On the Job - New York: Arson Fire Destroys Downtown Shops in Watertown

June 1, 2004
Jay K. Bradish reviews operations and mutual aid responses to a $2 million fire.
On March 5, 2004, an arson fire destroyed two downtown businesses and threatened to spread to an entire block of buildings. The fire originated in a two-story, 150-by-109-foot commercial structure that was built in 1900 with a stone foundation, masonry walls, wood floors and a flat wooden roof.
Photo By Michael Fagans/The Watertown Daily Times Engines 1 and 4 position hoselines for defensive operations as heavy fire conditions are visible from the rear of the two commercial occupancies. The fire threatened to extend down the street.
Chief: Daniel J. Gaumont, CFO/EFOPersonneL: 82 career firefightersApparatus: Three pumpers, one aerial platform, one quint, one heavy rescue, two reserve pumpers, one reserve aerialPopulation: 26,705Area: 8.9 square miles

It was nearing 7:30 P.M., and the owner of the store two doors away was inside when a passerby entered and reported the fire, which was called in to 911. The fire building was subdivided into two stores, Max Outfitters at 162 Court St. and the former Eastside Skates at 160 Court St., which was vacant at the time of the fire. Max Outfitters, a clothing store, had been in business under a variety of names at that location for 74 years. Four other buildings were located within the block: Sun-Sational Window Coverings, 168 Court St., a one- and two-story brick building measuring 1,350 square feet; Severance Photo, 170 Court St., a three-story, ordinary-construction building containing 6,023 square feet; Dr. Guitar Music, a two-story brick building of 4,719 square feet; and Second Hand Book Store, a two-story building measuring 2,299 square feet.

The Watertown Fire Department was dispatched by the Jefferson County Dispatch Center at 7:27 P.M. to a possible structure fire with heavy smoke reported in the vicinity of Max Outfitters. Engine 1 and Engine 3, both 1,500-gpm pumpers, and Engine 2, a 1,250-gpm pumper, Truck 1, a 100-foot aerial ladder, and Rescue 1 responded with 15 firefighters under the command of Acting Battalion Chief David Harrienger.

Harrienger arrived on the scene at 7:29, performed a 360-degree size-up and established command on Court Street. Engine 1 also arrived on scene at 7:29 and reported nothing showing at the front of the building on Court Street and continued onto Marshal Place. Engine 1, investigating at the rear of the building, reported smoke showing from the eaves in the rear one-third of the building on the first floor. (There were no life-safety issues at the time of the fire, as the downtown merchants normally close at 7 P.M.)

Harrienger requested Engine 3 to lay a 300-foot five- inch supply line from a hydrant on Court Street to Engine 1, located on Marshal Place at the northwest corner of the row of buildings. Harrienger requested a second alarm at 7:33, which initiated the callback of an off-duty platoon of 19 firefighters and the notification of Fire Chief Daniel J. Gaumont.

The battalion chief, Engine 1 and Rescue 1 all positioned on Marshal Place. Firefighters from Engine 1 under the direction of Captain Donald Howell began to deploy 13¼4-inch attack lines from the pumper while the rescue company searched for a opening to ventilate the structure. The rescue company was unable to ventilate on the roof due to the proximity of power lines. Crews stretching the attack lines from Engine 1 forced two overhead garage doors at the rear of Max Outfitters and deployed lines through the garage to the east side rear of the fire building. The crew from Engine 3, upon completion of laying a five-inch supply line for Engine 1, assisted Engine 1’s crew in stretching attack lines. Truck 1 was positioned on Court Street in front of Eastside Skates.

While this evolution was transpiring at the rear of the building, Engine 2 was positioning at the front of the building and reported heavy smoke and heat in Max Outfitters. Harrienger then requested Engine 3 to lay a 300-foot five-inch supply line to Engine 2 from another hydrant on Court Street. After the crew from Truck 1 forced entry through the front glass door of Max Outfitters, the firefighters assisted Engine 2 in deploying two 13¼4-inch attack lines through the front of the business.

Photo By Michael Fagans/The Watertown Daily Times Firefighters from Engine 2 and Truck 1 made an inside attack, but when the fire conditions became untenable they withdrew and shifted to defensive operations.

Gaumont arrived on scene at 7:35 and assumed command of the incident. He requested a total department recall and mutual aid from the Fort Drum Fire Department (U.S. Army) and the Town of Watertown Volunteer Fire Department. Fort Drum Quint 9-8-1, a 100-foot aerial with a 1,500-gpm pump, responded to the scene with four firefighters under the command of Assistant Fire Chief Stephen C. Goodrich. Town of Watertown Engine 46-4-1, a 1,500-gpm pumper with four firefighters, and Quint 46-8-1, a 100-foot aerial platform with a 2,000-gpm pump and four firefighters and Fire Chief Brian Wilcox responded to Watertown Station 1 for coverage. Guilfoyle Ambulance Service Inc. responded to the scene with an advanced life support (ALS) ambulance, with a two-person crew and two supervisors. This unit was positioned in the parking lot across the street from Severance Photo and served as the rehab sector.

