14-Alarm Warehouse Fire Strikes Urban Neighborhood

BY Danny Dtratton, Gabriel Angemi, and Ed Glassman

On June 9, 2011, the Camden City (NJ) Fire Department (CFD) experienced a fire that taxed the resources of the city and three surrounding counties. It faced various challenges in bringing the fire to a halt after it spread to 21 other structures in a congested urban neighborhood. The fire affected structures on four blocks, destroying 10 homes and leaving more than 20 homeless.

Camden is among the poorest and most dangerous of all American cities and has a large amount of firefighting activity. Earlier in the year, the department had downsized and reorganized its suppression capabilities, presenting challenges not only for this incident but also for other fires throughout the city.

THE FIRE BUILDING

Like many other old Camden factories, the fire building encompassed a large city block. It was connected by an overhead walkway across Orchard Street to a large warehouse. Situated south of Mount Vernon Street, east of Mount Ephraim Avenue, the massive structure has been vacant for more than 12 years (Figure 1). The overhead walkway connected the original fire building to a vacant warehouse at the northeast corner of Chestnut and Orchard Streets. The block on which this warehouse sat is bordered by Ross Street to the north and Louis Street to the east and is where the majority of the private dwelling exposure problems existed.

Figure 1. Industrial Fire Neighborhood
 
The fire originated in the warehouse
The fire originated in the warehouse (A) on the west side of Orchard Street; spread via the overhead walkway (B) to a second warehouse (C); and eventually set fire to row houses on Mount Vernon, Chestnut, and Louis streets (D).

The main fire building was a hodgepodge of heavy timber or mill construction as well as ordinary, bowstring truss roof, flat roof, and peaked-roof construction.

Many areas of the buildings that made up the plant had already collapsed before the fire. The main building, built in 1897, measured roughly 329 × 250 feet, encompassed nine brick structures, and occupied about two acres. The last tenant posted a statement that it had left the building in 1999 and had emptied all of its operational contents from the building.

The fire originated somewhere in the main building west of Orchard Street, spreading freely and quickly since the entire building was wide open. As with other old manufacturing sites, it had numerous problems: oil-soaked floors, wide-open areas, unprotected roofs and rafters, open and unprotected elevator hoistways, unprotected steel structural members, unprotected floor openings for equipment or material movement, open compartment doors, dilapidated and rotting structural members, and more.

On top of all that, there was a squatter presence as well as vandalism, creating more void spaces for horizontal and vertical firespread in addition to those resulting from lack of maintenance and weather exposure.

Workers at a nearby business had complained to the CFD that water had been running continuously inside the structure for several years. The city had been notified, and a utility company had been dispatched several times over the past few years to turn off the water, but to no avail. Apparently, the street shutoff valve had been paved over so many times that its location was unknown. A property owner from a business across the street from the fire building told firefighters when the CFD preplanned the structure back in September 2010 water had been flowing for years at a rate of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of gallons a month. The city’s utility department, however, had stopped the flow of water a year before the incident.

In the preplan, interior building conditions noted included missing lengths of water and gas pipe, heavy mold and water damage, unsupported and sagging roof trusses, wall spreaders at every level, forklift damage to interior walls, several egress points for vagrants, drop ceilings missing and destroyed, stagnant water puddles, a serious collapse condition, trash and human waste, dry wooden structural members with little or no moisture content, and so forth-for example, a collapsing second floor joist was held up only by what remained of the nonfunctioning sprinkler system.

The condition of the adjacent warehouse building connected by the overhead walkway was unknown but, most likely, similar. Indeed, the walkway looked far too precarious to navigate across to the other side during fire department preplanning. From the exterior, the poor condition of the mortar coupled with the years of neglect left both structures susceptible to major collapse. Many wall spreaders could be seen at varying heights all across both structures.

The warehouse was sealed up well. The original, larger warehouse, across the street from its counterpart, was also buttoned up, except for a few areas that had been repeatedly resealed by city crews to keep out aggressive scrapping operators and homeless people seeking shelter. In December 2010, a fire department squad had been dispatched to breach a hole in the wall of the smaller building on the northeast corner of Orchard and Chestnut streets at the sidewalk level to allow accumulated water from a burst sprinkler riser to drain. This was the last time any city firefighters had been inside the building. Once this structure was compromised by fire traversing the second-floor overhead walkway connecting it to the original fire building, the nearby occupied residential exposures were, unfortunately, doomed.

INCIDENT SCOPE

Ironically, prior to dispatch, several units, including a squad whose response area included the warehouse neighborhood, were on the street conducting hydrant inspections in their jurisdictions. A month before, the chief of department ordered all companies to conduct hydrant inspection every day at 1500 hours if the temperature rose above 85°F. The chief was concerned with ensuring that the department had adequate fire flow capability on extreme-heat days. Residents might use hydrants to cool off, and vandals might steal the hydrant parts for scrap metal. Obtaining a water supply from vandalized hydrants was a major issue at this incident.

