On The Job - New Jersey

Chief Stephen Gagliardi
Personnel: 50 volunteer firefighters
Apparatus: Two engines, one ladder, one utility vehicle
Population: 8,500
Area: Two square miles

A vacant lumber store was the scene of a suspicious four-alarm inferno in Stratford, NJ, that caused an estimated $1 million in damage. The building was termed a total loss.

Photo courtesy of the Stratford Fire Department
At the height of the fire, 75 firefighters utilized 19 engines, a ladder, two tower ladders, a squirt and three rescue units.

At 2 A.M. on April 29, 1995, the Camden County Communications Center in Lindenwold began receiving numerous calls of a reported fire at a vacant Grossmans lumber store on the White Horse Pike in Stratford. The Stratford Fire Department was dispatched to the fire immediately; within a half-hour, Stratford firefighters, faced with a raging inferno, had sounded four alarms before mutual aid from seven volunteer departments and two rescue squads responded to the scene.

The 50,000-square-foot, masonry and wood building was erected in the 1950s as a supermarket. It later was used for lumber and hardware sales but had been vacant for five years. No previous fires had been reported during that time.

The Stratford fire alarm assignment responded under the command of Chief Stephen Gagliardi and was comprised of two engines, one ladder, one utility vehicle and one squad. Prior to his arrival at the scene, Gagliardi was advised that police were reporting that the front of the building was heavily involved. Upon arrival, heavy fire was visible from the front. Conditions deteriorated rapidly and Gagliardi requested a second alarm at 2:06 A.M., dispatching five additional engines, one tower ladder and one rescue. The chief implemented the incident command system with the command post established in front of the building.

The fire moved rapidly from front to back, fanned by the wind being generated from the fire itself. After the second alarm, flames could be seen breaking through the roof in several places. The New Jersey Water Co. was notified to increase water pressure in the area, since the surrounding hydrants had only six-inch mains. As the fire continued to spread and the walls of the structure began to weaken, Gagliardi established a collapse zone several pieces of apparatus had to be relocated away from the building and no fire personnel were permitted to enter the area. The fire at this point was to be extinguished using master stream operations.

The third alarm was sounded about eight minutes later, bringing five engines, one tower ladder, one squirt and one rescue to the scene. The third-alarm companies were assigned to provide relief and help in the placement of the master streams. The fourth alarm was sounded at 2:26 A.M. for ember patrol east of the fire building which resulted in the discovery of four brush fires. EMS personnel from the Stratford Ambulance Association established a rehabilitation area to relieve exhausted firefighters. One firefighter sustained first- and second-degree burns on his legs. The most worrisome condition confronting Gagliardi was water supply for firefighting. Chief Brian Cunningham of Hi-Nella Fire Department was appointed water liaison officer and reported water supply conditions to Gagliardi. By 3:27 A.M., a total knockdown had been achieved. At the height of the fire, 19 engines, one ladder, two tower ladders, one elevated squirt, three rescues and seven chief officers were on the scene utilizing more than 75 firefighters from Battalion 22. The mutual aid response included the Clementon, Gibbsboro, Hi-Nella, Laurel Springs, Lindenwold, Somerdale and Voorhees volunteer fire departments as well as the Lindenwold and Stratford ambulance squads.

Photo courtesy of the Stratford Fire Department
Several pieces of apparatus were relocated away from the building when a collapse zone was established due to weakening walls.

Photo courtesy of the Stratford Fire Department
Mutual aid from seven fire departments and two rescue squads was called for the blaze.

Following an investigation, the Camden County Fire Marshal's Office said the blaze probably was deliberately set. Published reports quoted Gagliardi as saying the fire was considered to be suspicious because the building was vacant and the blaze started in the front, away from any live electrical wiring.

A week after the fire, the Stratford Fire Department conducted a critique and it was established that the suppression tactics used on the fire ground were sound and that safety was emphasized throughout the operation. A lesson on the collapse zone operations was developed by Gagliardi and presented at the critique. The use of the incident command system was evaluated and provided lessons to be incorporated into the firefighters' standard operating procedures.

John Gentless is a 20-year veteran of the Stratford, NJ, Fire Department.