On The Job - Pennsylvania

City of Reading Department of Fire & Rescue Services
Chief William H. Rehr III
Personnel: 153 career firefighters
Apparatus: Seven engines, three aerials, one heavy rescue
Population: 80,000
Area: 9.9 square miles

While many departments entered October 1997 with Fire Prevention Week in mind, Reading, PA, firefighters began the month with a two-alarm fire. Before the month was over, Reading firefighters would battle three more multiple-alarm fires and the numerous "working fires" that made October 1997 one of the busiest months in the city.

Photo by David J. Reimer
Oct. 1, 1997 - Firefighter Daniel Wade of Ladder 3 is silhouetted by fire venting through the roof during a two-alarm blaze at 901 North 9th St. This was the first of two blazes to strike within 10 days in Reading's outlet district. This three-story structure housed a pizzeria on the ground floor that had just opened for business. The unoccupied second and third floors contained construction materials being used for renovations.

This is a compilation of incidents that damaged or destroyed buildings, injured firefighters and civilians, and left dozens of people homeless.

Oct. 1, 3:13 A.M. - 901 North 9th St. Companies were dispatched for a reported structure fire in the area of 9th and Windsor streets. This would be the first of two fires to heavily damage buildings in the city's outlet district within 10 days. The three-story building was undergoing renovations and housed a pizzeria on the first floor that had recently opened for business. The second and third floors were unoccupied and contained construction materials being used for the renovations.

First-in Engine 9 reported "fire showing." Fire was venting from the second-floor rear windows of the building along Windsor Street and had already burned through the electric feed line, which dropped onto the street, and heavy smoke was pushing from the third floor. There was only one means of access to the upper floors - rear exterior stairs that entered the second floor at the area of origin. At 3:21, Deputy Chief George Kellenberger, the incident commander, ordered the next-due aerial, Snorkel 1, dispatched to the scene.

Interior crews were making progress on the second floor with handlines when Deputy Chief Paul Hofmann, the interior command officer, reported that the floor was giving way in the room adjacent to the stairs. About the same time, exterior crews reported fire through the roof of the second-floor setback. Units were withdrawn to set up a defensive attack and Kellenberger ordered a second alarm at 3:37.

The fire was darkened down in about 20 minutes by two master-stream devices and the handlines that had been backed out of the building. With the fire knocked down and visibility improving, a cautious interior attack resumed. Handlines were advanced into the upper floors via ground ladders. Crews had the fire under control at 4:37 A.M.

When the smoke cleared, it was evident that the fire had been burning for awhile undetected. Fire had burned down through the second floor as well as through the roof, and interior walls had burned through and failed. The fire is still under investigation and caused $60,000 in damage.

Oct. 3, 1:10 P.M. - 930-32-34 Buttonwood St. A box alarm was transmitted for a structure fire in the 900 block of Buttonwood Street. Responding on the box from the quarters of Rescue 1 downtown about a 11/2 miles away, Deputy Chief John Sands reported "smoke showing." Units arrived two minutes later and reported a 21/2-story rowhouse heavily involved, with fire showing from the front of the building. At 1:15, with first-alarm companies in service and exposures 2 and 4 becoming involved, Deputy Chief Michael Moyer transmitted a second alarm.

Photo by Thomas Rehr
Oct. 10, 1997 - Despite the heavy smoke condition present, firefighters made short work of the fire involving the basement and first floor. The fire caused $75,000 in damage.

Companies stretched lines into the fire building and the exposures, then began opening up and ventilating. Crews were making progress but with the heavy amount of fire in the three dwellings,and the need for relief personnel, Chief of Department William H. Rehr III transmitted the third alarm at 1:46 P.M.

As crews were gaining control of the fire, the chauffeur of Rescue 1 radioed that he had fallen through the fire weakened roof up to his waist and was attempting to extricate himself. The firefighter was extricated from the hole and removed to the street by Snorkel 1's bucket. He was taken to a local hospital and treated for a back injury. The seven engines, three aerials and one heavy rescue company on the scene brought the fire under control at 2:30 P.M. The fire left 17 occupants of the three buildings homeless and caused in excess of $60,000 in damage. The fire appears to have been started by cigarette ashes igniting a sofa in the building of origin.

