By William Shouldis
It was shortly after the morning shift change when the Philadelphia (PA) Dispatch Center received a 9-1-1 call from a security guard, reporting a warehouse fire. The building was a landmark because of its overall size and occupancy. As the on-duty deputy chief, I listened as the first unit arrived on the scene. The brief initial report was clear and concise. Heavy smoke poured from the center of the 650-foot by 750-foot complex. Extra alarms were requested.
On my arrival on the fireground, I was informed of water supply, exposure, and hazardous material issues. After a systematic transfer of command process, I assumed command. My thoughts turned to safety and stabilization. Dividing the scene and tracking personnel would be priorities. An expanded accountability system would be needed. Extinguishment and confinement were going to be significant challenges because of the large combustible fire load and high rack storage. My Incident Action Plan (IAP) had to address operational and logistical activities.
Water supply was going to be the difference between losing a building and losing a complex that employed more than 125 people. Pipeline (five-inch hose companies) and elevated streams were requested in rapid succession. Developing functional responsibilities in the early phase was an essential element of the IAP. A Water Supply Group was needed to deliver a sufficient quantity of water to all sides of the burning building. A battalion chief and engine companies were assigned to this critical task. Source pumpers were placed at reliable hydrants and supplied intermediate pumpers at 1,000-foot intervals. Fireground pumpers were placed outside the collapse zone and supplied master streams appliances to cut off fire spread to the office area and uninvolved loading dock and to cool a partially filled 30,000-gallon propane tank. Due to the radiant heat the probably of a BLEVE (boiling-liquid, expanding vapor explosion) existed.
After a tense five hours, the fire was contained, but major application of water streams lasted another 26 hours. In total more than 250 responders staffed 57 companies. Thirty master streams were used to stop the fire and protect exposures. During the formal post incident analysis, many lessons were learned and reinforced.
For early responders, the safest solution to any incident is to follow the basics. A primary size-up factor is identifying the proper agent for extinguishment. Most situations deal with water application. Some deal with foam. Other circumstances advise no action. Is the flow rate capable of extinguishment? Can the most vulnerable exposure be protected? Is the residual pressure sufficient? Is the water distribution system being used to the maximum? Are apparatus placed to keep roadways from becoming blocked? These are the “front-burner” challenges in a large-scale structure fire.
The data collected on warehouse fires have clear indictors. Incidents will be complex because of the large-open spaces, combustibility of commodities, storage methods, and variables in “built-in” fire protection features. Water supply will be an important strategic, tactical, and safety concern. Always be alert. A safe operation is everyone’s responsibility. Now is the time to think about fire department policies and procedures. Train on tender and shuttle operations. Understand the valves and hydrants in your local response district. Being successful starts with the immediate actions of the initial alarm. Being prepared starts with today’s training topic. Ensure a relay operation is part of the lesson plan.
William Shouldis is a deputy chief with the Philadelphia (PA) Fire Department, where he has served for more than 29 years. He is an adjunct instructor for the National Fire Academy’s resident and field programs, teaching courses in fireground operations, health and safety, and prevention. Shouldis has a bachelor’s degree in fire science administration and a master’s degree in public safety. He is a member of the Fire Engineering editorial advisory board and a frequent FDIC speaker.