On The Job - New Hampshire

Charlestown Fire Department
Chief Gary Wallace
Personnel: 30 volunteer firefighters
Apparatus: Two pumpers, one mini-pumper, one tanker
Population: 5,000
Area: 37.7 square miles

Aug. 22, 1996, was a hot, humid Thursday in the Connecticut River Valley. More than 150 employees at the Precision Assembly Co. (PAC) plant in Charlestown, NH, were working to fill a backlog of orders for its parent, Whelen Engineering Co. in Chester, CT.

Photo courtesy of Charlestown Fire Department
Claremont Fire Chief Tom Ford assists with the initial 2 1/2-inch attack line. This type of smoking was not intended when the sign was erected!

Just after 11:30 A.M., a PAC employee in the dipping room noticed that a spark from a charged capacitor on a recently tested and dipped board had ignited vapors in the drying area. She left the room, closed the door and ran to pull an alarm. Her supervisor and another employee (a member of the North Walpole Fire Department) grabbed fire extinguishers.

"I saw a bright glow shoot out from the door," plant employee Matthew Yeatman was quoted as saying. "As we were trying to extinguish the fire, it went right above us, and the smoke and fire chased us outside." As the alarm was sounded in the plant and at the Charlestown Police Department, Police Chief Michael Burnham (a former fire lieutenant) responded directly to the scene, requesting wreckers to remove cars from the parking lot nearest the fire building. A flashover had already occurred in the center section of the plant. And workers who had left personal belongings behind discovered their car keys to be valuable missing items.

At 11:41, the Charlestown Fire Department was toned for an unknown type of fire at the PAC plant. As more calls were received at dispatch, Charlestown Assistant Fire Chief Gary Stoddard responded directly to the scene. As he crowned the hill on New Hampshire Routes 11 and 12 north of the fire station, he requested a second alarm as heavy black smoke was showing above the treeline ahead. When he reached the scene, he requested a third alarm with Claremont's ladder to respond.

By then, the fire was blowing out of two main entrances in the office area at the center of the plant. Signs of fire spread were visible at both ends of the plant with light smoke visible from both the shipping and receiving docks. Faced with an already heavy fire load, with valuable equipment at one end of the plant and a full stock room of completed products at the other, Stoddard set out with a plan to contain the fire within the center section of the building. This plan was ultimately successful. As Fire Chief Gary Wallace was later to say, "We were fortunate to be able to contain the fire to the center section. The fire stopped basically where it started." To accomplish that, the first pumper in laid three lines from a hydrant at the entrance of the first driveway. Additional lines were laid to protect the warehouse/shipping area but they never had to be charged.

Charlestown Engine 1 laid two lines from a hydrant at the intersection of the Old Claremont Road/ CEDA park entrance road. These lines were later hand laid to the east side (back wall) of the plant, where Charlestown's mini-pumper supplied two attack lines at the seat of the fire.

Photo by Medora Hebert/Courtesy of Valley News
Two firefighters have made their way to the roof peak and are working down the east roof.

Short of hydrants in the immediate area, the incident commander (IC) called for a tanker shuttle to supply a secondary source of water to protect the north end of the building. Using a hydrant near the fire station in the village and another a mile south on the Old Claremont Road, the tankers provided a continuous supply of water for handlines in the receiving dock area of the plant. Claremont's Ladder 2 was set up to ventilate the roof and, if needed, to provide a master stream. The tanker shuttle was designed to accommodate this objective but it proved to be unnecessary.

As attack teams quickly became exhausted both from the heat of the fire and the heat of the day, firefighters and equipment poured in from as far as 40 miles away. Oxygen was used for a number of personnel as the stress of the fire fight took its toll.

As the fire began to recede, teams of firefighters prepared to enter from the south front entrance. They proceeded to enter toward the fire area through the south shipping area and cafeteria on the front of the plant. These teams finished the job that had begun as an exterior attack.

