communications, a lack of manpower, failure to recognize the truss roof/building construction and a lack of radios for the members on duty (a separate fireground frequency had been requested before the fire).
Changes that were made immediately after the fire included:
- Personal alert safety system (PASS) alarms were issued. These were donated by a local business.
- A building construction course was given to all members.
- A citywide survey and catalog of all truss-roof buildings was completed and put into an early computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system.
- The department created a formal standard operating procedure (SOP) and safety committee. Currently, there are 43 standard operating guidelines (SOGs).
- A safety officer position was established on an as-needed basis.
- A first-generation safety officer was sent to the National Fire Academy.
- A state law was enacted requiring all truss-roof buildings to be placarded, with the exception of private dwellings.
- The city hired civilian dispatchers to free up firefighters.
- Training and implementation of the Incident Command System (ICS) was instituted at all incidents.
- Members met the need for increased training by attending conferences and training courses.
- A fund-raising seminar taught by Chief Vincent Dunn was held.
- An officer was assigned to the rescue. Previously, rescue operated as a second section of the ladder company.
- Members were trained in hazardous materials and joined the Mid-Bergen mutual aid hazardous materials team.