THE WORCESTER TRAGEDY

BY FRANCIS L. BRANNIGAN, SFPE (FELLOW)

Vincent Dunn, Alan Brunacini, and I independently were the technical reviewers of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) report 99F47 on the Worcester, Massachusetts abandoned cold storage facility fire (available at www.cdc.gov/ niosh/firehome.html). The following suggestions were developed after studying the report.

There are many fire departments that have potential major disasters in their jurisdictions, but these are certainly not limited to abandoned buildings. These potential disasters should be thoroughly preplanned. The information must be retrievable at the fire, not buried in a file. The goal should be to assemble all the information the incident commander might need during a fire. We can wonder if the Worcester disaster would have happened if the excellent detailed sketches and information contained in the NIOSH report afterward had been available to the IC at the time of the incident. The too-often typical drop-by visit by the local fire company is not enough. This is a serious enterprise and requires input from a staff member who has a broad knowledge of other disasters from reading, study, professional meetings, and attendance at classes in educational facilities such as the National Fire Academy. Personal experience alone is rarely sufficient. For example, someone familiar with a 1990 fire in the Empire State Building that involved cork wall lining in an office suite might have anticipated severe smoke conditions in Worcester. This was particularly true given the thicknesses of the insulating cork (augmented by polystyrene) used in the warehouse. The Empire State incident required a fifth alarm assignment.

One or more credible scenarios of potential fires should be developed, including possible causes, delayed alarms, fire growth, unusual hazards, and handicaps to firefighting, such as large areas that limit usable SCBA time. The assets available should then be deployed in a desk exercise to combat the scenario. If the resources are inadequate or the circumstances make suppression too risky, the plan might provide a time limit for operations to be successful, or else personnel will be withdrawn and a defensive mode set up.

In some cases (e.g., heavy fire in posttensioned concrete buildings under construction), a defensive operation from the time of arrival might be the only safe option.

In situations indicating a less-than-successful operation or serious safety concerns for firefighters or the occupants, the chief should consider reporting the situation in writing to the political authorities, the owner, and the tenants. The correspondence might include suggested mitigating activities ranging from greater attention to fire prevention to eliminating specific situations to full automatic sprinkler protection.1 Don’t give the owner or the politicians the opportunity to say, “If we had only been notified, we would have ….”

Retired Fire Department of New York Deputy Chief Vincent Dunn in a pull-no-punches paper on high-rise fires points out the facts about unsprinklered high rises and notes the reluctance of fire chiefs to make them known.

“The best-kept secret in America’s fire service is that firefighters cannot extinguish a fire in a 20- or 30-thousand-square-foot open floor area in a high-rise building. A fire company advancing a 21/2-inch hoseline with a 11/4-inch nozzle discharges only 300 gallons per minute and can extinguish only about 2,500 square feet of fire. The reach of the streams is only 50 feet. A modern open-floor office design, with cubicle work stations and dwarf partitions that do not extend to the ceiling, allows fire to spread throughout an entire 100- 2 200-foot floor area. A fully involved, free burning 20,000-square-foot floor area cannot be extinguished by a couple of firefighters spraying a hose stream from a stairway. City managers and department chiefs will not admit this to the public if they want to keep their jobs. But every fireground commander knows this is a fact.”2

In several cases, I used the prefire plan to get rid of the problem. The famous 1947 Texas City, Texas, ammonium nitrate explosion killed 468 people and caused $372 million (1989 dollars) in property damage. Ammonium nitrate (which is both an explosive and a fertilizer) was being shipped by the U.S. Army to a devastated Europe. Despite the disaster, the Army, a week later, made a similar shipment through Galveston, Texas.

A year later, similar shipments were being made through the Army Base at Norfolk, Virginia, where the naval base fire department provided protection but not inspection. The boss was away so the problem was mine. Comparison with Texas City showed an explosion would cause total devastation over a wide area, including the fashionable Larchmont area of Norfolk. I prepared a prefire plan that called for towing the ship away from the pier if the fire wasn’t put out immediately. Of the alternatives, the best (?!) place to beach it was at Craney Island, the Navy’s East Coast gasoline reserve. In addition to the storage tanks, there were 75,000 55-gallon drums of gasoline.

