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

Jay Bradish reports on a four-alarm fire that damaged or destroyed five historic buildings and challenged incident commanders.


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...


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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.