On The Job - Rhode Island

Paul A. Wentworth and Rob Palmer report on a fire that gutted a five-story factory in Providence.

Providence Fire Department Chief James F. Rattigan Personnel: 539 career firefighters Apparatus: 14 engines, eight ladders, one special hazmat heavy rescue, five EMS rescues Population: 160,000 Area: 18 square miles An intense and rapidly moving fire destroyed a five-story factory in...

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Less than 30 minutes into the incident, 130 firefighters, including off-duty personnel recalled from another platoon, were battling the blaze. The city's front-line engines were on the scene, and all but one was flowing water to seven ladderpipes, four deck guns and 12 handlines. Their efforts were augmented by an engine from East Providence and a pumper from Smithfield, which brought five-inch hose to supply its 55-foot Squrt. Only one Providence ladder was not dispatched but it led a task force that responded to other calls in the city during the incident. Fire Alarm filled empty stations with eight engines and five ladders from neighboring North Providence, Pawtucket, Cranston, Warwick, Warren, Johnston, Smithfield and Bristol.

Photo by Daniel Rinaldi
A firefighter trains a hose on exposures as fire consumes the five-story factory.

Aware of the imminent collapse of exterior walls, all units placed themselves at corner positions or well away from danger. Wentworth reported a major wall collapse at 6:15. Much of the collapse was curtain-type or inward as the floors gave way, and no injuries were incurred.

Following the collapse of the roof and much of the center of the factory building, radiant heat diminished significantly and this allowed firefighters to move master streams closer for better penetration. Wentworth declared the fire contained at 7:17 P.M. and under control an hour later.

Besides the three houses on Gordon Avenue that were either destroyed or sustained serious damage, two suffered only heat damage to their roofs. Three houses on Baxter Street escaped with heat damage to vinyl siding. And farther away, on Croyland Road, another five homes incurred light damage. Seven automobiles were destroyed. A total of 102 residents were evacuated and provided with temporary shelter, and 36 of those were left homeless.

Scene Management

Several factors led to successful control of the fire. The incident command system used by the Providence Fire Department efficiently managed the scene. When Chief of Department James F. Rattigan assumed overall command of the incident at 6:10 P.M., Wentworth's command of the fire suppression operations continued uninterrupted. The latter's four sector commanders Dillon, Scolardi, and Captains John Thomas and Paul Thomas carried out his directives effectively. But, most importantly, it was Wentworth's strategy to immediately apply all of his experienced and aggressive resources to exposure protection that prevented greater loss of neighborhood residences.

Three days later, police charged two 14-year-old boys with setting the fire, citing physical and circumstantial evidence which corroborated their involvement.

Providence Fire Department
Tuesday, Oct. 22, 1996:
65-109 Gordon Ave.

1743 hours Still box 1454 opposite 84 Gordon Ave., smoke from building: Engines 10, 13, 11, Special Hazards, Ladder 5, Tower Ladder 1, Rescue 1, Division 1.
1747 Second alarm: Engines 3, 8, 9, 5 with Air Supply; Ladder 8; Battalion 2.
1750 Third alarm: Engines 7, 14; Tower Ladder 2; Rescue 2; Battalion 3.
1753 Fourth alarm: Engines 2, 12; Ladder 4.
1754 Fifth alarm: Engines 6, 15; Ladder 6.
1809 Sixth alarm: Engine 4; East Providence Engine 1; East Providence Ladder 3.
1832 Special signal: Ladder 3.
1848 Special signal: Smithfield Engine 1; Smithfield Squrt 2.

Paul A. Wentworth is a 30-year veteran and deputy assistant chief of the Providence, RI, Fire Department. He was the first incident commander at this fire. Rob Palmer is an assistant chief and training coordinator in the Pawcatuck, CT, Fire Department.