At 3:55 p.m., when the outdoor temperature was 100°F, a phone alarm was received for a building fire at Orchard and Chestnut streets. The initial dispatch included two engines, two ladder companies, and one heavy rescue company, all supervised by Battalion 1. Battalion 1 arrived quickly and located a one-block by one-block, two-story commercial occupancy of heavy timber construction, with heavy fire conditions in one corner, on the Chestnut Street side.

The chief conducted a rapid size-up, developed an incident action plan (IAP), and directed the responding engine companies to establish water supplies. The ladder companies were directed to use aerial devices and set up in flanking positions outside of collapse zones because of the intense fire conditions (photos 1, 2).

 
(1) The fire seen from Mount Vernon Street looking east, before companies had set up
(1) The fire seen from Mount Vernon Street looking east, before companies had set up. (Photo by Joel D. Bain.)
(2) The early stages of the fire as seen from Chestnut Street.
(2) The early stages of the fire as seen from Chestnut Street. (Photo by Ted Aurig.)

The initial IAP included attacking the large body of fire with master streams in an attempt to slow the progress of fire. There was serious concern because if companies couldn’t cut fire extension with master streams in a timely fashion, it could result in a firestorm.

During a risk assessment, the battalion chief determined the hazards were far greater if an interior attack were attempted because of heavy fire infiltrating structural members and immediately established collapse zones and requested second and third alarms. Also during the risk assessment, the battalion chief received a report from Rescue 1 command that an aerial walkway on the fire structure’s Orchard Street side connected it to another large commercial warehouse. This walkway was well involved, and the fire spread to the next city block (photo 3).

 
(3) The walkway, seen here from Chestnut Street, later in the fire. (Photo by Joel D. Bain.)
(3) The walkway, seen here from Chestnut Street, later in the fire. (Photo by Joel D. Bain.)

First-alarm companies confronted a unique situation in trying to establish water supplies from area fire hydrants. Local scrappers had been stealing brass fittings from hydrants to sell the pieces for profit, leaving the hydrants out of service. With the request of additional alarms, two deputy chiefs arrived and established additional divisions around the structure. The chief of department arrived and met with the battalion chief, completed a situation status report, and assumed command.

The request for additional alarms created another unpre-cedented situation for the department. The severe reductions in CFD staffing and apparatus necessitated requesting resources from other jurisdictions with longer response times, which contributed to a delay in stopping the fire’s forward progress. The fire grew in intensity and spread rapidly while engine companies tried to locate water supplies and mutual-aid companies responded from greater distances as additional alarms were sounded.

The deputy chief on the original fire building’s C side (Orchard Street) thought a stop could be made. However, the mutual-aid response to additional alarms required longer response times, and this allowed the fire to intensify and jump Orchard Street, into four dwellings and a commercial warehouse (photo 4).

 
(4) Burning dwellings facing on Mount Vernon Street show how fast large fires will spread to exposures before companies can set up. (Photo by Ted Aurig.)
(4) Burning dwellings facing on Mount Vernon Street show how fast large fires will spread to exposures before companies can set up. (Photo by Ted Aurig.)

The fourth and fifth alarms were transmitted and staging was established. Because of response times and rapid fire extension, it was very difficult to establish a permanent staging area. As units arrived, they were put to work.

The fire eventually spread to more than 30 properties and displaced many residents. The fire jumped several streets during the incident. The high-speed commuter railroad running by the western side of the site had to be shut down during the height of the incident because of radiant heat and smoke near the tracks, stranding commuters just before the evening rush hour.

It wasn’t until a ninth alarm was transmitted and the requested strike teams and the department’s large-diameter hose (LDH) task force were in place that staging was established and the department was beginning to gain control of this incident. To augment suppression efforts, the LDH task force drafted from the Cooper River and laid a five-inch supply line more than one mile to bring additional water supply to the fire scene. The size of the fire would have been too much for the hydrant system to handle, even if it had been fully operational.

As the incident evolved, personnel rehabilitation efforts became critical as a result of the extreme temperatures. Because of the size of the incident, several canteens were requested to set up and keep all personnel hydrated. The Camden Police Department assisted with 15-passenger vans to remove displaced occupants to a local community center, which was the central location for reporting fire updates to those residents.

By the time the fire was placed under control, what was believed to be a 12-alarm fire was actually a 14-alarm fire. A fire at the corner of Diamond and Mount Vernon streets when first discovered went to two alarms to bring extinguishment to the row of homes. It turned out on a later discovery that this was ignited by the warehouse fire storm. Here, the fire spread was so strong it ignited this row of homes believed at the time to be far enough away, approximately more than one block away and two streets from the warehouse (photos 5).

