Preparedness & Recovery

Local Fire Departments Address High-Rise Fires

'Everything's multiple stories up, and the time delay is significant because you can't just run in the front door with the hose.'

by Micaela Parker, Observer-Dispatch, Utica, N.Y. / August 7, 2017
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(TNS) — When one of the highest floors of the Kennedy Plaza high-rise apartment building caught fire in 2010, firefighters had two priorities: rescue a man trapped in an elevator on the fire floor and put out the fire.

That call, where firefighters had to run up 17 stories with approximately 80 pounds of equipment on their backs, resulted in an important lesson for the department, recalled temporary Fire Chief John Kelly, who responded to the fire that day.

"(In a high-rise fire) everything's multiple stories up, and the time delay is significant because you can't just run in the front door with the hose," Kelly said. "We really tried to change our procedures so we were much more progressive. I think we do a much better job now than we did. I think we're very fortunate that we don't have significant high-rise fires on a regular basis, but we've had several in my career and we've had numerous in the past."

In the aftermath of a June 14 blaze that gutted the 24-story Grenfell Tower block in London, killing 80 people and injuring more than 70, and the July 14 fire at a 36-story residential tower in Honolulu where three died, fire officials and representatives of one of Utica's largest apartment complexes spoke out regarding the importance of fire safety in such densely populated buildings.

A learning experience

CRM Rental Management Site Manager Rebecca Smith still recalls the call she received Nov. 22, 2010, when she was told Kennedy Plaza was on fire.

"I got a phone call and he said, 'Rebecca, Kennedy is on fire,'" she said. "And my knees started knocking together. I went over and you could see the smoke coming out the windows."

Improvements made before that fire such as fire sprinklers on every floor and foam fire suppressants in the range hood of every stove, as well as a regular fire awareness campaign have gone a long way toward securing the safety of the building, said CRM Rental Management President John Varecka.

"Most buildings built in the 1970s, they were made during that timeframe where everything was made out of concrete: walls, ceilings and floors; all of it supposedly fire-proof," Varecka said. "The thought was, if one unit burnt out, the rest of the building would be fine. That's not the thinking now."

He said news coverage of incidents such as those in London and Honolulu "hits home" for building managers like himself.

"Look at all the buildings we have," he said. "All the buildings we renovate, we put sprinklers in most of our properties and most of them are smoke-free properties as well to improve quality of life but to reduce accidents as well."

Firefighting tactics

When it comes to battling high-rise fires, aerial ladders often are the last resort, explained Kelly. Firefighters will enter the building and create a "staging area" two floors below where the fire is concentrated and send up teams to locate any trapped residents and suppress the fire.

After the Kennedy Plaza fire, where firefighters grappled with a lack of water pressure, the department bought better hoses and nozzles that will deliver more gallons per minute.

In the event of a major fire, the department will rely on mutual aid agreements among area fire departments to ensure the necessary manpower and equipment is available.

Rome Fire Chief Ronald Brement said the pre-planning area fire departments undertake for such incidents is a necessity.

"If it's a high-occupancy load or it's a manufacturing business that deals with flammable liquids or products, we have a pre-plan in place before there's even an incident there so we can train on it," Brement said. "We take our manpower and go to the high rise, tour them, lay out hose and practice and see our plan of attack in action, so if there's a fire on the third floor we're not going through it for the first time. Like a sport: The more you do it, the better you are."

Major Utica fires

Here are some of the major fires that struck the city over the last 150 years, according to the Observer-Dispatch archives.
 

  • March 2, 1884: "The Great Fire of Utica." Beginning in the basement of the H.J. Holbrook Co. shoe factory at Catherine Street, the fire quickly spread to adjoining businesses, consuming an entire business block, including the old Utica Observer, a predecessor of the Observer-Dispatch. No one was killed. 
  • March 3, 1896: Three people died in a fire at the Genesee Flats apartment building on Genesee Street and Clinton Place. This fire was the first in the city's history in which people died. 
  • Feb. 28, 1934: Seven people were killed during a fire at the Marrone Hotel on Bleecker and Second streets. Six bodies were recovered from the ruins, and another person died later. 
  • Feb. 13, 1948: Eleven people were killed when a fire destroyed a residence at 5 Cedar St. Eight of the 11 victims were children. A 13-year-old girl saved herself by jumping from a second-floor porch onto a snow bank. 
  • June 22, 1981: Two children were killed when fire destroyed the second floor and attic of a two-family apartment building at 1129 Whitesboro St. The mother of the children leaped to safety from a second-story window after throwing her month-old child to a man standing 25 feet below. 
  • March 14, 1994: The Kanatenah Apartments at 1504 Genesee St. were destroyed by a fire that lasted several days. The building later was razed. The eight-story structure opened in 1897 and was Utica's first large apartment complex. 
  • May 29, 2008: A fire broke out in the packaging section of F.X. Matt Brewing Co. during a Saranac Thursdays event. The fire destroyed the second and third floor of the building, causing over $10 million in damages. 
  • Sept. 20, 2009: Four people were killed after a fire tore through 102 James St. While several people were rescued from the building during the fire, fire officials said they were unable to access the rear portion of the building despite several attempts, in part due to a sprinkler system that was out of order. 
  • Sept. 17, 2010: Hundreds of residents were displaced from the Olbiston Apartments following an early morning fire. The fire was later ruled an arson.


Follow @OD_Parker on Twitter or call her at 315-792-5063.

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