Fire Reigns in Downtown Memphis

J. Harold Logan reports on two three-alarm blazes that struck the historic downtown area of the Tennessee city.


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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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.