On The Job: Pennsylvania - 31 Departments Respond To Four-Alarm Fire in Downtown Pottstown

31 Departments Respond To Four-Alarm Fire in Downtown Pottstown

On Saturday, Jan. 26, 2008, a four-alarm fire damaged or destroyed five historic buildings in downtown Pottstown, PA. The incident required the resources of 31 fire departments from Montgomery, Chester, Berks and Bucks counties.

The multi-story buildings were constructed in the late 1880s of brick and timber. Situated in the middle of a block, they were typical "taxpayer" buildings with commercial occupancies on the first floor and apartments on the second and third floors. Flat tar roofs of multiple layers added over the years were several inches thick. The fire building, at 261 High St., was three stories containing 5,220 square feet, with a discount store on the first floor and the second and third floors were vacant and open, having been gutted during construction renovation.

Incident commanders were challenged with four exposures during the incident. Exposure one was a three-story furniture store at 265-269 High St. with showrooms on all three floors containing 17,900 square feet. Exposure two was a three-story building at 259 High St. containing 5,220 square feet with a restaurant on the first floor and three apartments on the second and third floors. Exposure three was a three-story building at 257 High St. containing 5,220 square feet and had a tax preparation office on the first floor and three apartments on the second and third floors. Exposure four was a three-story building at 255 High St. containing 8,520 square feet with a vacant storefront on the first floor and two apartments on the second and third floors. All buildings were staggered in height from front to rear.

The combination Pottstown Fire Department is made up of 13 career and 45 volunteer firefighters operating out of four stations. The department is comprised of the Goodwill Steam Fire Company 1; Philadelphia Steam Fire Engine Company 1, Empire Hook and Ladder Company 1, and North End Fire Company 1.

The Pottstown Fire Department was dispatched to a reported fire at the discount store at 261 High St. at 11:25 A.M. At the time of the fire, the store was open with customers inside. Responding on the first alarm were Quint 69, a 75-foot aerial ladder with a 1,500-gpm pump; Ladder 69, a 100-foot rear-mount aerial ladder with a 1,250-gpm pump; Squirt 69, a 1,500-gpm pumper with a 55-foot articulating boom; Heavy Rescue 69; and an EMS unit from Goodwill Ambulance with 18 firefighters under the command of Department Assistant Chief Donald Gebhard.

Upon arrival of the first unit at 11:27, Ladder 69 reported a heavy smoke condition at the rear of the building with gray smoke emitting from the roof line and around a locked metal man door at the rear of the building. Quint 69 was positioned in front of the fire building and supplied by a 200-foot five-inch line from a hydrant at High and Charlotte streets. Ladder 69 was positioned in front of 259 High St. and fed by a 300-foot five-inch line from a hydrant at South Side High and Penn Street. Squirt 69 was positioned in the alley at the rear of 257 High St. and supplied by a 400-foot five-inch line from a hydrant at Charlotte and King streets. Rescue 69 was staged on High Street across from 259 High.

Gebhard requested a second alarm at 11:29. Pottstown Fire Chief Richard C. Lengel responded from the fire academy at this time. Mutual aid responding units included West End Fire Company Engine 57-3, a 1,500-gpm pumper; Sanatoga Fire Company Engine 58, a 1,500-gpm pumper, and Quint 58, a 75-foot aerial ladder with a 1,500-gpm pump; Collegeville Fire Company Rescue 34; Humane Fire Company Engine 84, a 2,000-gpm pumper, and Ladder 84, a 100-foot aerial ladder.

Initial Attack

A four-person crew from Rescue 69 made entry through the front door of the discount store with a 1½-inch attack line from Quint 69. Firefighters made their way to the rear of the store under moderate smoke conditions where they located fire in a storeroom. Conditions deteriorated rapidly with heavy smoke banking down on the crew, which backed out of the building to reassess conditions. A second entry was attempted by two crews with two 1¾-inch attack lines. As the firefighters progressed toward the rear of the building, the interior of that portion of the building began to collapse. All firefighters were ordered out of the building at 11:35 and defensive operations were initiated.