Gaumont requested a third alarm at 7:44. Responding on this alarm was Engine 32-4-1, a 1,500-gpm pumper from the Northpole Volunteer Fire Department, for standby at City of Watertown Station 3 and Engine 6-4-1, a 50-foot TeleSqurt with a 1,500-gpm pump, from the Black River Volunteer Fire Department for standby at City of Watertown Station 2. A special call was made for Rescue 46-6-1, a heavy rescue with an on-board cascade system from the Town of Watertown to respond to the scene for self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) refilling and was positioned in the parking lot across the street from Max Outfitters. Watertown reserve Engine 4, a 1,250-gpm pumper, and reserve Engine 5, a 1,000-gpm pumper were requested to respond to the scene as soon as enough recalled personnel were available to staff them.

Upon arrival, Fort Drum Quint 9-8-1 was positioned at the southeast corner of the fire building on Court Street in front of the alley separating the Second Hand Bookstore and Abbey Carpets. A 100-foot length of five-inch supply line was hand laid to a hydrant on Court Street on an eight-inch water main to supply the elevated stream. At 7:46, Truck 1 firefighters took out the storefront windows to provide ventilation for the fire attack.

At 8:03, Watertown Captain Donald Hogan of Engine 2 reported fire conditions on the inside of Max Outfitters were untenable and firefighters were withdrawing. At 8:04, Fort Drum firefighters performing ventilation operations on the roof over the involved stores reported to command that the roof was becoming spongy and that they were evacuating to adjacent roofs. Gaumont ordered all city firefighters out of the Max Outfitters building as operations were shifting from offensive to defensive. Firefighters then deployed 100 feet of 21¼2-inch hose from Engine 2 for an attack line from the front of the building and charged the pre-piped deluge gun on Engine 2. Firefighters then proceeded to force entry into Severance Photo and Dr. Guitar Music to begin setting up for a defensive operation.

Upon entering Severance Photo, firefighters found a light smoke condition on the third floor, but no fire spread. Likewise, in Dr. Guitar Music firefighters found a light smoke condition, but no fire spread. Recalled Watertown firefighters deployed three 300-foot 13¼4-inch lines and a 300-foot 21¼2-inch line from Engine 4 into Severance Photo for exposure protection. They also deployed two 300-foot 13¼4-inch lines and one 300-foot 21¼2-inch line from Engine 5 into Dr. Guitar Music.

Photo By Richard Brooks/The Watertown Daily Times Trench cuts and opening up ceilings near a fire wall prevented the fire from extending into the adjacent exposures.

The quick thinking of Probationary Firefighter Richard Little prevented fire spread into Dr. Guitar Music. Little remembered that there was a fire door on the second floor in the firewall between Eastside Skates and Dr. Guitar Music. He went to the second floor, closed the door and stood by with a charged handline to prevent extension. Two 21¼2-inch lines were laid from Engine 1 to the roof of Severence Photo for exposure protection. Additionally, firefighters trench cut the roof over Dr. Guitar Music and opened up all ceiling voids in that store adjacent to the firewall to ensure fire did not spread through any unseen voids.

At 8:07, Battalion Chief Ed Brown relieved Harrienger as the operations sector for the fire and Harrienger was designated the officer in charge of B sector. Battalion Chief Dale Herman was reassigned to C sector and Engine 3 Fire Captain Mike Corbett was assigned as D sector.

Gaumont requested a fourth alarm at 8:18 for additional manpower at the scene. The Brownville Volunteer Fire Department responded with Rescue 7-6 1, a light rescue with five firefighters under the command of Chief Steve Mott. These firefighters stood by at the command post and acted as the rapid intervention team.

At 8:20, Watertown fire dispatch received an automatic fire alarm from the Premier Apartments located at 234 Coffeen St., two blocks southwest of the fire scene. Mutual aid companies that were on standby in the city were dispatched under the command of Watertown Battalion Chief Tom Forbes. Town of Watertown Quint 46-8-1, Engine 46-4-1, Black River Engine 6-4-1 and Northpole Engine 32-4-1 responded with 22 firefighters. This was the second activation of the night at that location and was determined to be a false alarm. Earlier, Watertown firefighters had responded to another false alarm at 7:07 to the same location, returning to their stations at 7:20.

Gaumont ordered firefighters off the adjacent roofs due to the impending collapse of the Max Outfitters roof at 8:20. At 8:26, Gaumont requested Town of Watertown Quint 46-8-1 to respond to the scene. Quint 46-8-1 laid 200 feet of five-inch supply line from a hydrant on Marshal Place to the rear of the building at the northwest corner. This crew then placed its aerial master stream into operation. Town of Watertown Engine 46-4-1 was also requested to the scene. This engine laid 200 feet of five-inch supply line from a hydrant on Arsenal Street to Court Street. Two 100-foot three-inch supply lines were hand laid from this pumper to City of Watertown Truck 1 located in front of the building on Court Street. The aerial master stream was then placed into operation.

