BATTLE TO SAVE PRICELESS ART YIELDS VALUABLE LESSONS

BY STUART GRANT AND CHRIS WILLEFORD

It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to place a value on the paintings and museum artifacts that were lost in the fire at the Dallas Biblical Arts Center on June 28, 2005. Many of the items that were lost were unique and therefore priceless. However, it is possible to assess the value of the lessons the fire department learned from this incident.

BUILT TO HOUSE A PRICELESS CENTERPIECE

The Biblical Arts Center in Dallas, Texas, at the southwest corner of Park Lane and Boedeker St., was an art museum dedicated to displaying and promoting Christianity through the arts. The centerpiece of the museum was the painting Miracle at Pentecost, a work that stood 20 feet tall and was 124 feet in width. The Biblical Arts Center was originally built just to house this one painting, a project underwritten by Mattie Caruth Byrd. Miracle at Pentecost was painted by Torger Thompson. It took him and an assistant more than three years to complete the depiction of more than 200 individuals in the painting.

The original structure to house the painting was built in the early 1960s and consisted of a large steel-framed arched building located at the rear of the property, with extensive lawns in the front. Renovations and additions completed in the 1970s included covering the original structure with new concrete exterior walls and a flat roof, creating a “building within a building.” This created a void space varying between a few inches on some walls and a few feet on others.

Also added during the renovations were connecting galleries to increase the size of the museum and a large atrium to expand the entry area. The overall square footage was more than tripled, to 32,500 sq. ft. from 9,500 sq. ft. The connecting galleries housed other religious art exhibits, sculptures, and biblical manuscripts. Included in the galleries were a number of plans, sketches, and early versions of the Miracle at Pentecost painting. The Center, which also hosted meetings, events, and weddings, had a fire alarm system but did not have a sprinkler system.

THE FIRE

The weather was clear, hot, and humid on June 28, 2005, with temperatures reaching the upper 90s by mid afternoon; winds were out of the south at 5 to 10 miles per hour. The temperature/humidity index was more than 100 degrees for the duration of the fire; this played a significant role in personnel requirements and recovery time for firefighters.

The fire at the Biblical Arts Center started in electrical wiring for a light fixture in a storage closet next to the Miracle at Pentecost painting. The wiring shorted out and smoldered above the ceiling of the closet for an undetermined amount of time. The first report of trouble was a phone call logged in at 1125 hours at the Dallas (TX) Fire-Rescue dispatch center.

The Biblical Arts Center had a monitored fire-alarm system consisting of smoke and heat detectors and audible sounding devices, but this system was placed on test status prior to the fire by a contractor working in the building. On June 28, a visitor reported smelling smoke, and the building was immediately evacuated. About 30 patrons were inside at the time. The curator searched the building and noticed flames on and around the Miracle at Pentecost. He unsuccessuly attempted to put out the fire.

Truck 37 was the first company on location at 1129 hours and reported a large museum-type structure with smoke coming out of closed doors on the west side and pressurized smoke emitting from the roof edges. The officer of Truck 37 immediately placed a second alarm on the fire. Conversation with the museum curator indicated the fire was located in the large rectangular structure (130 feet × 70 feet) connected at the rear of the complex (the portion of the museum that was the original structure).

First-alarm companies responded to this area and initiated an interior fire attack in conjunction with roof ventilation. Minutes later it was realized that the fire had extended throughout the primary structure and the Incident Commander (IC) ordered an evacuation. A third alarm was requested at 1145 hours; a fourth alarm at 1152; a fifth alarm at 1220; and a sixth alarm for personnel only at 1305. Approximately 130 firefighters were engaged in the operation; the fire was brought under control at 1431 hours.

FIRST-ALARM COMPANIES

After determining that everyone had evacuated the structure and that there was not a rescue problem, the Truck 37 officer gave the order to set the aerial ladder to the roof on the west side of the fire building and instructed the arriving engine companies to lay supply and attack lines to this same side (photo 1).


(1) Arriving companies reported to the west side of the Dallas Biblical Arts Center and began initial attack line and roof operations.

The truck company proceeded to the roof to assess conditions and attempt ventilation. Smoke was visible at the roof level where the roof joined the exterior walls on the west side (photo 2). A large hole was cut into the flat metal roof at the northwest corner of the fire structure, but the lightweight concrete roof surface could not easily be removed. The roof became very hot, and firefighters retreated to the aerial ladder and continued ventilation efforts from the aerial ladder (photo 3).


(2) Truck 37 laddered the roof on the west side of the structure to attempt ventilation. (Photos used with permission of John and Tim Billingham.)

