Today I read the US Fire Administration’s report on the Worcester Fire from December 3rd, 1999. It’s a significant fire in terms of life lost and lessons learned. I’ve read the report before and many others like it, but today something struck me. It was the description at the front of the report on the condition of the Fire Department at the time of the incident. I’ve never given too much thought to it before. In some LODD reports you can see obvious problems (now that we know the ending to the story). But on this one Worcester seemed to have their stuff together. Read the excerpt from the report as listed at then end and see if you agree.
My mind shifted gears for some reason today. I pictured a LODD at my own department. What would the first few pages of the report say about us? Did we do our job in preparation of the big one? Did we provide crews with the tools and the protective equipment to do their job and go home? Was this a freak thing and we had done our part or are we letting our members down right now?
Has your department focus shifted to ISO ratings and accreditation as its goals? Those are good goals and important because they affect insurance rates of our citizens and businesses. Are we chasing the ISO 2 because it’s good for us or because we are trying to keep up with our neighboring departments? Has ISO and accreditation truly helped us or has it overcomplicated what should be obvious to us? I’m guessing the answer is a little of both.
My challenge to you is to read this report on the condition of Worcester in 1999. Then take the template and write the same report on your department as it is today. I think it will provide you with a more clear direction on the things your organization needs to spend some time on and put as priority.
Investigation by John R. Anderson
US Fire Administration Technical Report
"THE FIRE DEPARTMENT
The Worcester Fire Department has been a career department since February 2, 1920 when the Board of Engineers voted to staff all fire houses with full-time personnel. In December of 1999,Worcester Fire provided fire protection and first responder level EMS to 172,000 residents in a 37.6 square mile area. The authorized department strength is 485 with ideal manning of 105 firefighters and officers per shift. Minimum manning is 75 firefighters and officers. At the time of this incident there were 469 uniformed personnel. Suppression crews work 42 hours per week on a rotating schedule of two 10-hour days, one day off, two 14-hour nights, and 3 days off. Each group has a Deputy Chief and two District Chiefs who are assigned to the North and South Divisions which divide the downtown area and the remainder of the city in half.
The department operates 15 engine companies and 7 ladder companies out of 12 stations. The ladders consist of 2-75 foot aerial scopes, 4-100 foot tiller aerials, and 1 rear mount, 110-foot tower. The department also staffs a heavy rescue and has available a SCUBA rescue truck and a Hazmat response truck. There are three engines and one scope in reserve.
Minimum staffing is three men personnel truck including one officer. In the absence of an officer, a senior firefighter will assume this function. Trucks in busier areas and the heavy rescue which runs throughout the city have additional personnel.
Upon appointment to the Worcester Fire Department, recruits are subjected to 480 hours of training at the department’s fire academy. The training includes Hazmat, CPR, First Responder, rescue as well as the firefighting skills. They must pass a written and practical exam certifying them to the Fire Fighter II level. The Academy and in-service training are coordinated by the Training Division which is headed by a District Chief and is staffed by another three officers and a firefighter.
Fire prevention is headed by a captain who has two lieutenants assigned to fire investigations and two lieutenants assigned to inspections. There are also firefighter level inspectors.
In 1998, the Worcester Fire Department responded to 20,381 emergency calls of which over 40 percent were first responder medical. The department fought 459 structure fires this same year.
PERSONAL PROTECTIVE EQUIPMENT
Each uniformed firefighter is required to have NFPA approved turnout coat, bunker pants, boots, helmet, hood, and gloves. Personal protective equipment is inspected annually by the district chiefs, and each member has a uniform allowance to maintain this clothing as well as station uniforms.
The Worcester Fire Department utilizes Scott SCBA Model 4.5 with 30 minutes tanks. Per their 1974 guideline, the use of SCBA is mandatory for structure first. All SCBA packs include a PASS device. At the time of the fire, 37 packs had integrated PASS devices and were assigned to companies on Rescue 1, Ladder 2, and Engines 1, 2, 3, 4, and 16. All of the fatalities had integrated PASS devices on their SCBA’s.
The City of Worcester uses an 800 MHz trunked radio system divided into talk groups. The fire departments uses 5 groups for their operations. The North District Chief switched this incident to FD OP A as is the procedure. Each piece of apparatus has a mobile in the cab and a remote speaker and microphone at the pump panel or aerial turntable. Command vehicles have one portable radio for the Chief Officer and one for the chief’s aide. Each engine or aerial has 2 radios, and the Rescue has 7, one for each of the crew, if fully staffed.
As current fireground philosophy dictates, work crews have communications with them as they enter buildings or disappear from the visual sights of Incident Command. Radio communications are used only when direct verbal commands are not possible due to the logistics of the fire scene.
INCIDENT COMMAND SYSTEM
The Worcester Fire Department relies on an established Incident Command System instituted in 1993. All Worcester fires have an Incident Commander and as many of the subordinate command officers as the event dictates. A small event may necessitate only a single Chief Officer to fill all these roles.
The first arriving officer assumes command until relieved by a superior who, in Worcester, is usually the responding District Chief. If the incident escalates, the duty Deputy Chief may then assume command, and the Department Chief may take over if the need arises. Management of an incident may also require the assignment of Sector Commanders to direct specific functions such as ventilation, interior attack, etc.
Staging is also a normal practice and allows for the orderly introduction of crews and equipment. This permits documentation of personnel, their assignment, and their location. It also helps reduce freelancing.
RAPID INTERVENTION TEAM
Since the RIT concept was introduced by the NFPA in 1992, it has slowly worked its way into the fire service. Worcester developed an Operational Guideline in February of 1999, and training had begun within the department.
The standard practice is for the Incident Commander to designate the fourth engine or second ladder of the first alarm assignment as the RIT.
When the original warehouse was constructed in 1906, there was no standard building code in Worcester. Approval and inspections, if any, were done by the fire district in which the property was to be built. The warehouse, as evidenced during this fire, had only one means of egress from all floors above the first. Worcester’s “triple deckers”, the most common urban residence built in the early 1900’s, customarily incorporated two staircases, and one can conclude that awareness of multiple escape routes was present. In this case, the risk was increased due to the lack of windows.
When the addition was erected in 1912, the egress issue was worsened by the substantial increase in square footage on each level and the additional distance that would have to be crossed to get to stairway 3. Current building codes would have required a second staircase.
There are no records of major renovations that would have mandated a life safety upgrade through- out the warehouse. It is unknown if permits were pulled when the office space was added to the second floor of B-building.
Some former employees have stated that access to the southern end of B-building was by the elevators or through the elevators if movement occurred on the same floor through Partition-Y. A few even recalled jumping across the elevator shafts to reach this part of B-building if the elevator cars were committed to another floor. At least one door was installed in Partition-Y on each level after an ammonia leak nearly trapped workers south of this wall. (See Figure on B2.)"