Charlestown's gas detector was used to test the interior of the plant before any employees were allowed to re-enter. As the smoke cleared, a number of people requested entrance to the plant to assess damage and recover personal items. This problem was handled by giving the high readings from the detector and insisting that no one enter until dangerous gasses had dissipated. Toxic materials were everywhere in the fire area but fire personnel were diligent in taking care of both themselves and the people at the scene. The two firefighter injuries were a sprained ankle and a case of heat exhaustion.

"Between the heat and the toxic smoke inside the building we had a hard time," Stoddard later told reporters. "The outside temperature and heat of the fire were exhausting our personnel."

"A third of the building is fire damaged, and there's soot and smoke damage all over," Wallace said. "Damage is estimated at $3 million, with the really expensive equipment saved. The employees were lucky to get out with their lives with the fire moving as rapidly as it did."

As devastating as the loss was to Charlestown's newest growth industry, a commitment to rebuild emerged as the fire was being extinguished. Lives of the employees, finished goods and expensive equipment had all been saved.

Mutual Aid System

The Charlestown Fire Department participates in two mutual aid systems that supplied equipment and manpower to the fire scene. Connecticut Valley Mutual Aid, based in Springfield, VT, supplied help from the north and west, as it has for most of the last half of this century.

Photo by Medora Hebert/Courtesy of Valley News
Narrow access to the plant's east wall allowed only the mini-pumper's two attack lines and one 2 1/2-inch line from the south end of the building to be deployed at the seat of the fire.

Started as a Cheshire County dispatch system, the Southwestern New Hampshire Mutual Aid Dispatch System, located in Keene, NH, now serves nearly 100 towns in New Hampshire, Vermont and north central Massachusetts for fire, police, and ambulance emergencies. Charlestown has participated for more than 30 years and been a member for more than 20. (Being the 54th town to join the system, its units are identified as 54M1 to 54M6, 54A1 and 54A2, and officers as 54C1 to 54C8.)

On the initial call at 11:41 A.M. on Aug. 22, Charlestown's running card was pulled and all five alarm assignments were toned within a 42-minute span. Because of the heat of the day and the size of the fire load, special calls went to an additional 20 departments for manpower and equipment. Without this support, the fire could have destroyed the whole Precision Assembly Company plant.

In addition to the dispatching, Mutual Aid Chief John Marechal served as information officer at the scene for the IC. The media was provided with accurate and timely information in this manner.

Incident Command

The incident command system (ICS) was used smoothly at the scene. The Charlestown officers were trained at the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, MD, and have been using the ICS exclusively for the past six years. When he passed command to Wallace, Stoddard became operations officer in charge of the Charlestown captain and lieutenants who served as team leaders. Claremont Chief Tom Ford was ventilation coordinator for the north end of the fire after being a team leader on the initial attack. Newport Assistant Chief Bruce McDonald was safety officer, Springfield Deputy Chief Robert Pelletier was water supply officer in charge of the tanker shuttle and Charlestown Lieutenant Ed Blanc was staging officer for incoming mutual aid equipment, after being a team leader for the initial attack. Westminster Chief Rael Bazin was in charge of cascade operations, North Walpole Chief Richard Westney set up interior crew replacement teams as personnel arrived. Bellows Falls Chief William Weston was in charge of ventilation on the south end of the fire, and Robert Davis, Charlestown Ambulance director, took charge of rehab operations, including sending the two injured firefighters to the hospital for treatment.

Radio communications were by the Southwestern New Hampshire Mutual Aid System's dispatch frequency with fireground Channel 2 used on the scene. Connecticut Valley Mutual Aid provided dispatching services on their frequency, while Charlestown's base provided support and local coverage between all systems used for the fire. At least eight different frequencies were in use at one time or another during the incident including police, ambulance and fire frequencies. The Charlestown Fire Department base monitored all of them.

Water Supply

Water for the fire came initially from the first-arriving pumpers with two hydrants put into immediate use to supply three sides of the fire. A tanker shuttle was set up to supply water to the north side of the fire with the ability to dump four tankers at a time into the portable reservoirs.

