On The Job - St. Louis

St. Louis Fire Department
Chief Neil J. Svetanics
Personnel: 680 career firefighters
Apparatus: 34 quints, two heavy-duty rescue squads
Population: 400,000
Area: 62.4 square miles

As cool fall temperatures settled in over the Midwest, things were heating up in the City of St. Louis. And St. Louis firefighters were kept busy trying to cool things off. By the time the smoke had cleared, a series of multiple-alarm fires damaged or destroyed a church, a school, two warehouses and an office building. This unusually high activity was interspersed with numerous "all hands working" first-alarm fires.

Photo by David J. Dubowski
Fire burns on both sides of the street during one of six multiple-alarm fires to strike St. Louis in October 1995.

Photo by David J. Dubowski
Firefighters operate three elevated streams as they mount a defensive attack during a fire in a two-story brick dwelling.

The St. Louis Fire Department averages two multiple-alarm fires per month. Normally, these are second-alarm fires, once in awhile a third. The department attends to a half dozen fourth- and fifth-alarm fires per year, which made the activity for October 1995 especially hot: three third-alarm fires, two fourth-alarms and one general alarm.

The activity started on Oct. 4 at 6:35 P.M. with Engine Company 8-A asking for the first of three alarms on a vacant two-story mercantile structure of ordinary construction. The fire, which was on the city's north side, was classified as incendiary.

Photo by William Greenblatt
Seven elevated streams operate on a general-alarm warehouse fire on Oct. 31, 1995.

St. Henry's Catholic Church lit off on Oct. 10 at 1:44 A.M. Engine Company 7-A reported a working fire with heavy involvement in the steeple. Firefighters battled flames, heavy smoke and fire brands as they tried to contain the fire. Four alarms were pulled on the vacant church, with much of the structure actually being saved. This fire was investigated as suspicious fire because it had sustained damage from a one-alarm fire during the previous summer.

Then the old Edward Bates School, located at Prairie Avenue and North Market Street, was intentionally set on fire on Oct. 23 at 12:56 P.M. Hook and Ladder Company 2-B, returning to quarters after working a one-alarm fire just west of the school location, reported the fire and asked for the first alarm.

Firefighters quickly attacked a fast-moving blaze found on the first floor. The vacant four-story school building was fully charged with smoke, necessitating extra alarms. Area fire companies had pre-planned this building and, utilizing an aggressive interior attack, confined the fire and held it to three alarms.

On Oct. 25 at 1:55 P.M., Fire Investigation Supervisor Captain Ron Gronemeyer reported smoke coming from a vacant warehouse. He requested a first-alarm assignment as the fire started to take off. The warehouse, located at 21st and Cole Street just north of downtown, contained tires and railroad ties. The quick-spreading fire sent smoke billowing over the north-side neighborhood. Radiant heat threatened nearby buildings and ignited tires that had been illegally dumped on a lot across the street. Three alarms were sounded in order to protect exposures, confine the fire and chase blowing fire brands. The spectacular fire had full control of the two-story building, which collapsed within 20 minutes of the initial alarm. Companies remained on site late into the night as a wrecking contractor demolished what was left of the building and uncovered hot spots.

"Hot October" continued with a four-alarm fire breaking out at the Anheuser-Busch Inc. brewery on Oct. 28 at 8:58 P.M. The fire occurred in a three-story structure made of brick. This older building, resembling a large house, was classified as an office building.

The fire apparently started in the attic and took control of the roof. Heavy fire issued from the roof and rear of the building. Interior operations were hampered by heavy smoke and fire conditions. Crews were quickly brought outside the building and pre-positioned quint aerials opened up on the fire. This defensive operation brought the fire under control and interior handlines were once again deployed to mop up the fire.

The month's activities were rounded out on Oct. 31 with a general-alarm fire (five alarms plus extra equipment) in a north-side warehouse containing numerous 55-gallon drums of unknown chemicals. The warehouse, located at Angelica and Broadway streets, threatened another nearby warehouse containing anhydrous ammonia fertilizer. The unknown chemicals and fertilizer were a major concern to firefighters battling the blaze. Extra companies were special called to the scene by chief officers working the fire.

As heavy fire streams protected the threatened warehouse, the fertilizer was removed to an area of safety. Other large-caliber streams concentrated on the fire. The fire in the one-story brick warehouse caused extensive damage before being brought under control several hours later. At the height of the fire, county fire companies were used at the scene and to cover empty city house. Fire investigators believed the fire was started in a stolen automobile that had been abandoned in the building.

With the general-alarm fire on Angelica Street controlled, one of the busiest months in St. Louis Fire Department history came to an end. The six multiple-alarm fires were successfully fought with no deaths or injuries to firefighters or civilians. Though the buildings received heavy fire damage, four remained standing and were able to be repaired.

St. Louis Action

Photo by David J. Dubowski
March 6, 1996 Aerial and handheld hoselines are played on flames that roared through a two-story commercial structure. The suspicious fire expanded to five alarms, requiring the response of 125 firefighters, 16 engines, four trucks and two squads.

Photo by David J. Dubowski
Firefighters faced a sub-zero wind-chill to control the fire and protect an eight-story warehouse exposure across an alley.

Photo by David J. Dubowski
Feb. 11, 1996 A firefighter positions a deck gun at fire that damaged a 1 1/2-story house in East St. Louis, IL. It was the first of two house fires that day.

Photo by David J. Dubowski
St. Louis City and St. Louis County companies work together to attack a five-alarm church fire.

Frank C. Schaper, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is deputy chief of the St. Louis Fire Department and a managing member of St. Louis Quint Concepts, L.L.C.