By David DeStefano
Photos by Lt. Frank Vescera, Squad 1
At 1019 hours on February 9, 2010, the North Providence (RI) Fire Department received a call reporting a fire involving a communications platform at the site of a former mill complex that had been converted to mixed-use office and residential occupancies.
On arrival, companies were confronted with an old smokestack on the mill property that had been converted for use as a platform for cellular telephone antennae. The smoke stack was detached from the remaining structures but stood only a few feet from an occupied portion of the building. Workers welding brackets near the top of the stack had sparked a fire involving the insulation covering the many cables running up the approximately 80-foot-tall stack.
The full-alarm assignment of three engine companies, one ladder, one squad company, and a battalion chief began operations as a second alarm was struck for staging. Ladder 1, a 110-foot rear-mount aerial, began ladder pipe operations to suppress the fire while a handline was stretched to contain any drop-down fire that might expose the main structure.
With the need to confirm extinguishment and perform overhaul in the involved area, a tower ladder from neighboring Providence was special called so that inspection and overhaul activities could be conducted from the aerial platform. The incident was concluded in approximately two hours with no damage beyond the communications cables.
This incident was the first of its kind involving this type of installation for the North Providence Fire Department. Several lessons were reinforced as a result. Fortunately, members were met by workers, who explained their activities and could ensure that it was safe to apply water to the installation. Because the surrounding property was an exposure problem and fire involvement of the mill building would require a major commitment of resources, we staged second-alarm companies proactively. In addition, the need for an aerial platform to safely and efficiently perform overhaul was recognized, and the appropriate apparatus was special called from a neighboring city.
Cellular communication platforms are common sights in almost every community. Nontraditional installations on existing water towers, old smoke stacks, and the like are becoming more popular with the need for expanded coverage in many areas. Fire departments will undoubtedly see more incidents involving these installations and must be prepared to mitigate them safely.
David DeStefano is a 20-year veteran of the North Providence (RI) Fire Department, where he. serves as a lieutenant in Ladder Co. 1. He previously served as a lieutenant in Engine 3 and was as a firefighter in Ladder 1. He teaches a variety of topics for the Rhode Island Fire Academy. He can be reached at email@example.com.