Originally supplied by the town's water system, this shuttle could have been easily switched to a draft out of the Connecticut River, less than two miles away. This backup system proved to be unnecessary as the Charlestown Water Department turned all of its pumps on and the million-gallon storage tank was more than adequate. Approximately 155,000 gallons were used for the fire, with less than 1,000 gallons evident at the scene during mop-up operations. The rest went up as steam.

Community Resources

Community support came in many ways as firefighters were assisted at the scene by the police department supplying traffic control, after calling wreckers to move vehicles near the plant throughout the night and called the fire department back at 6 A.M. the following day to extinguish a spot fire in the rear of the plant. At 7 A.M., the plant was turned over to the plant owner and security personnel.

Photo by Charlestown Fire Department
A second line is put in service while firefighters wait for a third line to be charged. This photo, taken just before noon, shows the speed of the initial decay of the metal walls and wood-framed door porticos.

PAC, in Charlestown for a dozen years, has been diligent at meeting or exceeding fire codes. Thomas Norton of the state Fire Marshal's Office said, "The dipping area, where circuit boards are dipped in varnish and where the fire started, is a particularly dangerous area of the plant. For that reason, the company had in-stalled a fire suppression system which is supposed to flood the room with carbon dioxide if a fire breaks out. That system is the industry standard."

Wallace noted, "It's really surprising, because this was one of the buildings I considered most fire safe, because they (PAC management) follow all the rules and regulations."

Fire department members had toured the building only a month before and were familiar with the layout and location of the various divisions within the building. As one of the employees the day of the fire stated, "It's one of the safest places to work and it's one of the cleanest shops around."

Fire drills have been a monthly occurrence, so most employees leaving the building thought the alarm was just another drill.

In addition to careful building plans for avoiding such a loss, the building was fully alarm controlled, with fire extinguishers readily available for use by a number of present and former firefighters in the employee ranks. The varnish coating was to be replaced by a water-based sealant already tested and in use in the Chester, CT, facility. This change would have avoided the possibility of this fire happening.

At midday on Aug. 22, PAC's careful plans were severely tested. The resources of the Connecticut Valley emergency community also were tested.

Within two hours of the initial call, company President John Olson arrived from the Whelen home office in Chester to assess the situation. A former firefighter and presently equipment supervisor for the Deep River, CT, Fire Department, he was quoted on arrival, "We had a good idea what we were going to see when we got here," having been in contact by radio and cellular phone on the drive up.

"The fire department did a fantastic job," praised Olson. "I was a fireman for 40 years and this was one of the most beautiful stops I have seen in many years."

"What we are going to do is get this place back in business," said Olson as he toured the building. "The employees will be paid while we are under reconstruction and are expected to be at work Friday morning. They have to live."

Plant manager Charles Andrus was quoted, "It's my employees that are most important. That's the history of the company, to take care of them." By Friday afternoon, the inventory saved in the south shipping area was removed to storage in truck trailers to make room for a production area and the north end plastics extrusion equipment was already operating again.

It took more than a week for the local fire department member's lives to return to normal. In the aftermath, equipment was returned to service, news and media questions were answered, and video, print and photo collections gathered. A critique of the fire was done for local and mutual aid firefighters.

In appreciation of the efforts of all the emergency agencies in the Connecticut Valley area, plaques of recognition were presented to all local and mutual aid departments and dispatch centers during the 1996 holiday season. In addition, all personnel who responded to the fire were presented with Whelen Flatlighter visor light warning systems.

Dispatch Log: 22 August 1996
Precision Assembly Co. /div. Whelen Engineering Co.

All equipment dispatched out of Southwestern New Hampshire District Fire Mutual Aid in Keene, NH, unless noted by Connecticut Valley Mutual Aid System (CV) in Springfield, VT.

