LILAC FALLS MOTEL EXPLOSION AND FIRE

LILAC FALLS MOTEL EXPLOSION AND FIRE

BY CHRISTOPHER P. FLEMING

At 1706 on Friday, August 30, 1996, the City of Rochester (NH) Fire Department (RFD) responded to a liquefied propane gas explosion at the Lilac Falls Motel. This incident presented the Rochester Fire Department and responding mutual-aid units with numerous operational challenges, which were successfully overcome. Many lessons learned or reinforced by this operation could be applied to the “Big One” as well as to the everyday call to enhance safety on the fireground.

THE CALL AND RESPONSE

At 1705 on August 30, the members of the RFD “D” shift were in the middle of their shift meeting when they heard a loud “boom” and the windows in the dispatch center shook. One minute later, calls poured into the dispatch center reporting an explosion and fire at the Lilac Falls Motel. Captain William Hoyt took the first call from a man who said that the motel “just blew up.” The firefighters gathered in the dispatch center were alerted to the serious nature of the call when they heard their captain ask, “What do you mean half the building is gone?”

As the rest of the shift climbed into their gear and boarded the apparatus, the dispatcher took several calls from callers reporting that the motel was well involved with fire. Hoyt responded Engine 4, Ladder 1, and Engine 7. Before the last piece of apparatus left the station, Hoyt called for a box to be struck to bring in off-duty full-time personnel and all on-call personnel, which during the course of the incident would bring some 50 additional members to the scene.

Traffic was unusually heavy that evening. It was Labor Day weekend, and many tourists were in the area. Responding with two pumpers and a ladder through the congested downtown area was a delicate task.

Deputy Chief Norman Sanborn, who had heard the explosion at home, responded in Car 2, the department`s command vehicle. Hoyt and Sanborn noted a large column of black smoke rising in the north end of the city. As the box was struck, Assistant Chief Frank Carpentino and Chief Mark Dellner also responded due to the severity of the call.

THE INCIDENT SCENE

The Lilac Falls Motel was located on Route 11, a major corridor to the New Hampshire lakes region–a popular summer tourist spot. The motel was built in two sections–one on each side of the highway. The section involved in the explosion contained 30 units, including the office, a game room, and a storage area for maintenance equipment and supplies.

It was a one-story, approximately 160- by 190-foot building of wood-frame construction built in a “U” formation, with the open end facing the highway. Constructed in 1972, it had a common attic without draftstopping that ran the entire length of the motel. The building did not have a buildingwide alarm system or an automatic sprinkler system. The courtyard contained a parking lot with a swimming pool.

Directly behind the motel were two horizontal, 1,000-gallon propane tanks in concrete saddles that supplied the unit heaters in each motel room and water heaters for the motel. The gas piping system for the motel ran outside the building as well as through the attic. Although it was Labor Day weekend, the temperatures were relatively cool in this part of New Hampshire, necessitating the use of the heaters in the individual motel rooms.

At the time of the explosion, the motel was partially occupied, though all units in the main section were reserved for the holiday weekend.

ON-SCENE

When Engine 4 arrived, a large crowd of stunned people were wandering around the middle of Route 11. At least one-third of the motel was fully involved with fire. The entire west wing was either fully or partially collapsed. A large section of the south wing also had collapsed.

Engine 4 took a position in the middle of the open end of the complex. Ladder 1 was positioned first at the end of the south wing but moved to a more central location: The fire was spreading rapidly, and a ladder pipe was needed to cover the north wing and rear section of the building. Engine 7 laid a four-inch line from Engine 4 to a hydrant approximately 200 yards down the road. Hoyt struck a second alarm (mutual aid) at 1712 hours, before Engine 4 came to a stop, and quickly recommended a third alarm to Chief Sanborn, just arriving, who gave the instruction to Fire Alarm at 1713. Frisbie Memorial Hospital, in Rochester, was notified of the potential for a mass-casualty incident and asked to respond with both of its paramedic ambulances as well as mutual-aid EMS units.

While Engine 4 was set up for deck-gun operations, Hoyt quickly interviewed bystanders to determine what had happened and if anyone was still in the building. A primary search was begun. A propane gas company representative (who happened to be in the area) had witnessed the explosion and shut off the discharge valves at the base of the propane tanks prior to the fire department`s arrival. He alerted Hoyt to their presence and proximity to the well-involved section of the motel. Hoyt passed this information on to Sanborn, who assumed command. The fire attack strategy was adjusted accordingly:

Rochester Engine 5 arrived and was directed to forward lay from a hydrant near the southeast corner of the motel to the west (back) side and cool off the propane tanks with its deck gun and 212-inch handlines, preventing an uncontrolled release or BLEVE (boiling-liquid, expanding-vapor explosion). This action proved successful, since the tanks` relief valves did not operate and the paint on the tanks didn`t even blister.