I realized that the ship might not explode but simply burn out. The second-guessers would all be able to tell how they would have handled it instead of “that 29-year-old kid.” I called every possible potential “expert” on a recorded telephone and solicited advice. I hit pay dirt with the Norfolk Director of Public Safety Calvin Dalby, who had been Coast Guard port commander during the war and had a low opinion of military munitions safety procedures. He got the political wires working; in 48 hours, the ammonium nitrate was moved out of the congested residential area to the special ammunition piers at the naval ammunition depot at Earle, New Jersey. (Don’t write and complain that I didn’t solve the problem, only unloaded it. I was paid to worry about the Fifth Naval District. If you can’t solve the problems of the whole world, at least do your own job!)

Persons in authority are often aggressively unwilling to admit any inability of their organization to do the job. “We can handle anything!” However, when the World Trade Center was under construction, a representative of the owner, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (a bistate agency that is exempt from local control), gave a glowing presentation of the fire protection program for the units under construction. At the conclusion, Fire Department of New York Chief of Department John O’Hagen arose and said, “You have created a seven-block-long lumberyard. You saved a million dollars by reneging on an agreement to use FRT (fire retardant treated) plywood. We cannot guarantee that we can protect the unprotected structural steel in the event of a fire.” If the chief of FDNY can make such a statement, a chief with far fewer resources should be able to make the situation clear to the authorities.

COMMAND STRUCTURE

A fire of this magnitude and complication demands a large command structure. Only the largest fire department can answer a request for “five additional chief officers.” Plans for such additional assistance should provide for calling in off-duty chiefs. The alarm office could then ask the incident commander, “Do you want additional chief officers?” Additional radios should be on hand in a command vehicle to equip the reporting chiefs. To expedite putting the additional commanders to work, they might be required to carry turnouts in their personal vehicles or be provided a second set to keep at home.

LIGHT SMOKE-THEN SURPRISE

Many reports of serious fires contain the phrase “The smoke was light and suddenly, without warning, all was black smoke,” as noted in this report. This type of situation has caught searching firefighters out of contact with one another, sometimes with fatal results. Firefighters should be taught from Day One that light smoke does not necessarily mean an inconsequential fire. Every now and then, it is a sign that fire is raging in a concealed location and may put you in real trouble when it breaks out. When prefire planning, examine the possibility that hidden fire might break out.

Foamed plastics are widely used for insulation. They may be covered with gypsum board to resist ignition, but never forget that when the fire originates in or extends behind the gypsum board, the gypsum board turns from friend to foe, because it hides the growing fire. Old wooden buildings with their huge quantities of completely dried-out wood lath are prone to this attack on unsuspecting firefighters. Some years ago, 15 firefighters of a New England fire department were trapped above fire that broke out of a wall next to the only exit. Only the assistance of off-duty firefighters on the scene, who provided assistance by raising ladders, prevented a disaster.

Endnotes

1. Building Construction for the Fire Service, Third Edition, p. 609, shows a hazardous condition that could have wrecked a warehouse with a state-of-the-art sprinkler system. A railroad siding well inside a warehouse used for loading was beyond the reach of the sprinklers. The author wrote a letter to the president of the company concerning this hazard and was informed that the well was filled in.

2. For the full article, see “Dunn’s Corner” at thebravest.com.

References

“The Dangerous ‘Five Classes Of Buildings,’ ” The Ol’ Professor, Fire Engineering, May 1999, 120.

Brannigan, Francis L. Building Construction For The Fire Service, Third Edition; 204-207, 211-213, re heavy timber; 3-8, re prefire planning; 339-340, 354-557, re posttensioned concrete.

FRANCIS L. BRANNIGAN, SFPE (Fellow), the recipient of Fire Engineering’s first Lifetime Achievement Award, has devoted more than half of his 58-year career to the safety of firefighters in building fires. He is well known for his lectures and videotapes and as the author of Building Construction for the Fire Service, Third Edition, published by the National Fire Protection Association. Brannigan is an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering.

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