The fire rapidly spread from the rear of the discount store to the front, with fire blowing out through the front display windows. Initial firefighting operations were hampered due to building construction and accessibility. At the front of the building, access was limited to the first floor because the second and third floors had been covered with a metal facade and the windows were bricked over. At the rear, only one man door provided access to the building. Until structural collapse occurred, the only water that could be applied was through the front windows and door and the rear door.

Roof construction of the main fire building also posed problems for firefighters. The front third of the building was three stories, the middle third was one story and the rear third was two stories. Common roofs for the first- and third-floor sections of the building allowed for fire extension to the B and D exposures. Roof operations on the one-story sections of 257 and 259 High St. were limited as these roofs rapidly became involved. The fire spread was stopped at 255 High St. with a trench cut of the roof and a brick party wall with a parapet.

Defensive Operations

Multiple master streams were put to use and additional roof trenching operations were initiated in an effort to contain the fire. Quint 69 placed its ladder pipe and three deck guns into operation on the A side of the building. Ladder 69 put its two ladder pipes into operation along with three 1¾-inch attack lines on side A. Operations in the alley at the rear with Squirt 69 included three 1¾-inch attack lines; one 2½-inch attack line; one deck gun; three portable monitors and an elevated master stream. Firefighters performed roof trenching operations on the B and D exposures. The third-floor roofs of 265 and 259 High St. were opened and firefighters stopped the fire's progression in these buildings.

Gebhard requested a third alarm at 11:37 and ordered all second-alarm companies to the scene to assist with suppression operations. Third alarm-responding units included Ringing Hill Fire Company Engine 59, a 1,500-gpm pumper; Limerick Fire Company Squad 54; New Hanover Township Fire Company Ladder 37, a 75-foot aerial ladder with a 1,500-gpm pump; Gilbertsville Ambulance 332; and Boyertown Ambulance 526.

Engine 57-3 was positioned in front of 249 High St. and supplied with a 300-foot five-inch line from a hydrant in front of 215 High St. This engine supplied Ladder 69's lower ladder pipe with two 200-foot four-inch lines. Engine 58 hooked onto a hydrant at the intersection of Charlotte and Chestnut streets with a five-inch line and pumped a 900-foot five-inch line to Squirt 69. Quint 58 was positioned at the rear of 255 High St. and set up for ladder pipe operations. This apparatus would be supplied by Engine 59, responding on the third alarm. Engine 84 laid dual 900-foot five-inch lines from a hydrant at High and Charlotte streets to the front of the structure, then returned to the hydrant and hooked up with a five-inch line to feed the two supply lines. Ladder 84 was positioned in front of 263 High St. and operated on the roof to control the extension of the fire into the exposed building. Collegeville personnel were assigned to suppression operations on side A.

At 11:44, Gebhard reported multiple explosions inside the discount store. At 11:49, while responding, Lengel asked the Montgomery County Fire Incident Support Team to respond. Ladder 37 placed its ladder to the roof of the two-story building at 253 High St. Dual 150-foot three-inch lines were hand laid from Engine 57-3 to supply this engine, but these lines were never charged. Engine 59 laid a 600-foot five-inch line from a hydrant at Penn and King streets to Quint 58. Limerick personnel were initially assigned to exposure evacuation duties and later assigned to suppression operations on side C. At 11:53, crews from Rescue 69 reported that all of the exposures on side B had been searched and occupants had been evacuated.

Structural Collapse

At 12:05 P.M., a major structural collapse occurred in the rear of the fire building. Lengel arrived on scene at 12:13 and, after conferring with Assistant Department Chief Joseph Groff, took command of the incident. The local power company, PECO, was requested to respond to the scene at 12:21 to de-energize the electric lines in the area. At 12:40, total collapse of the fire building occurred.

Lengel requested a fourth alarm at 12:46. Responding units included Gilbertsville Fire and Rescue Company Engine 67, a 1,500-gpm pumper; Lower Providence Fire Company Quint 53; Norco Fire Company Rescue 64; North Penn Goodwill Canteen Service; and the Salvation Army Canteen Service.