 


(3) Truck 37 had trouble on the roof with deteriorating conditions and retreated to the safety of the aerial ladder to continue operations.

Engine 22 was the next company on location and the first engine to arrive. It proceeded to Truck 37’s location, where the crew pulled a 1 3/4- inch crosslay and forced entry into an exterior door on the west side along a loading dock. Once through the door, the crew advanced the attack line down a narrow hallway. It was believed that this hall led to the original building where the fire was located. Moderate smoke conditions and minimum heat were encountered in the hall, but access to the fire was not found down this hallway, which led to additional galleries that were added in the 1970s and dead-ended prior to the original structure.

Engine 55 arrived, connected to a hydrant at Park Lane and Boedeker, and laid a five-inch supply line down Park Lane and into the parking lot to supply Engine 22. Engine 55 then laid a 1 3/4-inch line to back up the crew of Engine 22 on the initial attack line. Both the attack line and backup line were backed out onto the loading dock, and entry was again forced through another set of exterior doors on the west side, farther to the south. Extreme smoke conditions were found within the doors leading into the large structure. Engine 22 and Engine 55 decided to team up with both lines and initiated fire attack through these doors.

Engine 28 arrived and laid a rescue line to the loading dock on the west side of the building. They also laid an additional 1 3/4-inch line and followed the initial attack lines into the building and became the back-up line behind the two attack lines. They also encountered extreme smoke conditions with the heat level increasing in the building.

Battalion 4 reported heavy smoke conditions coming out the doors and along the roofline. He advised the fire alarm office that level-two staging was going to be located at Park Lane and Boedeker and that the command post would be just to the north of the building.

An assessment of conditions by Battalion 4 showed that the original building was heavily involved and that the fire had extended a significant amount into the renovated complex that surrounded it. This placed the bulk of the fire in the southwest part of the renovated complex. Smoke was emitting from nearby doors and at the roofline on the west side with more force, and it was getting darker in color.

Battalion 7 arrived, was assigned as the safety officer, and followed the initial attack line into the second set of doors to assess interior conditions (photo 4). The attack lines were advanced a short distance down a narrow corridor; fire was encountered above and behind them. The fire had extended out of the original building and was traveling in the void spaces and the additions that surrounded it.


(4) Battalion 7 was assigned as the safety officer and went to the dock doors to assess the interior conditions.

Engines 22 and 55 were operating both lines and started to darken down the fire in their area. A short time after darkening down the visible fire, a large roar was heard within the structure, followed by extreme smoke, heat, and fire conditions. An evacuation was ordered, and a personnel accountability report (PAR) was taken for all companies.

SAFETY AND SALVAGE ARE ADDRESSED

The fire scene was sectored and sector commanders assigned. A defensive strategy was initiated on the primary structure using ladder pipes and ground monitors (photos 5, 6, and 7).


 


 


(5-7) A defensive attack was initiated after the fire conditions inside drove the firefighters from the building. Numerous supply lines were laid to initiate ladder pipe operations.

Additional five-inch lines were laid to supply the companies with the necessary water-flow requirements. The galleries attached to the original fire building were opened and checked for fire extension with thermal-imaging cameras (TICs). Three-inch lines were then laid with ground monitors into the atrium to prevent the fire from extending north into the additional galleries (photo 8).


(8) Ground monitors were also used to help keep the fire from spreading to the other galleries in the building.

Several areas outside the fire building were cordoned off because of the potential for collapse of some of the exterior walls, including the entire south wall. An additional safety officer was assigned to monitor identified safety concerns and help coordinate overall scene safety with the initial safety officer.

It was determined early in the incident that a large salvage operation would be necessary to minimize the loss to the museum. With companies working to keep the fire from exposing the other areas of the museum, a Salvage sector was established.

Many of the greater-alarm companies were used in the salvage operation. These efforts bought valuable time and allowed firefighters to remove and safely relocate a large amount of artwork from the attached galleries. Much of the artwork required at least two firefighters to carry it (photo 9).


(9) Many of the greater-alarm companies were used in the salvage operation. These efforts bought valuable time and allowed firefighters to remove a large amount of artwork from the attached galleries. The gallery hopes to reopen by the end of 2007.

Frequent personnel rotation was necessary because of exhausting temperature conditions. A rehab sector was established to monitor firefighter fatigue. The incident was escalated to six alarms to keep firefighters fresh and to provide for the rotation of the firefighters on the scene.

