On The Job - Pennsylvania

Thomas Rehr reports on a rash of multiple alarm fires that damaged or destroyed numerous buildings, injured firefighters and civilians, and left dozens of people homeless.


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...


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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."