Oct. 10, 9:49 A.M. - 746 North 9th St. Once again, units responded to a structure fire in the city's outlet district. The fire was discovered by a police officer. Units arrived on the scene in two minutes and found fire showing from the rear of the three-story mixed-occupancy building. The fire, which began in the basement, had spread to the first floor, which housed a hosiery outlet shop, and was venting from rear windows.

An attack line was stretched to the rear to protect exposures as additional lines were preparing to make entry through the front. As the front plate-glass door and window were vented, heavy smoke rolled from the first floor. Quick work by the companies prevented the fire from "lighting up" or spreading further. The fire was knocked down and placed under control at 10:27.

The fire caused $75,000 damage to the building, which was unoccupied at the time of the fire. Two firefighters received minor burns and were treated at the scene. The blaze has been labeled suspicious and is still under investigation.

Oct. 15, 7:18 P.M. - 1343 North 10th St. At 6 P.M., members of the B platoon reported for their last of three night tours, which by morning would turn out to be a long one. A box alarm was transmitted at 7:18 P.M. for a dwelling fire at 1343 North 10th St. First-due Engine 9 found a medium smoke condition on the first floor of a three-story rowhouse. A victim with burn injuries was located outside.

A working fire was transmitted by Engine 9 and a 13/4-inch handline was stretched but it would not need to be charged. The flash fire in the kitchen, touched off by the victim cleaning paint brushes with a flammable liquid near the stove, had almost burned itself out. The remaining fire and the fire was placed under control at 7:26 P.M. The burned occupant was transported to a hospital in critical condition with second- and third-degree burns over 40% of his body. He was subsequently transferred to a trauma center for treatment.

Photo by Scot Lyons
Oct. 30, 1997 - Firefighter Quentin Englehart of Engine 9 stretches an attack line between two rowhouses to attack the fully involved garage at 542 Mulberry St. The fire was quickly brought under control but not before it had damaged three other buildings and temporarily displaced three people.

Oct. 15, 8:10 P.M. - Eisen-hower Apartments, 835 Frank-lin St. Shortly after units had cleared the box on 10th Street and had gone in quarters, a box alarm was transmitted for a fire at the Eisenhower Apartments, 835 Franklin St., a 15-story Reading Housing Authority residence for elderly and low-income residents.

First-due Engine 1 and Snorkel 1 were all too familiar with the address - they respond to nearly 100 automatic alarms per year at the address; most of the alarms are triggered by cooking or unattended food on the stove. Tonight would be different, though, as the two 911 calls preceding the alarm notification from the central station would spur the communications center to transmit a full box assignment instead of the normal "one and one" to the building.

Deputy Chief Steve Orlosky arrived with the first-due engine and ladder at 8:12 and proceeded to the alarm panel in the lobby. With numerous alarms showing on the panel, a large number of occupants in the lobby and a verbal report of a fire in a ninth-floor apartment, Orlosky transmitted the second alarm at 8:15.

Crews began ascending to the ninth floor where they encountered smoke in the hallway and a hot door to Apartment 903. As a line was stretched to the apartment from a standpipe, additional crews began making their way to the six floors above the fire for search and rescue, in addition to searching the ninth floor. Eighty apartments from the eighth to the 15th floors were searched and their occupants evacuated. The nozzle crew had the fire knocked down in minutes and positive-pressure ventilation was started on the fire floor. The fire was placed under control at 9:34 P.M.

A 19-year-old occupant of the involved apartment was subsequently arrested on arson and other related charges after admitting to investigators that he had started the fire. The fire caused $15,000 in damage to the building. Seven engines, three aerials and a heavy rescue company along with numerous EMS and police units operated at the scene.