The Adams Volunteer Fire Department was requested to respond to City Station 1 for coverage with Aerial 1-8-1, an 85-foot elevating platform. The Adams Center Volunteer Fire Department was requested to send Engine 2-4-1, a 1,500-gpm pumper, to City Station 1 for coverage. The Jefferson County Fire and Emergency Management Services was notified of the incident per third-alarm protocol and dispatched representatives to the scene. Director Richard Madill (County Car 1), Deputy Director Greg Brunelle (County Car 3) and Deputy Fire Coordinator Homer Perkins (County Car 400) assisted the incident commander with accountability, logistics and incident documentation. Brunelle requested that the Pulaski Volunteer Fire Department from Oswego County send its 95-foot tower platform quint to the Adams fire station for coverage of southern Jefferson County.

At 8:43, the roof over Max Outfitters began to collapse and command re-broadcast the message for all personnel to remain outside of the collapse zone. Once the collapse had occurred and the firewalls remained stable and intact, crews were again deployed to the roof over Dr. Guitar Music to complete the trench cut.

Photo By Richard Brooks/The Watertown Daily Times Numerous master streams were set up as part of the defensive attack.

Black River was requested to respond to the scene at 9:14 from standby for salvage operations in the Severance Photo store. The Calcium Volunteer Fire Department was requested to send Engine 8-4-1, a 1,500-gpm pumper, to Station 2 for standby.

A second structure fire in the city was reported at 11:10. Mutual aid standby companies from Adams, Adams Center, Calcium and Northpole responded to the alarm at a private home. It was determined that the cause of the smoke in the structure was from a defective hot water tank. These units returned to their standby locations at 11:46.

The fire was declared under control at 1:18 A.M. on March 6. The last mutual aid companies left the scene at 3:21 A.M. Watertown units cleared the scene at 12:30 P.M. that day.

One hundred twenty-nine firefighters used seven engines, three aerials, three deluge monitors and numerous handlines to extinguish the fire. Some 1,400 feet of five-inch supply line, 200 feet of three-inch hose, 1,750 feet of 21¼2-inch line and 1,200 feet of 13¼4-inch hose were used. About 1.6 million gallons of water was used from the municipal water system. Damage was estimated at $2 million. There were no fire detection or protection systems in the fire building. No evacuations were necessary during the fire, but incident commanders planned what would be done if the fire continued to spread within the block, as a six-story residential structure was located 250 feet to the southeast. Three firefighters suffered minor injuries fighting the fire.

“I can’t say enough about those firefighters,” Gaumont said. “That initial crew took a beating.”

An investigation was immediately started by the Watertown Fire Department Cause and Origin Team, Watertown Police Department, New York State Office of Fire Prevention and Control, Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department and Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office. After an 11-day investigation, a clerk at Max Outfitters was arrested and charged with third degree arson and first-degree reckless endangerment.

Lessons learned included:

Photo By Larry Girard County Car 400 monitors operations while Brownville firefighters establish a rapid intervention team. The two main fire stores are visible behind the aerial ladder. After an 11-day investigation, an arrest was made for arson. The initial response of 16 firefighters was insufficient to control the volume of fire they found upon arrival. Initial crews made a gallant stand to hold the fire until recalled and mutual aid firefighters arrived. The recall of the Watertown firefighters is currently done by telephone, which is a slow process. The department has received a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) FIRE Act grant to purchase pagers in order to speed up the recall process. The city is deficient in the number of portable radios and the number of channels available for use. The FEMA grant is also being used to buy additional portable radios. Currently, the department’s dispatch and operations radio traffic are on the same channel. The department has applied for additional repeater channels, but it has experienced difficulty in obtaining additional frequencies due to interference problems with Canada. The city accountability program needs to be modified to ensure that recalled firefighters are accounted for at an incident. At the time of the fire, the City of Watertown was operating with only one aerial device, its reserve unit. The front-line aerial, a 95-foot platform, was out of service due to a motor vehicle accident. The department has taken delivery of a new, 100-foot, 2,000-gpm quint. The integration of mutual aid firefighters into the on scene operation was outstanding. Both career and volunteer firefighters worked side by side to control the fire. Fire inspections pay off. Little’s inspection of the Dr. Guitar Music building ultimately prevented the fire from spreading to the next building. Little remembered the fire door, advised his company officer, and the crew went inside and closed the fire door. The ability of the incident commanders to develop a plan of action, obtain the necessary resources and stick to the plan prevented the fire from becoming a major conflagration. Jay K. Bradish/IFPA, Firehouse® news editor, is a former captain in the Bradford Township, PA, Fire Department. He has been a volunteer firefighter and fire photographer for more than 25 years.

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