Friday, July 16, 2004

Law helps firefighters going into vacant buildings

Milton Valencia

WORCESTER- First there was the memorial contest, in which finalists have been named to design a monument in honor of the six city firefighters killed in the Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Co. fire in 1999.

Then there was the painting unveiled last weekend that depicted a community in support of a brotherhood mourning the six losses in Worcester, part of a Sept. 11 art tour tribute to firefighters.

And now, five months before the five-year anniversary of the tragic fire, the brotherhood is seeing more support, in the form of an addition to a ``dangerous buildings'' law that was born from the fire.

The law reworks firefighting techniques and building owners' accountability for vacant buildings that can trap firefighters, the way one did in 1999.

``The Worcester fire defined the importance of firefighters' safety,'' said state Fire Marshal Stephen D. Coan.

``The tragic fire brought to the forefront the problems of vacant buildings and the issues of firefighters' safety.''

The law that was initially passed addresses vacant buildings by giving inspectors more control in reviewing uninhabited or abandoned buildings. The inspector can label a building dangerous, and can order the owner to board it up or make it secure. An inspector can also install a sign warning the public -- and public safety officials -- that the building is dangerous or hazardous and people should keep out.

In Worcester, 17 vacant commercial buildings have signs warning they are dangerous or hazardous, and seven vacant residential buildings have been labeled, according to Deputy Fire Chief Timothy J. Gray.

The addition to the law, a bill that needs Gov. Mitt Romney's signature, would require owners of abandoned buildings to provide floor plans to public safety officials, giving incident commanders a design of the structure before they send firefighters rushing inside.

``In 1999, we didn't have any floor plans,'' Deputy Chief Gray said. ``All we had were inspection forms.''

State Rep. John J. Binienda, D-Worcester, noted how the six firefighters who died in 1999 were lost because they didn't know the design of the building. He spoke of how the heavy, black smoke in the building blinded them.

``These guys were in a maze and had no idea where they were,'' said Mr. Binienda, the lead sponsor of the bill. ``This should never happen again.''

The representative said he will now focus on putting more accountability into the law, by requiring building owners to furnish floor plans within a certain amount of time, or face penalties. Fire officials are also calling for more advanced technology to make the designs readable and more accessible at a fire scene.

In the least, Mr. Binienda said, the law puts the onus on building owners, he said. And firefighters can do``pre-fire planning'' by viewing the designs of buildings in their coverage area, said the fire marshal.

Deputy Chief Gray said the Worcester Fire Department has made much progress on its own since the fatal fire, thanks to a grant enabling the department to establish its own computer system outlining the designs of dangerous buildings. But he said the new bill benefits the city -- and fire departments across the state -- by going further, requiring an owner of any vacant building to provide floor plans.

Now, the ``dangerous buildings'' law allows departments to establish a database of what a building looks like, and will detail things for which they should be prepared.

An incident commander can look up a design on a computer on the way to the scene and relay information to firefighters. Previously, any plans firefighters had were in notebooks.

A commander can know where a roof is eroding, or if there is a hole in the floor, if there is a hazard, or if there are blockades to staircases.

``We have the conditions of walls, the conditions of roofs, the very conditions of a structure,'' Deputy Gray said. ``We have a better understanding of what is there.''

Mr. Coan also said new techniques have been devised to train firefighters heading into dangerous buildings. At the state Fire Academy there is a new safety training program, he said. The Worcester Fire Department has even created its own annual safety and survival school, a workshop that attracts firefighters from across the country, he said.

Mr. Coan said the Worcester fire highlighted problems with vacant buildings, the same way the fire at The Station nightclub in Rhode Island last year, in which 100 people died, raised concerns about crowding in entertainment venues.

He cited statistics showing one firefighter is injured in every 34 responses to a fire. But a firefighter is injured in every eight responses to a fire in a vacant building.

Photo below
Bob Gibree Sr. of Worcester, John Shaughnessy of Maine and Bob Gibree Jr. of Florida, from left, look at the makeshift firefighters memorial on Franklin Street at the site of a fire in which six firefighters died in 1999. A rectangular sign with a diagonal slash can be seen in the background on a building at 254 Franklin St. The sign indicates the vacant building is hazardous or dangerous. (ED WOZNIAK)