Oct. 16, 2:26 A.M. - 1330 Muhlenberg St. Most of the city's firefighters were in bed trying to rest, having put in work at the two previous incidents. But at 2:26 A.M., a box alarm was transmitted for a dwelling fire in the 1300 block of Muhlenberg Street. Responding companies were advised of people possibly trapped and others fleeing via the windows.

Photo by David J. Reimer
Oct. 21, 1997 - Snorkel 1's bucket goes to work as handlines protect exposure 4 during the Neversink Street fire. The suspicious two-alarm fire destroyed one building and heavily damaged three others.

First-due Engine 13 reported heavy smoke on the approach and a working fire at 2:28. Fire involved the second floor and was spreading into the third and also dropping into the first floor of the three-story rowhouse. Engine 13 advised that all occupants were out of the building as firefighters began stretching lines.

Orlosky arrived on the scene and with the fire beginning to spread, requested an additional engine and ladder sent to the scene. The communications center dispatched next-due Engine 3 and Ladder 1. Additional lines were deployed to knock down the fire, as crews ventilated and checked the exposures. The fire was placed under control at 3:30 A.M. but units would remain on the scene for almost two hours mopping up.

The fire was listed as accidental; it was started by an unattended candle. The fire caused $25,000 in damage and displaced the family of four living there. A 57-year-old man was treated for minor burns, cuts and smoke inhalation after trying to extinguish the fire prior to the fire department's arrival. He had become trapped by the fire and broke through a second-floor window, where he crossed the porch roofs of two adjoining homes to safety.

Oct. 21, 3:04 A.M. - 16-18-20-22 Neversink St. A "working structure fire" was reported at 18 Neversink St. Units responding knew from the dispatcher's tone of voice and because the call was the being put out as a "working" incident that the communications center had received numerous calls or that dispatchers could see the fire from their 18th-floor location. After a short run from their station just four blocks away, Engine 5 arrived on the scene at 3:05 with "fire showing."

Fire heavily involved a vacant 2 1/2-story wood-frame dwelling and had already spread to the two dwellings attached to it, exposure 2 (vacant from a previous fire this year) and exposure 2A (an occupied dwelling), both of similar construction. With the heavy volume of fire and the construction of the buildings, Moyer transmitted the second alarm at 3:11. A line was used to protect exposure 4 (separated by a narrow alleyway) while companies gained access to the boarded-up homes at 18 and 20 Neversink St. Additional lines were stretched as companies began to go to work on the three buildings.

Photo by David J. Reimer
Oct. 21, 1997 - Fire Chief William H. Rehr III monitors the progress of firefighters at the Neversink Street blaze minutes before the building of origin collapsed. Damage to the buildings was put at $40,000.

Because of the heavy involvement of 18 Neversink St. and its unstable appearance, all companies were ordered to stay out of that building and a exterior attack would be used with handlines and Snorkel 1's master stream. This tactic would prove valuable, for without warning at 3:38, a total collapse occurred at 18 Neversink St. - the front wall collapsed onto the sidewalk, the side wall collapsed in a lean-to fashion and rested against exposure 4, and the interior floors and roof collapsed in a pancake fashion. With the main body of fire now reduced to a pile of rubble, companies contained and knocked down the fire on the second floor and attic of exposures 2 and 2A. At 4:33 A.M., the fire was placed under control. One firefighter suffered a minor ankle injury. The original fire building was destroyed, exposures 2 and 2A were heavily damaged, and exposure 4 sustained minor damage. The fire has been termed suspicious by authorities.

Oct. 30, 3:18 A.M. - Berkshire Garden Apartments, 1510 Allegheny Ave. Members of the A platoon were bunked out in the city's eight fire stations when Box 1511 was transmitted for the three-story Building H of the Berkshire Garden Apartments. First-due Engine 11 and Ladder 3 were familiar with the site, responding to automatic alarms on a regular basis and to a few working fires at the complex's 14 buildings in previous years. The 911 call preceding notification from the central station of the automatic alarm, however, prompted communication center employees to transmit a first-alarm assignment instead of the normal "one and one" response.

