Firehouse Fires

Jay K. Bradish describes an ironic occurrence that happened to several firehouses around the country and how members coped.


I'm devastated we're all devastated by this. In one incident, we've lost all of our emergency response apparatus and most of our building. While it's horrible, we are extremely fortunate that no one was injured," Chief Tim Butters of the Burke, VA, Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department said a few...


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Fire officials held a meeting at 7 A.M. to develop an action plan to get Station 14 back into operation. Another building on the property that was used to store a cave-in response unit was large enough to house a pumper. A reserve pumper was placed in service at Station 14. A 40-foot house trailer was moved in during the afternoon for living quarters. All utilities and communications were installed within 48 hours. Basic fire suppression and emergency medical services were operational within 12 hours of the fire. The basic life support (BLS) unit using a reserve ambulance is operating out of Station 27 and the rescue squad is operating out of Station 32.

The original Fire Station 14 was built in 1963. The two-story, 150-by-150-foot was constructed of brick and block walls with steel roof trusses and a metal decking roof. Several of the roof trusses were distorted from the heat and the west wall was pushed outward. The first-floor living quarters sustained moderate smoke damage. The second floor had only slight smoke damage due to the swift action by firefighters ensuring that the steel fire door was closed.

The fire destroyed the cab on Rescue Squad 14, a 1991 Duplex/Saulsbury. The box unit was to be remounted by Pierce Manufacturing on a new Quantum chassis. Quint 14, a 1991 Pierce Arrow, sustained heavy smoke and moderate heat damage. The ladder was tested by two independent testing agencies and determined not to have been damaged. This unit was sent back to Pierce for refurbishing. Engine 14, a 1980 Emergency One/Duplex pumper, sustained heavy smoke damage and some heat damage. This unit was also sent to Pierce for refurbishing. Two identical Type III Ford/Excellance ambulances were damaged by smoke and replaced by two new ambulances. Brush 14, a 1960s-vintage military Kaiser jeep, sustained minor smoke damage, was repaired locally and placed back in service. A new fire station is being designed with needed additional space and is scheduled for completion in 1998.

Damage has been estimated at $300,000 to the station and $800,000 to the apparatus. Fire investigators have determined that an electrical malfunction in the chassis of Rescue Squad 14 was the cause of the fire. As a result of the fire, Fairfax County Fire Chief Glenn A. Gaines said an extensive safety review of the fire stations in the county is underway.

"It's a wake-up call; it's hypocritical of us to extol the virtues of fire and smoke alarms and not have them," Gaines said. Of the 34 stations in Fairfax County, 13 are owned by corporations such as Burke's. This was the worst fire involving a Fairfax County station since the Great Falls station burned in the late 1950s. An unoccupied station was damaged by an arson fire in 1993.

Butters pointed out lessons learned by the members of the Burke Volunteer Fire Department:

  • Install sprinklers and smoke detectors in apparatus bays. While the living quarters in the station had smoke detectors, there were no early-warning or suppression systems in the apparatus bay. A sprinkler system with heat detectors or a similar warning system could have kept the fire damage to the apparatus to a minimum and prevented the fire spread to the building. These devices were not required when the station was built but will be installed in the new station.
  • Practice a fire station escape plan. While firefighters teach this concept to the public, knowing exit locations and where to meet outside the station in the event of a fire to account for personnel is important, particularly for detail personnel or other members unfamiliar with the building layout.
  • Review insurance coverage. A review of insurance coverage for apparatus, equipment and buildings should be done regularly with attention to replacement costs. Other issues to include are coverage for costs associated with relocation, temporary offices, quarters, support equipment and loaner equipment.
  • Maintain a complete inventory of equipment. Know what is in the building and on the apparatus. If the apparatus burns up, you must be able to account for what was destroyed and its value. Take photos or videos and store them in a secure off-site location. Photos should include the apparatus and the contents of compartments.
  • Maintain apparatus files. Keep apparatus files current, including maintenance records, in the event a maintenance issue becomes a problem. Be sure you are provided "as built" drawings of apparatus and they are kept in a protected area.
  • Prepare contingency plans. Think through what to do in the event the building and apparatus is rendered unusable. Is there off-site office and storage space for apparatus and equipment? Is there a plan to obtain temporary facilities?
  • Make contingency plans for communications. Keeping staff and members up-to-date on what is happening is critical, especially if there is no central location. Considerations should include a 24-hour hotline with recorded information, broadcast fax and pagers. The Burke Volunteer Fire Department has also established a World Wide Web site on the Internet that contains information on the department's recovery progress: http://www.bvfrd.org/