Fire Reigns in Downtown Memphis

For the first time anyone could remember, Memphis, TN, was the scene of two three-alarm fires burning roughly at the same time, when in the early-morning hours of Oct. 6, 2006, flames swept through the historic downtown area. The First United Methodist Church, built in 1893, was the scene of...


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For the first time anyone could remember, Memphis, TN, was the scene of two three-alarm fires burning roughly at the same time, when in the early-morning hours of Oct. 6, 2006, flames swept through the historic downtown area.

The First United Methodist Church, built in 1893, was the scene of the initial reported alarm. The original fire began around 2:39 A.M. in the basement of the 113-year-old church building at Second Street and Poplar Avenue. The church has deep roots in Memphis. It was organized on the first Sunday of February 1826, and is the oldest institution of any kind in the city, which sits on a bluff of the Mississippi River.

The sanctuary that burned was completed in 1893 and last remodeled in 1977. The church was largely destroyed. Its roof caved in, the steeple toppled and other portions of the structure collapsed onto the street. The intense heat from the fire cracked dozens of windows across the street at the Shelby County Election Commission building at 157 Poplar Ave. and the Pepper Building, next to the church, sustained significant smoke and water damage with most materials ruined.

Memphis Fire Department Engines 1, 5 and 2, Trucks 2 and 5, and Battalion 1 were the first units on the scene. According to the incident commander, Division Chief Ron Mitchell, initial-arriving companies reported smoke showing in the Alpha Division of the church, but no visible fire. However, soon after they arrived, one of two doors leading to the basement of the church was opened and a small amount of fire was seen. Engine 1 attempted to extinguish the fire at this location.

"The fire was small, but the heat was intense and the amount of smoke coming out of the building did not match the behavior of the heat and small amount of fire seen when the first door was opened," Mitchell said.

The second door to the basement was opened and companies attempted to advance. "The smoke grew heavier and I knew it had to be in the walls," Mitchell said. "At that point, I gave the order to go defensive and pulled companies out." A personnel accountability rollcall (PAR) was ordered and all companies were accounted for.

"In my 29 years of firefighting, I have never seen a building go so quickly," Mitchell said. "Seconds after pulling the guys out of the building and going defensive, it erupted into flames from the basement to the top of the church." He said that knowledge of fire behavior combined with pre-planning and specific "target hazards" associated with the building played an important part in the decisions made in regard to a risk/benefit analysis and the decision to go defensive.

Deputy Chief Donald Kuhn, a 33-year veteran of the department, arrived shortly after Mitchell and described the night's events as the "fire of the century." In addition to his three decades of fire suppression experience, Kuhn is a task force leader for one of the most active federal Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) teams, Tennessee Task Force 1. He assumed the incident command system role of operations. The combination of operational experience on the fireground, the Pentagon on 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and a background as a special operations chief led him to retain the role of operations instead of taking the role of incident commander. "I had my targets in sight, I knew what I wanted to do and it had to be done fast," he said.

Kuhn echoed Mitchell's account, with reports of heavy smoke seen in all divisions of the church and small fire being seen during his size-up of the building in a side door of the church. "The fire moved rapidly and now was blowing out all windows," said Kuhn. Some companies had placed themselves close to the fire building; therefore, repositioning of apparatus was ordered and a collective decision was made to go defensive given the hour of the morning, no reports of victims and life safety issues of firefighters. Chief officers were assigned to each division of the church building and all companies had been moved out of the collapse zones.

Exposure problems were recognized early. Elevated streams and deck guns were used to protect exposures and create "water curtains." Only small alleyways separated the fire building and the adjacent buildings. Operations assigned Deputy Chief Gary Ludwig (a Firehouse® contributing editor) the responsibility of managing companies assigned to the exposures.

"Communication is key in controlling fire spread," Ludwig said. "You must set up to protect exposures early. You have to anticipate where the fire is going, not where it is, and relay that information early and often to your companies. In order to do this, you must have the resources on the ground. Sometimes, you have to 'go ugly early' (referring to multiple alarms). If you don't need the resources, no one is hurt and companies can return to quarters if not needed. If you are reluctant and don't 'go ugly early' in situations like these, you risk the possibility of losing life and property because it can get out of hand very fast. You have to stay one alarm ahead of the fire."

Mitchell called for a second alarm at 3:08 A.M. and a third alarm at 3:52. Wind gusts ripped through downtown Memphis, adding to the October chill and fueling the difficulty of the operation. Mitchell reported what he described as a "fire storm" overhead with golfball-size embers coming from the church and heading south toward the heart of downtown. The high winds carried the embers blocks away and began a chain of events that would put the Memphis Fire Department to the test.

At 4:05 A.M., a cell phone call was received for a possible fire on the roof of the Shelby County Building at 140 Adams. Engine 29, which had been pulled in from the south part of the city to cover territory left opened by the church fire, was dispatched to investigate. The company made it to the roof of the Shelby County Building and reported all clear at that location, but from their vantage point the crew could see a building on fire near Jefferson and Main streets, several blocks away.

At 4:20, just eight minutes after third-alarm companies were dispatched to the church fire, Engines 26, 20, 16 and 28, Trucks 11 and 7, and Battalion 6 were dispatched to Jefferson and Main. These companies had also been moved in from other areas of the city to cover territory left open by the church fire. "At 0427, we received a cell phone call that a building was on fire at Court Square, so we re-routed those companies to that location," Fire Communications Watch Commander Shane Walker said.