LESSONS LEARNED

• Companies must give a size-up that paints a picture of what type of building is involved, where it is involved, what the smoke and fire conditions are, and the plan of attack. In the Dallas museum fire, the initial size-up and request for a second alarm by the first company, Truck 37, were well-timed and communicated. If the plan of attack is going to use all available resources, then additional alarms have to be called for in a timely fashion.

• The initial tactical decisions by first-due companies were well coordinated. Additional time spent formulating and initiating a coordinated plan of attack by the first arriving officers is time well spent and lays the groundwork for a positive outcome.

• The utilization of thermal imaging cameras (TICs) provides critical information and should be an early consideration. TICs reduce the time it takes to locate the seat of the fire or a victim. They also allow firefighters to check on the stability of the building and to evaluate the conditions above them in the upper areas of the building. TICs can greatly increase the safety of firefighters.

• Company integrity procedures were followed and possibly prevented serious injuries and lost firefighters. Company integrity also assisted in a timely personnel accountability report from all companies when the evacuation order was given. It is the responsibility of the company officer to keep up with his people and the responsibility of the crew to keep up with the officer.

• Procedures must be developed that allow the firefighters to know what type of retreat from a building is being ordered. For example, in our department, evacuation of the building means to gather your equipment and back your hoselines out of the building in an orderly retreat. Abandon the building means to gather some essential tools (halligan, maul, sledge) and quickly leave the building. These tools may be needed to get you out of the building. Regardless of which order is given, Command should be notified when each company exits the building and if it has a PAR. Dispatchers need to be trained on the different terminology so they repeat exactly what you want them to say and they do not use the terms interchangeably.

• All companies must adhere to staging procedures. Some companies bypassed staging and proceeded into a congested parking lot with a single entrance and exit. This limited the available tactical options for these companies and caused a bottleneck near Command. Accountability of these companies is also compromised when they do not report to staging.

• When a fire scene is sectored, it should be done in a fashion that is logical and understandable to the IC, sector officers, and the companies working for those officers.

• Master stream devices were deployed in this incident and performed as expected. Portable ground monitors should be supplied with a single section of three-inch hose. This gives the appliance the water supply it needs and also gives it mobility if repositioning becomes necessary.

• The safety officer was identified early and the role was expanded to include several safety officers as the need arose.

• The importance of a comprehensive inspection program cannot be stressed enough. Prior knowledge of the building’s unique characteristics (a building within a building, no sprinklers, storage hazards) would have proven valuable in deciding tactical options. Knowing the layout of the building would have aided the first companies on the scene: They would have known which doors to enter and which hallways led to the main gallery.

• Salvage and overhaul saved many priceless pieces of art. Recognition of the type of business and its unique inventory can make a significant difference in the outcome of an incident. Salvage and overhaul can make an incident a “win” or a “loss.” In this incident, several pieces of art were lost, but through the effort of the salvage operation undertaken, many more pieces of priceless artwork were saved.

• An automatic sprinkler system, installed in this museum, would have likely confined or might have extinguished this fire in its early stages. Fire departments should encourage managers of museums and historic locations to install complete automatic sprinkler protection.

• Consideration must be given to the use of bigger lines in commercial fires to combat the volume of fire. The weapon of choice must be large enough to overcome the obstacles you face. Also, backup lines should be equal to or larger than the total gpm that are being used in the attack. This fire had two 1 3/4-inch lines operating on the attack with one 1 3/4-inch line for a backup. A big line (2 1/2-inch) was what was needed.

• Most fire departments use barrier tape in some fashion. Dallas is no different. We have yellow barrier tape that is used at fire scenes to help keep the public out of dangerous areas. This tape does not exclude firefighters from the area. Unfortunately, in this incident, the yellow tape was used to cordon off a collapse area; the firefighters just crossed under it because routinely it is used just for the public. Clearly, a different color barrier tape was needed to signify that everyone, including firefighters, were barred from entering. Red tape is now used to identify exclusionary areas for all personnel and citizens.

STUART GRANT, a 27-year veteran of the fire service, is a battalion chief with Dallas (TX) Fire-Rescue. He is certified as a master firefighter with the Texas Commission on Fire Protection. Grant has served in many capacities within the department, including academy commander, haz mat officer, paramedic, and rope rescue member. He has been a H.O.T. instructor and speaker at FDIC and FDIC West, and an instructor at Collin County Community College in McKinney, Texas, and at the Texas A&M University Municipal Fire School.

CHRIS WILLEFORD, a 23-year veteran of the fire service, is a battalion chief with Dallas (TX) Fire Rescue. He is certified as a firefighter with the Texas Commission on Fire Protection. He served as a paramedic, company officer, and station officer prior to being promoted to battalion chief.

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