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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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.