At 1 P.M., command determined that it would be necessary to evacuate the seven-story apartment building directly across the alley from the fire due to radiant heat and heavy smoke. This involved the evacuation of approximately 60 people, who walked two blocks to the Salvation Army building. Third-alarm companies Squad 54 and Ladder 37 were assigned to this task. The evacuees were allowed to return to their apartments that evening. There was no damage to the building. Once the evacuation was complete, Squad 54 personnel were reassigned to suppression operations on side C and Ladder 37 was assigned to roof operations.

Fourth-alarm companies began arriving on scene at 1:07 P.M. Engine 67 was positioned at the intersection of High and Charlotte streets and supplied by a five-inch line from Engines 15 and 84. Engine 67 pumped three 50-foot three-inch lines into a five-inch manifold that supplied Ladder 15 with a 50-foot five-inch line. A 200-foot 1¾-inch handline was also stretched up Ladder 15 to the roof of 263 High St. for exposure protection and overhaul operations. Remaining fourth-alarm companies were used as relief crews for operations and for station coverage.

PECO arrived on scene at 1:10 and was asked to shut down the electrical grid to the fire area by Lengel. All utility service on High Street is underground, forcing PECO to shut down a large area of the power grid. Ladder 15 from Friendship Hook and Ladder Fire Company of Boyertown was special requested to the scene to replace Ladder 84, which developed a hydraulic problem with its aerial ladder.

Under Control

Lengel declared the fire under control at 3:47 P.M., four hours and 22 minutes after the initial dispatch. At 8:21 P.M., command began to scale down operations and released some mutual aid companies. An overnight fire watch was established on sides A and C with Deputy Chief David Ondik in command. Quint 69 and Engine 61-2 operated on side A, while Squirt 69 and Rescue 71 operated on side C. At 11:24 P.M., Battalion Chief Bill Hagner assumed command of the fire watch. At 8 A.M. on Jan. 27, the last of the mutual aid companies were released. At 1:28 P.M., 26 hours after dispatch, the last Pottstown units left the scene.

Ten hydrants were needed to supply water for firefighting operations. EMS units established a rehab site with inflatable tents. Weather conditions at the time of the fire were clear and mild with low winds. No injuries were reported by civilians or firefighters. Eight occupants of the apartments were left homeless. Damage was estimated at $2.5 million.

Pottstown incident commanders were assisted by 10 members of the Montgomery County Fire Incident Support Team, and the Montgomery County Field Command Unit and Tactical Communications Team. The Fire Incident Support Team members served as safety officers; water supply officers; planning staff for the extended operations; assisted with public information officer duties and assisted Lengel with overall control of the incident. The Tactical Communications Team provided and coordinated all communications during the incident. The team also provided information technology support including aerial mapping of the scene and clerical duties.

Other departments responding for station coverage or relief crews at the scene included the Amity Township, East Greenville, Keystone, King of Prussia, Milford Township, North Penn, Red Hill, Towamencin Township, Trappe, Upper Pottsgrove Township, Upper Salford and Worchester Township fire companies.

Fire Investigation

An 8½-hour investigation by Lengel, who is also Pottstown's fire marshal, and Montgomery County District Attorney's Office investigators determined that the fire originated in the rear storeroom of the discount store and was caused by the catastrophic failure of an electrical sub-panel. Management of the discount store reported to investigators that a portable phone in the store had stopped working about 11 A.M. Occupants smelled smoke at approximately 11:20, and discovered smoke and fire coming from the electrical panel at the rear of the store. While one employee called 911, another employee used two or three fire extinguishers in an attempt to fight the fire. At 11:24, occupants of the store evacuated through the front door.

"The age of the historic buildings on High Street is part of the problem," Lengel said. "Many of the buildings were built before modern fire codes were in place. The wood-frame buildings don't always have fire walls to prevent the spread of fire."

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.