On The Job – New Jersey: Children Playing With Matches Ignite Furniture Warehouse

June 1, 2003
Daniel F. Speigel reports on the defensive operations that controlled a fast-moving fire in a furniture warehouse.
Chief Conrad Johnson Jr.
Personnel: 18 career firefighters, 30 volunteer firefighters
Apparatus: One quint, three engines, one ladder, three BLS ambulances, one fire-rescue boat, one mini-pumper plus command/support vehicles.
Population: 6,000 (winter); 200,000 (summer)
Area: 1.2 square miles (on an island)

The City of Wildwood is located on the Eastern Shore of New Jersey, approximately 40 miles south of Atlantic City. Wildwood is a seashore resort with a winter population of 6,000 and a summer population that swells to over 200,000 residents and visitors and encompasses 1.2 square miles in the center of a five-mile-long island. Wildwood is bordered by Wildwood Crest to the south, North Wildwood to the north and West Wildwood to the west. The Atlantic Ocean borders on the east.

The Wildwood City Fire Department consists of a career division of 18 members who work a four-platoon, four-person shift and operate a 75-foot quint as the first-due engine and two basic life support (BLS) ambulances. Every career firefighter is certified as a Firefighter I, emergency medical technician and New Jersey Certified Fire Inspector. The career division handles all initial fire incidents and emergency medical calls within the city. The fire department also has two volunteer stations, with 30 volunteer firefighters who respond when required with three additional engine companies and a ladder company. The department responded to more than 3,100 incidents in 2002.

Passerby Reports Fire

On Dec. 1, 2002, at 5:01 P.M., the Wildwood City Fire Department received a report of a building fire at 110 West Garfield Ave. Weather conditions that day were winds at approximately 25-35 mph and a temperature of 28 degrees. The initial report was received from a passerby who walked into the Wildwood Police Department reporting "smoke from a building."

Initially, the dispatch center notified the "on-duty" crew of Engine Company 38. Fire headquarters is located about six blocks south of where the fire was being reported. As Engine 38 began responding, the officer in charge, Firefighter Walt Larcombe, noticed a large smoke plume that was visible in the area of the reported fire. Larcombe immediately asked dispatch to fill the box, which notified off-duty career firefighters along with the two volunteer fire stations, Stations 3-1 and 3-2.

Engine 38 secured a water supply with a five-inch large-diameter hoseline (LDH) at Garfield and New Jersey avenues, approximately 250 feet east of the fire building. As firefighters approached the building, the eastern side of the building was well involved in fire, with extension to delivery vehicles. The building involved in fire was a warehouse that housed furniture, bedding and rugs, measuring approximately 150 feet wide and 100 feet deep. The building was ordinary construction with block walls and a roof constructed of heavy timber wood trusses. Exposures consisted of delivery trucks to the east and a two-story wood-frame building to the west.

Defensive Operation

Captain Daniel F. Speigel of the career division arrived on scene and established a command post in front of the fire building. He immediately asked for additional alarms requesting the North Wildwood and West Wildwood fire departments. Firefighters were notified that this was going to be a defensive operation and that no one was to enter the building. Firefighters from Engine 38 then stretched a monitor connected to a 2 1/2-inch handline for exposure protection to the east and fire suppression. As additional companies arrived they were directed to assist the Engine 38 crew.

Engine 37 was directed to approach the fire scene on the A side, from the west, and establish a five-inch water supply protecting the exposure to the west of the fire building. Engine 31, Engine 36 and Truck 50, a 100-foot aerial ladder, were assigned to the C side of the building for exposure protection and fire suppression efforts in the rear of the building. During the incident, additional alarms were requested for the Rio Grande and Town Bank fire departments. An engine company was assigned to brand patrol because of the windy conditions and because large pieces of burning debris were being sent easterly.

Additional agencies on scene consisted of the Wildwood Crest Fire Department; Wildwood Police Department for traffic and crowd control; South Jersey Gas Company, due to major gas leak in the fire building during the incident; Connective Energy, which had to secure the power to a number of blocks in the area because power lines were involved in the fire; and the Cape May County Fire Marshal's Office and Prosecutor's Office.

During firefighting efforts, firefighters were faced with limited access due to two roll-up garage doors being secured. There was also only one entrance door on the east side, but that was in the area where the fire had control of the building. Firefighters using saws were able to overcome the access problem relatively quickly and gained access for fire suppression efforts.

The fire totally consumed the fire building with the exposure to the west being spared with no fire damage. In all, six fire departments with approximately 150 firefighters were on scene and assisted in controlling and extinguishing the fire. No injuries were reported. Fire units remained on the scene throughout the night controlling hot spots. Fire investigators determined that children playing with matches started the fire in an outside trash bin. Due to the construction and the occupancy of the building, the fire quickly took control of the building prior to the arrival of fire personnel.

Lessons Learned

  • It is essential to quickly establish a command post during multi-alarm, multi-agency responses. It proved to be a very organized incident with officers being assigned to positions such as operations and logistics.
  • Access to a fire building must be made quickly, especially in limited-access structures, to enable firefighters to get water onto the seat of the fire.
  • Firefighters must know the buildings in their response areas. This building was known by the incident commander to have a wood-truss roof and firefighters were notified very early that it was going to be a completely defensive operation. Note: The roof had a total failure and collapse about 15 minutes after the first-due engine arrived.
  • Brand patrol, used more frequently in years past, was recognized early in the incident and was assigned to an engine company. Fire officers must ensure that they assign that task when they are encountered with a large fire and windy conditions.
  • It is essential to establish a rapid intervention team and firefighter rehabilitation. Both were assigned and filled during this incident.
Daniel F. Speigel is a captain and 11-year veteran with the Wildwood City, NJ, Fire Department. He holds certifications as a Fire Officer II, New Jersey State Fire Service Instructor II, New Jersey State Fire Official and Hazardous Materials Level IV Specialist. Speigel also is a member of New Jersey Task Force 1, one of the first USAR teams to respond to the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York City.

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