 
(5) Believed at the time of discovery to be a separate two-alarm fire, this fire involving a row of houses on Louis Street was later determined to be part of the original fire. Departments from outside Camden operated here. (Photo by Matt Wentzell.)
(5) Believed at the time of discovery to be a separate two-alarm fire, this fire involving a row of houses on Louis Street was later determined to be part of the original fire. Departments from outside Camden operated here. (Photo by Matt Wentzell.)

POSSIBLE HAZMAT FOUND

It took almost 24 hours, or three operational periods, to ensure total fire extinguishment and the removal of a potential hazardous material in one section of the original fire building. An engine and a ladder company that were hitting hot spots discovered a blue fluid on the site. The rescue company was sent back to the scene and brought its hazmat tractor trailer. Additionally, the Camden County Health Department was summoned and assisted the rescue company hazmat technicians in removing what was believed to be some type of solvent. The material seemed to have been in two plastic 55-gallon drums that the heat had melted down to about eight inches high; one container still held fluid. Since the building had once been a tire warehouse, it was believed that the blue fluid may have been the protective spray applied to tire white walls during storage.

LESSONS LEARNED AND REINFORCED

Incident command system. At this fire, as additional alarms were struck, the incident command system (ICS) was expanded to include branches directed by an operations chief. On the Mount Vernon Street side, more than a dozen companies were operating. This enabled the deputy chief to change his designation to the Mount Vernon Branch, thus maintaining the recommended span of control to no more than five resources per supervisor. This streamlined communications and afforded more control over companies in this geographical area.

Damaged hydrants. Despite the department’s proactive hydrant inspection system, several new disabled hydrants were discovered. Also, the mutual-aid companies were unaware of the problem. The command post should have had a master list of out-of-service hydrants.

Develop an effective relationship with local water departments to ensure all hydrants are in good working order. In Camden, hydrant operation has been a long-term problem, with aging and decaying mains and vandalism. A department should liaison with the local water provider to keep abreast of hydrant issues.

The chief of the department was proactive with the hydrant issues in the city. After a meeting with water department officials before the fire, he ordered companies to hit the streets to check for damaged or unusable hydrants and illegal hydrant use on hot days.

Collapse zones. The first-arriving chief established safety zones in positioning aerial streams at the corners of the fire structure to keep them outside of the estimated wall collapse zone. Positioning at building corners keeps personnel and equipment clear from a potential collapse. Estimate the collapse zone by calculating the wall’s horizontal and vertical dimensions; also be sure to take into account the further dispersal of the falling material.

Overhead walkways at vacant structures. Since this fire, the fire marshal’s office has begun a program to remove all overhead walkways at vacant buildings since they serve as an avenue for fire extension. Several vacant warehouses in Camden also had these enclosed bridges in place.

Extremely hot weather demands rehab setup. The outdoor temperature at this incident was more than 100°F, and three firefighters were hospitalized for heat-related stress. Although the department followed its own rehabilitation directives, individual members are still personally responsible for their own rehab. Prior to and even when off shift, drink plenty of water and prepare your body for working in excessive heat.

Monitor stream effectiveness in extinguishment. Particularly when using master streams to combat a large fire, assess whether or not water application is making a difference. At some divisions, streams were not changing conditions. At infernos such as this that place a high water flow demand on an already taxed hydrant system, officers should evaluate and prioritize water application. A large structure fire can put out an enormous amount of heat that can exceed the fire department’s water flow capacity. Streams may be more beneficial if deployed elsewhere-e.g., to protect critical exposures or to knock down fire where they can overcome the heat given off by the structure.

Protecting exterior exposures. In dealing with larger older structures that can contain large timbers and heavy fireloads from the stock within, don’t forget about immediate exterior exposure issues. Fires at these buildings can rapidly throw off a great intense heat. At several sections of this particular property, personnel witnessed firestorms that engulfed other nearby structures so quickly that suppression forces had to play catch-up. When creating a fire preplan, be sure to include nearby exposures as part of your calculations. When large structures such as these are burning, water may be better spent elsewhere, such as on a nearby exposure. Chances are that a local fire department will not have the water flow capability to suppress a large inferno such as this one. The day after this fire when all was clear, very little in the way of charred heavy timbers remained (photos 6, 7). This indicated that the fire had burned itself out and the effect of water application from numerous master streams was minimal at best. In brief, make your exposures a high priority, perhaps even a higher priority than the original structure, depending on the situation.