Engine 5 also was assigned to protect the caretaker`s home, only 30 feet from the corner of the motel. However, cooling the LPG tanks took priority over the house, and the fire took hold of the structure before additional personnel and equipment could arrive.

Problems with operations on the west side of the motel were further compounded by a fire involving power lines and a transformer on a utility pole. Firefighters operating on this side were exposed to the potential hazard of falling power lines or an exploding transformer before Public Service could arrive and shut the power off so that the pole fire could be extinguished. Apparatus were repositioned and personnel instructed to operate out of the path of potential falling wires; fortunately, the electrical hazard was mitigated without any injuries.

PRIMARY SEARCH

The primary search presented challenges for the first-in units. Command had two concerns: the area to be searched was large, and the number of occupants was unknown. Bystanders indicated they “thought” everyone was out of the building, and the manager informed firefighters that only six people were thought to have been in the building at the time of the explosion.

Due to manpower constraints (first-alarm strength was six line personnel), only one firefighter was available to conduct the primary search. The search consisted of two phases–the partially collapsed south wing and the intact north wing now threatened by fire (the west wing was untenable). The firefighter conducted quick visual and verbal searches in the units where no personal items were noted (suitcases, clothes, and other belongings). More in-depth searches were conducted in units that appeared to be occupied. In the north wing of the motel, fire was moving through the common cockloft. This search was conducted from the units most exposed to fire to those of least exposure. Forcible entry was made on two doors, but the majority of the doors had already been opened by bystanders who had attempted searches before the fire department arrived. The primary search proved negative, and the “all clear” on the primary search was given approximately 15 minutes into operations.

As more manpower and equipment arrived, the fire attack expanded and so did the incident command system. Chief Dellner arrived and took command of the incident after being briefed by Sanborn. Carpentino was assigned operations commander. Sanborn coordinated the various sectors at the command post. To continue to provide relief for crews already operating and to provide station coverage, Dellner requested a fourth alarm at 1748 hours.

The fire attack was made with multiple handlines and master streams surrounding the building. Handlines were also used to stop a brush fire touched off by the burning motel in the northwest corner. In addition to nine handlines, three aerial master streams (Rochester Ladder 1, Somersworth Ladder 2, and Dover Truck 1) and three deck monitors (Rochester Engines 3, 4, and 5) were used.

Sanborn, using his experience with water supply on Route 11, realized the importance of setting up a secondary independent water supply. Despite having hydrants in the area of the motel, it was an end-line main and subject to less-than-ideal pressure. Two years earlier, the department battled a fire at a restaurant and lounge farther down from the motel and had problems with mud and silt closing the hydrant that was the primary water source. Sanborn instructed Fire Alarm to call for tankers to supplement the hydrant supply. Command also moved all water supply radio traffic to Rochester`s secondary radio frequency.

A captain was placed in charge of the water supply and coordinated the tanker shuttle that involved extensive use of mutual aid. A shuttle was established using the Cocheco River, 212 miles distant, as the water source. This shuttle provided an additional supply of 1,500 gpm for a total fireflow of approximately 4,500 gpm.

By 1800 hours, the bulk of the fire had been knocked down, and a secondary search was initiated. A few minutes of searching the area of the building in which the explosion had taken place revealed the bodies of two occupants in what had been Room 20.

Since this incident was high-profile and was being covered by local, regional, and national media, Dellner set up a media staging area, where periodic updates and briefings were given. These briefings were coordinated with all major agencies involved so that there was a single source of information. This system helped to control the dissemination of information and increase reporting accuracy. In addition to the briefings, Dellner and other investigating agencies held two major press conferences.

Operations lasted through the night. Crews stayed on-scene to assist with the investigation and extinguish hot spots. Mutual-aid units, except for those providing scene lighting, began to be released around midnight. At 0808 hours the following morning, the fire was declared to be totally extinguished.

INVESTIGATION

Numerous local, state, and federal agencies responded to the explosion. In addition to the Rochester Fire Department, the Rochester Police Department, New Hampshire State Fire Marshal, New Hampshire State Police, and Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms were brought to the scene to aid in the investigation.

Subsequent investigation revealed that earlier in the day both a chambermaid and an occupant detected an odor of gas, yet the fire department was not called. Investigators established that the explosion was initiated in Room 20, where the two victims were found. The propane equipment and piping were examined, but no conclusions with regard to the exact reason for the explosion could be drawn.

LESSONS LEARNED AND REINFORCED

Staffing. Minimal staffing of on-duty career firefighters at this fire allowed only one firefighter to conduct a primary search. Besides obvious safety concerns, such conditions severely hamper the effectiveness of the overall operation–there are just too many jobs to be done with fewer than 10 people. Providing only a driver for a ladder severely limits the effectiveness of the apparatus and the personnel responsible for traditional truck duties (search and rescue, laddering, and so on). Consider automatic aid for target hazards such as motels and hotels. Mutual aid was key to the successful outcome of this incident.