The "fire storm" of embers and debris had apparently ignited the vacant nine-story Court Square Annex five blocks away on the north side of Court Square. Smoke and flames were also reported in two other buildings, including the 22-story Lincoln American Tower, once the tallest building in Memphis. Second and third alarms were called for simultaneously at 5:07.

The fire at the church was declared under control at 4:12 and knocked down at 5:31. As it was put under control, Kuhn passed operations to another chief officer and notified Mitchell of his intent to move five blocks over to assist with operations at the fires reported at Court Square. Deputy Chief of Special Operations Michael Putt took the position of incident commander at the newest inferno and Kuhn assumed operations.

Two of the three buildings on fire were under renovation and had open windows that welcomed the chunks of debris from the church fire. Trucks were put in defensive positions in the Alpha Division of the Court Square Annex in a manner to avoid building collapse, which did occur. "It was apparent upon arrival that this building was a loss and we had to protect exposures," said Kuhn. A monitor was then used to maintain control of the building. Fire patrols were sent on foot to gather intelligence of fire spread in alleyways and other nearby buildings. No major incidents were reported, but companies did extinguish small spot fires in some alleyways.

The 22-story Lincoln/American Building was in the Bravo Division of the Court Square fire. Given the age of the buildings and the various stages of renovation, there were no working standpipes or sprinkler system. "Fire was reported in all windows of the structure," Kuhn said. Truck 7 became the standpipe for this operation and was elevated to the seventh floor. The 2½-inch lines were connected and sculled up each stairway, where wyed lines were used to control the fire by three high-rise task forces, each comprised of two engines, a truck company and a battalion chief. "This operation took a considerable amount of manpower and time," Kuhn said. "Rehab and rotating crews was instrumental in the success of this operation."

Division Chief Henry Posey was given responsibility of the Lowenstein Building, which was in the Charlie Division of the Court Square fire. Years and years of cleaning the floors with linseed oil had now allowed the once shiny floors to become weak and to act as a catalyst for the spread of the fire. The building engineer for the renovation project advised Posey and operations that no one should enter the building because of the instability of the floors in the structure. A defensive attack was in order. Truck 13 was reassigned from the church fire to the building and extinguished the fire.

A law office was located in the Delta Division of the Court Square fire. This exposure building was the only one that contained a sprinkler system. Salvage operations were successful in saving documents, equipment and furnishings in this building.

With the help of 200 firefighters, use of the incident command system and experienced fireground officers, the fire on the Court Square was declared under control at 6:36 A.M. and knocked down at 7:01. Overhaul and salvage operations continued for several days. (Thinking the worst was over, Kuhn was now needed at another emergency. His family had been attempting to reach him all morning. As he was running operations at one of the largest fires in the city's history, his daughter had unexpectedly gone into labor and was being prepared for an emergency C-section. A runner was sent to Kuhn's location at the fire with the news. He removed himself from duty and made his way to the hospital, reaching his daughter's side as a nurse brought his first grandchild, Lilly, into the room. It had been a day of challenges and emotions that are hard to compare.)

Lessons Learned

  • These incidents proved the value of pre-planning. First-in companies must know construction types, fire protection systems and "target hazards" of buildings in their response areas. It also proved the value of every member knowing the department's standard operating procedures (SOPs).
  • You can never be too prepared.
  • You may have a plan for every contingency, but be able and willing to improvise and adapt to handle the gray areas. Most of the time, nothing goes according to plan, no matter how well thought out it may be.
  • Recognize the need for more brand patrols early as weather and other conditions present themselves.
  • Reinforce the importance of training and drilling. All companies, not just the downtown companies, must be prepared to handle all aspects of urban firefighting.
  • At large events, utilize the incident command system to its fullest.
  • Consider deploying a helicopter for reconnaissance ("the big picture").
  • Look at revising fire codes to address building renovations and fire protection systems during the construction phase to include a temporary standpipe or sprinkler system.
  • Consider calling off-duty personnel or mutual aid.
  • Require fire protection systems to be operable during renovation projects.

Training opportunities for the next one and for other fire departments:

  • Drill like you fight.
  • Educate and drill with the incident command system/National Incident Management System (NIMS) and know your role - it works. If you don't use it every day, it won't work at "the big one."
  • Study and train on SOPs or standard operating guidelines (SOGs), and "target hazards" in your response area.
  • Undertake departmentwide training on high-rise firefighting and rescue operations.

SPECIAL CHALLENGES & HOW THEY WERE OVERCOME

  1. Two nearly simultaneous three-alarm fires involving buildings of varied types of construction
  • The incident command system and National Incident Management System (NIMS) are critical in dividing an incident into manageable pieces.
  • "Go ugly early" - stay one alarm ahead of the fire.
  • Must be able to redirect companies and ambulances to cover areas left open.
  • Send companies to investigate/fire patrols.
  • The fire department must interact with the utility company early to cut the power grid and increase water pressure in the mains.
  • Tactical radio channels are needed for each operational area.
  • Creation of standpipe system and high-rise task forces to operate effectively in buildings without systems in place.
  • Consider life safety first, foremost and always.

J. HAROLD LOGAN is a 22-year veteran of fire-based emergency medical services and presently acts as a lieutenant firefighter/paramedic for the Memphis, TN, Fire Department in an EMS administration capacity. He is an EMS instructor coordinator and fire instructor for the Memphis Fire Department and the State of Tennessee. He has also served as a rescue/medical specialist and a medical coordinator for FEMA's Tennessee Task Force 1 Urban Search and Rescue Team for over a decade.

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