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Thread: FEMA Releases Review of Deadly 1999 Worcester Mass. Fire

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    Administrator Neil's Avatar
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    Dec 2001
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    FEMA Releases Review of Deadly 1999 Worcester Mass. Fire

    Updated: 09-04-2003 09:49:42 AM

    FEMA Releases Review of Deadly 1999 Worcester Mass. Fire


    FEMA Press Release

    WASHINGTON, D.C. - A technical review of the 1999 Worcester, Mass., fire that claimed six firefighters is being released by the Department of Homeland Security's Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) today. According to the review, abandoned buildings are a serious threat to firefighters and fire departments must make a concerted effort to use technology to maintain data on buildings in their response districts.

    This report offers valuable insights that will help prevent deaths and property loss in the future," said Michael D. Brown, Homeland Security Under Secretary for emergency preparedness and response. "This review for 'lessons learned' is particularly important for the fire service, which can use the information to better safeguard firefighters."

    The review, compiled by the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA), also notes that delayed reporting contributed to the warehouse fire's spread and that fire services should initiate rapid intervention teams earlier in a structure fire response and use a strict system of personnel tracking on the scene.

    Other lessons learned cited in the report include:

    Fire prevention efforts should target abandoned and even temporarily vacated building to avoid fires;
    Proper permitting and on-going building inspections for construction changes within businesses can help reduce non-compliant interior finishes that contribute to combustion;
    Large buildings such as warehouses and high rises require special search techniques and tools, including additional air tanks;
    Better techniques must be developed to better track the movements of firefighters within a structure;
    Alternative radio channels should be explored as radio channels can be overloaded at multiple alarm fires;
    Thermal imaging cameras, while expensive, are invaluable equipment for all fire departments.
    The Worcester fire dealt a serious blow to the nation's fire service," said US Fire Administrator R. David Paulison. "It was one of the largest firefighter death tolls for a single event before the World Trade Center tragedy. It merited our study and resulted in findings relevant to every department in the nation."

    USFA develops reports on selected major fires, usually involving multiple deaths or a large loss of property. The objective reviews are intended to uncover significant "lessons learned" or new knowledge about firefighting or to underscore ongoing issues in fire service. USFA, which has no regulatory authority, sends an experienced fire investigator to the community after a major incident only after conferring with local fire authorities.

    At the time of the fire, the Worcester Fire Department had 469 uniformed personnel, 15 engine companies and seven ladder companies operating out of 12 stations. The year before the fire, the department responded to more than 20,000 emergency calls and fought 459 structure fires. The six-story warehouse building was in the heart of the town's former warehousing and cold storage district. It had been abandoned for a decade before the fire but was frequented by homeless individuals.

    The fatal fire was started when homeless individuals overturned a candle inside the warehouse. It was reported to fire officials by an off-duty police officer who saw smoke coming from the warehouse roof. Eventually going to five alarms, the fire took more than 20 hours to extinguish. It also took more than six days to recover all the bodies of the deceased firefighters.

    A copy of the full report can be ordered by going to:

    On March 1, 2003, FEMA became part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. FEMA's continuing mission within the new department is to lead the effort to prepare the nation for all hazards and effectively manage federal response and recovery efforts following any national incident. FEMA also initiates proactive mitigation activities, trains first responders, and manages Citizen Corps, the National Flood Insurance Program and the U.S. Fire Administration.

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    Administrator Neil's Avatar
    Join Date
    Dec 2001
    South West

    FEMA Review Deadly 1999 Worcester, Mass

    Technical Reports
    FEMA Review Deadly 1999 Worcester, Mass., Provides Insight Into Lessons Learned
    Abandoned Cold Storage Warehouse Multi-Firefighter Fatality Fire
    A technical review of the 1999 Worcester, MA fire that claimed six firefighters concludes that abandoned buildings are a serious threat to firefighters and fire departments must make a concerted effort to use technology to maintain data on buildings in their response districts.


    On Friday, December 3, 1999, at 1813 hours, the Worcester, Massachusetts Fire Department dispatched Box 1438 for 266 Franklin Street, the Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Co. A motorist had spotted smoke coming from the roof while driving on an adjacent elevated highway. The original building was constructed in 1906 and had over 44,000 square feet of floor space. An addition, built in 1912, contained another 43,000 square feet. Both were 6 stories above grade. The building was known to be abandoned for over 10 years. Due to these and other factors, the responding District Chief ordered a second alarm within 4 minutes of the initial dispatch.

    The first alarm assignment brought 30 firefighters and officers and 7 pieces of apparatus to the scene. The second provided an additional 12 men and 3 trucks as well as a Deputy Chief. Firefighters encountered a light smoke condition throughout the warehouse, and crews found a large fire in the former office area of the second floor. An aggressive interior attack was started within the second floor and ventilation was conducted on the roof. There were no windows or other openings in the warehousing space above the second floor.

    11 minutes into the fire, the owner of the abutting Kenmore Diner advised fire operations of two homeless people who might be living in the warehouse. The rescue company, having divided into two crews, started a building search. Some 22 minutes later the rescue crew searching down from the roof became lost in the vast dark spaces of the fifth floor. They were running low on air and called for help. Interior conditions were deteriorating rapidly despite efforts to extinguish the blaze, and visibility was nearly lost on the upper floors. Investigators have placed these two firefighters over 150 feet from the only available exit.

    An extensive search was conducted by Worcester Fire crews through the third and fourth alarms. Suppression efforts continued to be ineffective against huge volumes of petroleum based materials, and ultimately two more crews became disoriented on the upper floors and were unable to escape. When the evacuation order was given one hour and forty-five minutes into the event, five firefighters and one officer were missing. None survived.

    A subsequent exterior attack was set up and lasted for over 20 hours utilizing aerial pieces and deluge guns from Worcester and neighboring departments. Task force groups from across the State of Massachusetts responded to initial suppression and subsequent recovery efforts. During this time, the four upper floors collapsed onto the second which became known as "the deck". Over 6 million gallons of water were used during the suppression efforts.

    According to NFPA records, this is the first loss of six firefighters in a structure fire where neither building collapse nor an explosion was a contributing factor to the fatalities.

    Last Updated: September 03, 2003 04:54 PM EDT

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