Water, Ice Problems Hamper Operations at Colorado Apartment Fire


At 1710, on Sunday, January 13, 2008, units from South Metro (CO) Fire Rescue and the Parker Fire Protection District were dispatched to the report of an unconfirmed commercial structure fire in a three-story apartment building under construction in the Ballantyne Apartment complex. En route from their respective stations, responding crews could see a large column of smoke in the general area of the reported fire. Approximately one minute after relaying the initial call, Metropolitan Area Communications Center (MetCom) dispatchers informed the chief of Battalion 32 that the center was receiving multiple calls reporting that the entire building was on fire; hence, MetCom recommended a second alarm. A second alarm was issued prior to the first unit’s arrival on-scene.

At 1712 hours, Engine 33 (E 33) arrived on-scene reporting that it observed heavy smoke from the third floor and the officer was performing a 360° size-up of the building (photo 1). As E 33’s officer conducted his size-up, the shift training officer reported to him that he was on the A side of the building and fire was showing from at least five separate windows on the third floor. The shift training officer recommended a third alarm, which was struck at 1716 hours. The fire had started on the B side of the structure and spread to the A side when the first units appeared on-scene. The E 33 crew reported that workers were still inside the building on the floor below the fire. As the E 33 crew prepared to enter the structure, the Medic 32 (M 32) crew observed workers descending the scaffolding on the C side of the structure. Once the workers had reached the ground, M 32 then confirmed that all workers were out of the building. On arrival, the chief of Battalion 32 assumed incident command and ordered defensive fire operations. Units were placed on three sides of the structure to attack the fire with aerial streams, deck guns, and ground monitors in an attempt to prevent the fire from advancing into the B and E exposures (photo 2, Figure 1).

(1) On arrival, crews found heavy fire from the third floor of the structure. (Photo by Eric Hurst.)


(2) A view from the Battalion 32 command post shows aerial operations in progress. (Photo by Andy Lyon.)


Figure 1. Ballantyne Apartment Fire Operations
Figure 1 by author.


As they placed a ground monitor on the B side, M 32 and E 31 crews heard a loud hissing sound and noticed blue flames erupting from a third-story window on the B side of the structure. The E 31 crew entered the B side exposure building to check for extension. On reaching the third floor, the E 31 captain observed a large body of fire impinging on the B exposure and went to the roof of the exposure to get a better look. At 1728 hours, Urgent Traffic issued over the radio stated that very large propane bottles were venting in a room on the B side of the fire building’s third floor and were feeding the fire (photos 3, 4, and 5). All units operating in the vicinity of the B side were pulled back from the structure, and aerial streams were concentrated on this area to prevent extension into exposure B. Because of heavy smoke conditions, the E 31 crew remained on the B exposure and directed crews to the best place to aim their streams; at the same time the crew placed a 21⁄2-inch hoseline into service, from the exposure B roof, to extinguish fire in spots that the aerials and ground streams were unable to reach.

(3) Extreme fire conditions were fueled by 100-pound bottles of propane. (Photo by Eric Hurst.)


(4) A thermal imaging camera view of the propane-fueled fire. (Photo by Mike West.)


(5) South Metro Ladder 32 in prime position to protect exposures B and E. (Photo by Tim Tonge.)


After approximately three hours of defensive operations, the fire was brought under control with the assistance of nine engines, three aerial ladders, one telescoping waterway, four medic units, four battalion chiefs, three safety officers, one EMS supervisor, and numerous upper division chiefs. Investigators found that a propane heater used to keep workers warm was placed too close to a combustible wall and started the initial fire. Fire in the room of origin caused a 100-pound propane cylinder to vent, which increased the fire’s size and intensity. This set off a chain reaction, causing eight more 100-pound cylinders to vent as well. Building damage was estimated at about $1 million.


Approximately 20 minutes into the fire, crews operating from all four sides of the structure noticed decreased water pressure and reduced fire flow in a water system that should have easily been able to handle the flow being put on the fire. Command called the Denver Water Department to increase the water system pressure in the water district. While increasing the water pressure, Denver Water sent engineers to the fire to ensure that crews were getting the best flow needed to fight the fire. Water department personnel on-scene kept in constant contact with the pumping station and had to increase pumping pressure twice to provide the best flow. A water department spokesman stated that the pumps’ flow was increased from the normal two million gallons per day to five and then to 25 million gallons per day to provide adequate water. He estimated that more than two million gallons of water were used to extinguish the fire.

Throughout the day on January 13, the temperature in the Denver area had been in the mid to upper 40s (°F) with light wind. Soon after the fire started, it turned dark, and the temperature dropped into the low 30s. Because of the amount of water used, the fire scene became an ice skating rink extending from the roadways that surrounded the building to the areas immediately adjacent to the buildings.

Command requested sand trucks, which arrived soon after they had coated the roadways around the parked and pumping apparatus to make a better walking surface. Near the buildings, crews used shovels, and a member of the construction site crew used a tractor to spread sand around the operating units. Despite the efforts to make the scene as safe as possible from slip hazards, three firefighter injuries were sustained. Two firefighters missed multiple days of work; one of the two had to have surgery to repair a hernia he sustained during firefighting operations.


Communications. As with any department in the country, communications seem to be a problem at larger incidents. It was observed on this fire that when assigning alphabetic divisions (e.g., side B), all radio traffic concerning these divisions should be announced using the phonetic alphabet (e.g., Alpha, Bravo, Charlie) instead of stating simple letters. With the noise from fire apparatus and fire operations, B, C, and D all sound very similar.

Relationships.It pays to have good working relationships with crews besides those of surrounding fire jurisdictions. Having good relationships with outside agencies makes it much easier when you may need an agency’s help. We have built relationships with the surrounding water districts, county departments, and the like through years of working together on different calls and training. Since we could directly call the water department, we were able to increase water pressures in a timely manner.

Safety. Fires and emergencies do not happen only when the weather is nice. Agencies must prepare for emergency operations during adverse conditions. In this situation, freezing water around the structure created a safety hazard for all who were working. The South Metro Fire Research and Development Committee had been exploring the option of shoe-mounted ice traction devices prior to this fire. The South Metro benefits coordinator noted that with the money spent treating injuries received during the fire, all South Metro firefighters could have been outfitted with an appropriate ice-traction device to reduce or possibly eliminate slip and fall injuries on ice.

The presence of the propane cylinders in the fire building presented a significant BLEVE hazard; take immediate action to remove personnel from the area and anticipate the potential fire spread should the cylinders explode.

CHRISTOPHER PIEPENBURG, a member of the fire service since 1995 and a third-generation firefighter, is a firefighter/paramedic with South Metro (CO) Fire Rescue, assigned to a medic company in the Denver Tech Center. He is also a member of the department’s technical rescue team and a member of FEMA USAR CO-TF1.

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