 
(6) Note the lack of lumber in the remains. Be sure to monitor stream effectiveness. Fire department streams may not have the flow to extinguish large fires in heavy timber construction. Take the initiative to calculate fire flow in preplanning. (Photo by Gabriel Angemi.)
(6) Note the lack of lumber in the remains. Be sure to monitor stream effectiveness. Fire department streams may not have the flow to extinguish large fires in heavy timber construction. Take the initiative to calculate fire flow in preplanning. (Photo by Gabriel Angemi.)
 
(7) The fire scene the next day, looking west. Arrows show site of row houses on Louis (left) and Mount Vernon streets (right). (Photo by David Hernandez.)
(7) The fire scene the next day, looking west. Arrows show site of row houses on Louis (left) and Mount Vernon streets (right). (Photo by David Hernandez.)

Task forces and strike teams are advantageous. Camden is an old industrial city with thousands of large structures. A few decades ago, the LDH strike team was established, consisting of seven mutual-aid engine companies that possessed five-inch diameter hose and 1,500-gallon-per-minute pumpers. It has proved to be beneficial at this fire and other fires in supplying the large volumes of water needed from a static water supply remote from the scene.

At the request of command, a strike team of tower ladders had been assembled and dispatched. The structure’s size and the need to stay clear of the collapse zone necessitated the use of multiple aerial devices with aerial streams. A strike team of a specific resource can be very advantageous in supporting an IAP.

One issue confronting the command post was what resources each additional alarm would bring-e.g., two engines and two trucks or three engines and two trucks on a box assignment. As additional alarms were requested, the Camden County dispatchers had to assemble resources off the cuff because dispatch has established alarm assignments only up to four alarms. Any additional alarms are subject to random decision making by already overwhelmed dispatchers.

Establishing preassigned task forces, each with a specified type and number of resources, could be a solution. It would streamline dispatching and assist the incident commander in assigning tasks and allocating the companies.

In Camden County, the Fire Chiefs and Fire Officers Association has now adopted task forces for incidents that exceed four alarms. The complement will include two engines, one ladder, one rescue, and a chief officer for each additional alarm. This will aid in gathering available resources and allocating them at the emergency scene.

This massive fire destroyed a neighborhood and taxed the inner and outer resources of the fire department and its mutual-aid providers. It demonstrates the need for streamlining incident management, preincident readiness, and a working relationship with other entities (e.g., mutual-aid agencies, water utilities).

Mutual-aid companies unable to connect to hydrants. As a result of years of hydrant vandalism in the city of Camden, it had custom-made wrenches to open and operate the hydrant system, which differed from those elsewhere in Camden and surrounding counties. This delayed outside departments from establishing water supplies and placing water on the fire in a timely manner. Mutual-aid companies had to wait for a Camden representative to come to their location to turn on the hydrant for them.

Aerial observation needed. At one point during the inferno, what was believed to be a separate two-alarm structure fire at the intersection of Louis and Mount Vernon streets was later found to be part of the extension from the warehouse fire. A deputy chief at one point looked down Mount Vernon and noticed a dwelling with fire blowing out of its windows. Using aerial observation support was mentioned in the postincident critique. Using aerial views from news or law enforcement helicopters above to monitor fire spread at such large fires can be advantageous.

One measure all jurisdictions can accomplish is a good relationship between the media and the local fire agencies to assist ground crews in reconnaissance. In some metropolitan jurisdictions, the local law enforcement agencies have helicopters as part of their fleet. Liaison with your regional government agencies for assets that can help us in successfully concluding an emergency. Aerial support might have been able to inform the Mount Vernon Branch of fire spread to the row of structures and made the firefight more proactive. Aerial operators can aid the command staff in predicting and anticipating fire spread at large, out-of-control infernos.

Large warehouse fires will tax the most resource-rich departments. Local agencies should be proactive in addressing future gigantic infernos through preplanning, simulation training, and foreseeing issues that can arise. This warehouse fire taxed the city of Camden and its county resources as never before. Don’t underestimate how fast fire can travel in these large structures once it gains a foothold on a building.

DANNY STRATTON is a 26-year fire service veteran and a captain with the Camden City (NJ) Fire Department. He has had experience with volunteer, career, and United States Army fire departments. He is a course coordinator at the Camden County Emergency Training Center and an instructor for Safety and Survival LLC. Stratton is a rescue specialist with New Jersey Task Force 1 Urban Search and Rescue (NJ-TF1) and has a double associate degree in fire science from Camden County Community College.

GABRIEL ANGEMI is a 13-year veteran of and second-generation firefighter with the Camden (NJ) Department, assigned to Rescue Company 1. He is a NJ-certified fire instructor, a lead instructor for Safety and Survival Training LLC, a rescue specialist with NJ-TF1, and a contributor to Urban Firefighter magazine.

ED GLASSMAN is a 30-year veteran of the fire service and a deputy chief with the Camden (NJ) Fire Department. Previously, he served 14 years in Rescue 1.

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