LESSONS LEARNED: VETERINARY CLINIC FIRE

BY Carl Bittenbender

On July 9, 2003, at 1041 hours, Evesham (NJ) Fire-Rescue responded to a structure fire at the Evesham Veterinary Clinic, which would turn out to be a very challenging occupancy. The one-story, 60-foot 2 60-foot structure of ordinary construction was open for business and operating; 15 staff members and 50 animals were inside. The clinic was located on the northbound side of New Jersey Route 73, a four-lane divided highway. The weather was hot and humid; the temperature was 90°F.

Two engines, one heavy rescue, two basic life support (BLS) units, one command unit, one support vehicle, and three fire inspectors responded to the call within minutes. Initial reports to the first-out engine reported a fire in the basement and that the communications center was just then receiving the fire alarm for that address. Moments later, an updated report from the communications center noted that police personnel were on location with “smoke showing and people refusing to leave the building.”

At 1044 hours, a fire inspector arrived on-scene and confirmed a working base-ment fire. At the same time, the first BLS unit arrived. Both members reported being on-scene and advised communications that they would be assisting the first-arriving engine with suppression activities. The staff, outside the clinic, reported that all employees were accounted for and some of the animals inside had been removed, but there were still more inside the burning structure.

On hearing the reports from communications and the confirmation of a working fire, the responding deputy chief asked communications to add a mutual-aid ladder company, a BLS unit, a rapid intervention team (RIT), and a cover assignment for the incident. The deputy chief requested the extra staffing because of the ongoing heat wave in the area.


(1) Exterior view of side B; note the basement access doors on side C at left. (Photos by David Knott.)
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The first engine arrived at 1046 hours and positioned at the B/C corner of the structure. The engine’s captain communicated that the company was leading off with a handline and requested that the next-due engine provide a water supply. From previous fire inspections, engine company members knew the building had sloped basement access doors at the B/C corner and that they would provide the most direct access to the basement. A captain, one engine company firefighter, and one firefighter from the BLS unit stretched a 200-foot, 13/4-inch handline through the basement doors for an aggressive interior attack on the well-involved basement fire, which also in-volved the electrical panel (photo 1).

The remaining firefighter from the BLS unit placed the two ladders from the engine company and performed outside ventilation of the windows on the B side of the structure above the fire area.

Firefighters discovered that the structure’s basement contained two separate areas that were divided by a steel fire door. One area, which suffered heat and smoke damage but was not involved in fire, housed bulk pet supplies including food, medications, shampoos, and other items. The area involved in fire contained bulk dry goods, sanitary supplies (paper towels, detergents, and stacks of old newspapers for lining the animal cages), and discarded medical waste that was stored for disposal. The basement was accessed through the exterior basement doors or by an interior stairwell.

As the second-due engine approached the scene, the officer decided to enter the parking lot of an adjacent office complex to obtain a water supply. His crew laid a five-inch supply line from the wooded property line between the veterinary clinic and the office complex to the second-due hydrant located approximately 150 feet away. The remainder of the crew threw a 14-foot roof ladder down into the woods, crushing down heavy brush and briars along the property line. Using the ladder to cross over the brush, the crew dragged the supply line through the woods to the first-in engine. The first-due hydrant was across the road from the clinic; however, the officer elected not to take this hydrant, since it would have had required laying the supply line across a four-lane divided highway. This would have caused severe congestion and would have severely hampered the timely arrival of the other responding apparatus.

As the second engine was establishing the water supply, the rest of the requested apparatus arrived, including a rescue, a BLS unit, and a command car. Crews quickly knocked down the fire, stretched a second line to the top of the interior stairwell, vented the structure, and began removing the remaining animals and cages. Mutual aid arrived and provided additional personnel to help with animal rescue, overhaul, salvage, rehabilitation, and RIT staffing.

During the overhaul operation, volunteer members responded with an additional rescue and a BLS unit to assist in overhaul and rehab. Fire personnel also continued to enter the structure through multiple entrances to complete removal of the cages so that the animals rescued by veterinary workers before fire personnel arrived could be contained.


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During the incident, five firefighters were injured. Three were stuck by used syringes stored in red plastic biohazard bins in the basement awaiting disposal. The first firefighter was stuck through the boot by a needle during the fire attack; crews were informed and told to use caution, but it was still unknown in what section of the basement this had occurred. The two other members were stuck during overhaul while using their gloved hands to remove debris through the basement window. Another member suffered a cut to his hand during overhaul; the fifth incurred a minor burn to his ear during the fire attack.