People present. There was no clear indication as to how many people were present in the building at the time of the explosion. The incident commander must use the motel register and the manager to pin down exactly which rooms could be occupied. Firefighters can then be dispatched to those rooms for a thorough search. In this incident, however, it is not likely that the two victims would have survived, since it appears that they died as a result of the explosion itself.

Propane. Using propane for heating is very common in rural areas. Heating system installations can be fairly extensive, as was seen at this motel. Although not part of any model fire code, complete periodic inspections of the entire system (using NFPA 58, Storage and Handling of Liquefied Petroleum Gases) by qualified individuals are important. This includes verifying that all appliances and piping are free of leaks. Additionally, owners and employees of facilities using gaseous fuels must be instructed to call the fire department any time they smell gas.

Routine gas responses. After the incident, we reexamined our department`s policy for responding to gas odor calls and the like. It was pointed out that had the first-due crews arrived five or 10 minutes earlier, this incident could have been an even greater tragedy. Positioning apparatus away from the building in question; using full protective gear; and using a slow, cautious approach to calls for an odor of gas or a known gas leak can keep a “routine” call from becoming a disaster.

Propane tank placement. In terms of the placement of the propane tanks with respect to the motel and the house, compliance with NFPA 58 was very beneficial at this incident. A minimum of 25 feet was required between the tanks and the two buildings (26 feet were actually provided) and gave the fire department some room to work and prevent a BLEVE. In addition, this distance minimized the effects of the explosion on the tanks.

Obviously, draftstopping in common attic spaces does not provide explosion protection, but uncompromised draftstopping effectively limits fire spread.

Incident command. To manage all resources effectively, it is imperative to use some kind of command structure to provide for safety and accountability. The Rochester Fire Department uses the National Fire Academy type of incident command system. Incident command is particularly important when multiple agencies or departments are involved.

Water supply. Relying on one water source during a large-scale operation can be dangerous. The RFD had found out about the water supply problems on Route 11 at an earlier incident involving the same water main. If a secondary water source that is independent of the first one isn`t available, the water supply officer must be creative. Although we were operating in a hydrant district, the use of a tanker shuttle provided an independent and reliable backup in case a problem arose with hydrants in use.

Communications. At large or small operations, the ability to communicate with all members operating on-scene is essential. This is not to say that everyone should have a radio, but all must have a way of communicating with their officers and command. Using a chain of command is an effective way to make sure useful and vital information makes it to the incident commander and that the incident commander`s orders are understood and followed. When using mutual aid, responding units must have a way of communicating with Command or the staging officer to prevent freelancing and missed assignments. Smaller departments used to operating on one frequency should consider using other frequencies to prevent a radio traffic jam. Moving our water supply operations to a second channel helped us free up our primary operating channel during this incident.

Rehab. Extended operations place a great physical and mental burden on emergency responders. A system for relieving tired crews must be implemented. This policy helps to prevent errors and injuries on the fireground. In the rehab area, it is important to track individuals by monitoring vital signs to prevent fatigued responders from returning to work. Provide a shelter area from the elements that has food and drinks available. (Be sure to avoid refreshments that can inhibit physical recovery.) Medical monitoring helps to ensure the safety of personnel. n




(Top) Aerial master streams helped darken down the fire. Note the EMS triage area near the command post, across the street from the motel. [Photos courtesy of the Rochester (NH) Fire Department.] (Bottom) Heavy smoke obscured the view as firefighters operated 212-inch handlines and master streams to knock down the fire.

COMMUNITY AND DEPARTMENT DEMOGRAPHICS

Rochester has approximately 30,000 people in an area of almost 50 square miles with suburban, rural, and industrial occupancies. The fire department is made up of 31 career and 40 on-call firefighters. The full-time force operates on a 42-hour-per-week schedule, with two shifts of six (a captain and five firefighters) and two shifts of seven (a captain and six firefighters). For normal operations, the response is a lead engine of three/four personnel, a one-person ladder company, and a second-due engine of one/two personnel. One firefighter runs the department`s dispatch center. The on-call force operates in companies of five to eight with call-captains and call-lieutenants.

The department runs out of two stations with a total of six engines, one ladder, one forestry unit, one rescue unit, and a boat. The department also houses an emergency management operations supply truck. On the evening of the explosion, “D” shift, under the command of Hoyt, was on duty. Usually this shift is comprised of seven personnel. That night, however, it was operating with six; one member was on vacation. n

n CHRISTOPHER P. FLEMING is a firefighter with the City of Rochester (NH) Fire Department. He also works as an EMT-I with Frisbie Memorial Hospital EMS in Rochester. He has a B.A. from the University of New Hampshire and is presently completing requirements for a degree in fire protection.

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