(C - chief; E - pumper; L - ladder; T - tanker; S - snorkel; R/C - rescue/cascade)

1140 hours Alarm from plant to Charlestown Police Department.
1141 First alarm; Charlestown, North Walpole E3
1142 Charlestown C2 responding (IC)
1144 C2 requests second alarm; Charlestown ambulance, Springfield (VT) E4, T1
1145 C2 requests third alarm; Claremont E4 and 1 (T), CV Weatherfield (VT) E2 (T)
1152 Claremont L2, S1
1203 Charlestown C1 on scene (IC passed)
1215 Fourth alarm per Charlestown C1 (IC), Walpole T-3, Bellows Falls (VT) E2, CV Ascutney (VT) E1 (T)
1221 Walpole E-1, North Walpole R1
1223 Fifth alarm (IC), Westminster (VT) E1, Rockingham (VT) E4
1226 Saxtons River (VT) E4, Newport E4, L1 (cover Claremont)

Special calls above fifth alarm:

1230 Walpole R/C cascade unit, Newport E4 (to scene)
1234 Springfield (VT) L1, Cornish E1 (cover Claremont)
1235 Springfield (VT) R/C cascade unit
1236 Meadowood Tower 1 and R/C 1 (cover Charlestown)
1237 CV Ludlow (VT) Tower 1 (cover Springfield)
1250 Alstead E1, Langdon E1
1253 Keene E3 (cover Charlestown), CV Reading (VT) E1 (cover Springfleld)
1256 Putney (VT) E2 (cover North Walpole)
1259 Unity E1, R1
1301 Westmorland T2 (cover Charlestown)
1303 Meadowood manpower
1305 CV Reading (VT) E1, Chester (VT) E3
1316 Lempster E2 (cover Unity)
1337 CV South Woodstock (VT) E1 (cover Reading)
1341 Putney (VT) E2, CV Windsor (VT) E1 (cover Springfield)
1343 Keene E3, CV Windsor (VT) E1 (cover Charlestown)
1346 Windsor (VT) E1
1347 CV West Windsor (VT) E1 (cover Springfield)
1348 Spofford E2 (cover North Walpole)
1356 Spofford E2, Brattleboro (VT) E1 (cover North Walpole)
1400 CV West Windsor (VT) E1 (cover Charlestown), Hartland (VT) E1 (cover Springfield), Springfield ambulance to Charlestown medical emergency
1404 New Hampshire state fire marshal called
1409 Londonderry (VT) E1 (cover Springfield) Windhall (VT) T1 (Cover Springfield)
1412 Newbrook (VT) E1 (cover North Walpole)
1418 Fire Marshal Responding
1445 Windsor ambulance (cover Springfield)
1449 IC fire under control
1457 Lefevre Ambulance (cover Charlestown)
1512 Lefevre Ambulance to fire scene for firefighter transport
1512 Springfield Ambulance to fire scene for rehab
1532 Windsor Ambulance to fire scene for firefighter transport, Claremont Golden Cross Ambulance (cover Charlestown)
1558 Departments begin returning to quarters
1716 Charlestown C1 (IC) releases all Mutual Aid units
2018 Charlestown units in quarters/in service

Totals At scene: 23 fire departments, four ambulance services; additional cover: 10 fire departments, one ambulance service.

Plant Quickly Back In Business

Almost a year later, the Precision Assembly Co. has come full circle. Though half of the plant was completely burned out, the plastics group of the plant, which sustained the least damage, was "relegated to immediate production," said John Olson, the company president. "The workers were never out of work."

During the rebuilding, the Precision Assembly Co.'s workers were paid throughout the entire phase of construction. And by Dec. 15, 1996, full production had resumed inside the rebuilt part of the plant.

Now the company, which was in full accordance with fire regulations before the fire, has taken things a step further. The varnish coating, a contributing factor in the cause and rapid spread of the fire, has been replaced by a water-based sealant. In addition, the building has been divided into 22 almost-fireproof cubicles; the dipping room, the place where the fire began, has been permanently moved to the south end of the plant where it is completely isolated and is equipped with 1,000 pounds of fire-suppressing foam.

Marisa E. Campbell

Charles L. Child is a math educator and 26-year member of the Old No. 4 Fire & Hose Company in Charlestown, NH.