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It was discovered later that the red biohazard waste disposal bins containing the syringes had been located on a pallet against a wall in the basement. During the fire, they had melted and the exposed sharps protruded from them, but they were not easily identifiable in the dark, smoky environment. The intact and identifiable red portion of the bins was not visible until the pallet was pulled away from the wall during overhaul (photos 2, 3).

All firefighters were treated and released from the local hospital. Despite wearing appropriate protective clothing, they still suffered minor injuries. The veterinarian assured the department that no animal infections could be transmitted through the needlesticks, but members were told to report any suspected medical problems that might arise later. All exposures were documented in accordance with department policy, and fire casualty forms were filled out in the national fire incident reporting system (NFIRS).


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The initial investigation by the fire marshal’s office noted that the fire’s cause was electrical in nature and was fueled by medical-grade oxygen piped between the joists above the burning materials in the basement. The copper tubing above the fire had burst at some point during the incipient stages of the fire, which accounted for rapid fire spread throughout the basement and the generation of enough heat to self-vent one of the basement windows (photo 4). When the window shattered, the fire marshal concluded the draft created was enough to draw the partially open fire door between the basement rooms closed, limiting fire spread to the fire room. The investigation also revealed that three 2,500-psi, type H oxygen cylinders were located in a cascade arrangement in a hallway between two operating rooms (photo 5) directly above the fire room. A chart posted above the tanks contained hazard information. Fortunately, interior crews limited fire spread so that it did not involve the first floor and those cylinders, which could have created a catastrophic situation (photo 6).


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  • Preplanning. Knowledge of the building from previous fire inspections allowed crews to enter the basement through the exterior basement doors and push the fire out the two three- by one-foot basement windows. Additional crews used a second handline to protect the interior basement stairwell.
  • As with any fire, you never know what types of material you will encounter. Crews encountered discarded medical waste that resulted in several firefighter injuries and exposures.

LESSONS LEARNED

The fire spread was fueled by oxygen; floor joists in that area became heavily charred quickly and could have resulted in a difficult firefight or floor collapse. Additionally, the stored oxygen tanks could have resulted in catastrophic consequences had they been involved in fire. Find out what you might possibly encounter at a particular occupancy, and preplan accordingly.


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  • Water supply. The first-due hydrant or the closest hydrant may not be the most practical one to use. Using the map book and thinking quickly, the incoming officer obtained water for the first-due engine; members expedited the process by crushing thick brush and briars with a ground ladder and then walking across them to stretch the supply line through the wooded area. Thinking “outside the box” and communicating with their company officer, the second-due engine crews quickly overcame the challenges presented.
  • People and pets. Initial reports indicated that workers refused to leave the structure. Fortunately, they were outside by the time the fire department arrived. However, this may not always be the case. Workers and homeowners treat pets like family; this relationship may result in panicked workers or family members going back into a burning structure to attempt a rescue before fire department arrival.
  • Mutual aid. Recognizing the need for and calling in additional resources allowed a timely mutual-aid response to establish a RIT as well as a rehab sector for the initial crews on their exit from the structure. The hot humid weather was a consideration here.
  • Accountability. During operations, crews entered the structure through three doors on the first floor and operated above the fire floor. If a collapse or flashover had occurred, it would have been difficult to identify which firefighters were in trouble. Commanding officers should appoint an accountability officer early in the incident to track which crews enter the structure and note what tasks they will be performing.

Although this fire was located in a veterinary hospital, the hazards fire personnel encountered were similar to those that might be found at any other medical facility. Hospitals, nursing homes, urgent care facilities, dental offices, cosmetic surgery offices, and doctors’ offices all present the same hazards. Responders will encounter stored medical supplies; medical waste; medical gases such as oxygen, nitrogen, helium, and nitrous oxide either inside or outside a building (with piping running through walls); residents or patients unable to self-rescue; and staff who will try to rescue residents disregarding their own safety.

As responders, we must be ever vigilant to these types of incidents and learn lessons at each incident to which we respond so that we may better protect ourselves and the public we serve.

CARL BITTENBENDER is a firefighter/EMT with Evesham (NJ) Fire-Rescue and a volunteer lieutenant with Aetna Hose, Hook, and Ladder Company in Newark, Delaware. A seven-year veteran of the fire service, he is a National Fire Protecion Association certified fire officer I, a state-certified fire instructor 1, and a certified CPR and EMT instructor. Bittenbender has a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Delaware and is completing a master’s degree in public safety administration at Saint Jo-seph’s University in Philadelphia.

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