By Janelle Foskett, FireRescue magazine
On Dec. 3, 1999, six Worcester (Mass.) Fire Department (WFD) firefighters lost their lives while battling a fire in the vacant Worcester Cold Storage Warehouse Fire. Ten years later, WFD District Chief John F. Sullivan, MPA, spoke about the event in his Fire-Rescue International session “Beyond the Investigation Report: An Insider’s Look at the Worcester LODD Incident.”
Sullivan, who was a company officer the night he responded to the tragic incident, started the session by noting how proud he is that his department is willing to face the music and identify what they did correctly and what they did incorrectly on that fateful night.
Sullivan offered a quote with great significance for this particular event: “What goes unchallenged goes unchanged”—Meryl Dye.
Sullivan noted that, at the time, the WFD didn’t challenge themselves to constantly improve—or even question their practices. “Everything had worked out for us before,” he said, explaining that there hadn’t been an LODD in decades. “All the fires went out eventually. And that’s true, but at what price?”
With that in mind, Sullivan explained that the first thing that the department had to challenge was the parochialism the pervaded the department. Other problems that made the department especially vulnerable to a loss like this: communications, deteriorating or limited skills, little to no use of modern technology, no rapid intervention and a lack of true incident command. “We weren’t on one playbook,” he explained. “There were100 people on the fireground, and everyone was talking to one person.
Another huge issue: the lack of preplanning. Sullivan admits that, “even to this day, this is our biggest lack.” And preplanning could have made a significant difference on the night of Dec. 3, 1999.
“There were so many things that we didn’t understand about this building,” Sullivan explained. “We didn’t have preplans to tell us even the number of floors.” Firefighters entered the building from the roof, so when they got lost, they couldn’t tell anyone exactly where they were—only that they were a couple floors down from the top.
Plus, the building’s construction made for a difficult fire fight. It was made of heavy load-bearing brick exterior walls, 3 ½-inch wood floors, wood joists and girders, 16-inch square wood columns every 12 feet (making it an incredibly heavy building). In addition, there were almost no openings in the exterior walls, only one exit from floors 4-6 and no stairwells that led from the top floor to the bottom floor. In essence, it was an extremely confusing layout, making it difficult for firefighters to orient themselves in the structure.
Making matters worse is what was burning: 12-inch asphalt-impregnated cork, polystyrene, polyurethane, cellular glass and fibreglass corkboard. Trying to extinguish such highly combustible insulation was “like trying to put out a tanker fire in an oven from the outside,” he explained.
A final problem: the way firefighters battled the fire. “We tried to fight this fire like a residential structure fire, and it kicked our asses,” Sullivan exclaimed.
This brought Sullivan to the topic of air management and how it differs when you’re fighting a fire in enclosed structures. “The low-air alarm is not your way out,” he emphasized. He then provided notes on how to properly do consumption-rate testing.
Sullivan encouraged attendees to use the tools and organizations currently at the forefront of safety, such as the NFFF, the Everyone Goes Home Program, the Firefighter Near Miss Reporting System, the IAFC or the IAFF.
“At the end of the day, I’m a husband, dad, brother, son and grandpa,” Sullivan said. “These are the things that are important to me, and that’s what this is all about—that everyone goes home at the end of the day.” He reiterated that he hopes his session offered something that attendees can take home to their departments to ensure all their members go home at the end of every shift. “One day we’ll be sitting in a class about the Charleston Super Store Fire to see how they’ve turned around their department,” he added.
In honor of the Worcester 6:
Firefighter Paul Brotherton (Rescue 1)
Firefighter Jeremiah Lucey (Rescue 1)
Lt. Thomas Spencer (Ladder 2)
Firefighter Timothy Jackson (Ladder 2)
Firefighter James Lyons (Engine 3)
Firefighter Joseph McGuirk (Engine 3)