Engine 11 arrived at 3:22 and reported a working fire in a ground-floor apartment. A line was stretched as firefighters entered the apartment and were greeted by a heavy smoke condition. Additional firefighters evacuated the upper floors as quick work was made of the fire. Ventilation was established and all occupants were accounted for. The fire was placed under control at 3:49 A.M. by Deputy Chief Jefferey Squibb. The fire was listed as accidental.

Oct. 30, 7:50 P.M. - 542 Mulberry St. Members of the A platoon were into the second hour of their night shift when the 911 communications center began receiving numerous calls reporting a fire in the rear of the 500 block of Mulberry Street. Dispatchers could also see the fire from the communications center and transmitted box alarm for a "working structure fire" in the rear of the 500 block of Mulberry Street. Engine 1 arrived at 7:53 and reported a working fire. A one-story garage was fully involved with other garages in close proximity beginning to ignite. Overhead power lines were burning through and falling, showering the alleyway with sparks.

Companies cautiously stretched multiple lines through alleyways to attack the fire and prevent it from spreading to additional exposures. With numerous handlines surrounding the fire it was quickly knocked down but not before it had destroyed the garage of origin and damaged two additional garages and a home, temporarily displacing three occupants. The fire was placed under control at 8:12 P.M. No injuries were reported in the fire, which officials say was suspicious. Damage was put at $10,000.

Lessons Learned

Quick, aggressive attacks and knowledgeable leadership prevented many of these incidents from becoming disastrous. Although 14 buildings were damaged or destroyed, 28 people left homeless and eight people injured (four of them firefighters), things could have been much worse in this old, densely populated city of rowhouses and mill buildings - fires and multiple alarms have been steadily on the rise in Reading since 1990.

Many lessons and tactics were reinforced by these fires:

  • The use of exterior attacks at heavily involved vacant structures. When buildings are obviously vacant and heavily involved, exterior attacks with "big lines" or master streams should be used. Firefighter safety should not be compromised to save a vacant structure when there is little or no life hazard present.
  • The importance of recognizing the early signs of collapse and establishing a collapse zone. Many of Reading's buildings are old, of ordinary or wood-frame construction built around the turn of the century. This, along with the fact that many of Reading's vacant buildings are open to the elements year-round or have been involved in previous fires, is an added threat to firefighters.
  • The use of the incident command system at fires. Many of the fires required additional manpower and simultaneous operations in numerous buildings. Staging apparatus and assigning tasks to incoming companies was important to the successful outcome of these incidents. Knowing which officers were in charge of the different areas and sectors made for smoother operations.
  • The discretion of chief officers to strike additional alarms. Many of the fires were labor intensive and involved multiple buildings or, as in the case of the high-rise fire, numerous floors to be searched. Due to the current minimum manning of two firefighters per apparatus, rapidly striking additional alarms to assemble an adequate firefighting force is becoming more common. Striking additional alarms for relief is also more common.
  • Following multiple-alarm and mutual aid policies. The Buttonwood Street and Franklin Street fires quickly committed all of the city's front-line companies. Multiple alarms require utilizing off-duty personnel to man reserve apparatus and, if need be, to place surrounding county companies on standby to protect the city. Having these policies in place let dispatchers restore reserve city engine and ladder companies and have additional county units ready to assist in minutes.
  • Physical fitness of firefighters. Chief of Department Rehr noted, "physical conditioning of firefighters is extremely important, especially in smaller cities operating with minimal manpower. The high-rise fire sandwiched between two other working incidents put a strain on the entire on-duty force. (Many of the firefighters on duty the night work of Oct. 15-16 responded to two or all three of the incidents.) The performance of our people is in keeping with the highest tradition of the fire service."

Thomas Rehr is a member of the City of Reading, PA, Department of Fire & Rescue Services, assigned as a firefighter on Engine 3/Platoon B. He also is a part-time dispatcher for the Berks County Communications Center.