Chief Recalls Lessons from Bricelyn Street 20 Years Later

June 24, 2016
Charlie Dickinson shares the story of a New York chief who based his decisions that were addressed in a report from three LODDs 20 years ago.

Tim Cowan and I have known each other for some time, so it was no surprise when he called me recently. However, the story he told was more than a surprise—it was a shock!

Tim is deputy chief in the Oneida, NY, Fire Department, but I met him through his volunteer work for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF). He serves as a family escort at the Memorial Weekend, an Advocate for the Everyone Goes Home program, and assists in other ways through the New York State Association of Fire Chiefs.

Tim lives in Durhamville, a small hamlet in the central part of the state, located along Interstate 90 between Syracuse and Utica. The 30-member Durhamville Fire Department provides fire protection and basic level emergency medical care to local residents, as well as the nearby township of Verona. Tim serves as a deputy fire coordinator in Madison County and as such is authorized to respond to any mutual aid call within the jurisdiction. 

On May 30, 2015, at approximately 9:30 p.m., the Durhamville Fire Department was alerted for a reported structure fire located at 5361 Main Street. The fire was a result of a lightning strike. The original construction of the building was a two-story wood, balloon-frame style single-family dwelling. It was located on a sloping property so that only the upper level was above grade at the front, but the lower level was at grade level at the rear. From the street it appeared to be a single-story residence, but at the rear it was evident that there were two occupied levels.

At some point a metal gambrel-style (barn-like) roof had been added to the structure. With this alteration it appeared to be a one-and-one-half story structure from the front, but from the rear three stories were evident.  There was plenty of room for confusion if crews entered the building from opposite sides, not knowing about the different levels above and below grade. Firefighters entering from the street through the front door would find themselves in the upper-level apartment, while those entering from the rear would be in the lower-level apartment.

The interior layout was also altered. The gambrel roof created an additional loft-style floor above the original upper level.  There is a question as to whether or not a portion of the old roof remained in place, creating a cockloft between the old and new roofs. This would play a role in the initial extinguishment of the fire on this level. With the renovation, the house was also subdivided into two apartments-one on the two upper levels with access from the front and the other on the lower level with access from the rear.

On the night of the fire, both apartments were occupied, but the residents had evacuated before the first units arrived. Upon arrival, Durhamville Fire Chief Eric Wilcox reported a working fire in a residential dwelling and requested mutual aid. Heavy fire was venting at the front of the structure towards the top of the barn-style roof. Completing his 360-degree size-up, Chief Wilcox realized that he had a 1 1/2-story building at street level and a 3-story building in the rear. Durhamville Engine 543, the initial crew, deployed a 1 3/4-inch attack line to the front door (Side 1) of the building. 

Tim explains: “Through mutual aid I responded from home as Madison County Deputy Fire Coordinator Car 7. Upon my arrival Chief Wilcox assigned me as the operations section chief. As I completed my own size-up, the first thing I noticed was the unique gambrel-style roof. Also, on the walk around, a red flag to me was the recognition that this building was 1 1/2 stories in the front (Side 1) and three stories in the rear (Side 3).  I immediately thought—this is the 1995 Bricelyn Street fire in Pittsburgh, where three firefighters died. 

“I ordered the initial crew (Engine 543) to advance their 1 3/4-inch line up the stairs to attack the fire on the upper level (Division 2). As the crew made the top of the stairs and started to darken down the fire, I observed that fire was now showing out of the top level at the rear of the structure (Side 3). I directed a second attack line to Division 2 to make a push on the fire. Once there, they stated that they could not get to the rear of the structure due to a wall obstruction. The fire was increasing on Side 3, so I ordered the crews out of the building and prepared for a transitional attack to be conducted.

“With the accountability check completed, attack lines were deployed to knock down the fire conditions from the exterior. Crews were then ordered back inside to the second floor to complete the extinguishment and conduct overhaul. The crews reported that the purlins had burnt off in the attic and there was nothing left holding up the roof. I immediately ordered crews back outside and an additional accountability check was completed. An exterior elevated stream (Verona Truck 1) was used to complete overhaul. The front apartment was a total loss, and the rear (lower level) apartment had sustained water damage only. 

“I think that my knowledge of the Bricelyn Street incident was a key factor in the positive outcome of this event. For more than a decade, the Bricelyn Street fire has been a case study in the New York State Firefighter Survival course curriculum. As a former instructor, I was very familiar with the incident. Teaching that case reinforced repeatedly for me the importance of the 360 size-up, crew accountability, establishing command, having a RIT team in place, and most importantly to not to take anything for granted—there is no such thing as a ‘routine fire.’

“My actions and orders to the crews that night were the result of knowing what happened at the scene of the Bricelyn Street fire two decades ago. I knew that the arrangement could be confusing to crews operating inside the building and kept close control over which crews were operating in which areas and on which levels and I made sure that they knew. My familiarity with the case study probably made the difference between life and death for my crews—rest in peace Tom, Patty and Marc.

Tim’s call reminded me, yet again, of the critical importance of sharing lessons learned from our most difficult experiences. The U.S. Fire Administration Fire Investigations Program provides a comprehensive review of what occurred at the Bricelyn Street Fire in their report "Three Firefighters Die in Pittsburgh House Fire." The investigation team led by J. Gordon Routley found that:

"This incident illustrates the need for effective incident management, communications, and personnel accountability systems, even at seemingly routine incidents. It also reinforces the need for regular maintenance and inspection of self-contained breathing apparatus, emphasizes the need for PASS devices to be used at every fire, and identifies the need for training to address firefighter survival in unanticipated emergency situations. This incident also reinforces a concern that has been identified in several firefighter fatality incidents that have occurred where there is exterior access to different levels from different sides of a structure. These structures are often difficult to “size-up” from the exterior and there is often confusion about the levels where interior companies are operating and where the fire is located. In these situations it is particularly important to determine how many levels are above and below each point of entry and to ensure that the fire is not burning below unsuspecting companies." 

These key findings put more “Tools in Tim’s Tool Box” so to speak, enhancing Tim’s ability to serve as operations section chief at the Durhamville fire, and to ensure a positive outcome for everyone involved. There is no denying that Pittsburgh Bureau of Fire Captain Thomas A. Brooks and Firefighters Patricia A. Conroy and Marc Kolenda died tragically during the Bricelyn Street fire. However, the fire in Durhamville proved that their deaths were not in vain; the lessons learned in 1995 are saving the lives of firefighters in 2015. 

After a line-of-duty death, chiefs and command officers often find it difficult to write about and/or share their experiences surrounding these events. I know that it can still be hard for me to objectively discuss the incident on Bricelyn Street. However, in connecting the dots between the two incidents, Tim reminded me that history does not have to repeat itself. As part of the “older generation,” it’s our cultural imperative to share what we know with those who follow us, and the fact that the command officers at this fire in Durhamville could be affected by my department’s experiences 20 years earlier certainly reinforced that for me. My most sincere thanks to both Tim Cowan and J. Gordon Routley for helping me with excellent input and advice! Be careful out there! 

CHARLIE DICKINSON served as the Deputy United States Fire Administrator from 2001–2008. He began his 37-year fire service career as a firefighter with the Hayward, CA, Fire Department in 1962 and was promoted to battalion chief before serving as the city’s emergency services coordinator. Dickinson was appointed assistant chief of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Fire in 1986 and two years later became the city's fire chief where he served until 1998. He has served on many committees for the IAFC and NFPA and continues to volunteer with the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.

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