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...
To access the remainder of this piece of premium content, you must be registered with Firehouse. Already have an account? Login
Register in seconds by connecting with your preferred Social Network.
Complete the registration form.
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.
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.