Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Providence Fire Department:

Already Stretched to the Limit

For the past few years the Providence Fire Department has been fortunate in that there have been very few 4-Alarm (or higher) fires in the city. There have also been very few occurrences of two or more serious fires burning simultaneously in the city. We (the Providence Fire Department) and the citizens of Providence have indeed been very fortunate.

All that changed at the end of May 2006. There was a serious fire in an old commercial building on Weybosset Street which was connected by a common wall to the buildings on the rest of the block. The fire was a stubborn blaze that snaked its way through the building via voids and spaces left after numerous renovations. Try as they may, the 1st Alarm assignment of firefighters were unable to expose all of the fire and extinguish it before it became unstoppable. That’s what happens sometimes – especially when you don’t have enough manpower on the scene in the early stages of a fire.

Eventually this fire grew to greater than 4 Alarms. With the additional manpower the firefighters were ultimately successful at keeping the fire from spreading beyond the original fire building. That in itself was no small accomplishment and required multiple companies to remain on the scene for days after the original alarm was sounded. This is not an unusual occurrence when a large building has been destroyed by fire and is rendered structurally unstable. Firefighters, unable to enter the building due to the unsafe conditions must continue to pour water on the rubble until demolition crews remove enough debris to expose the hidden pockets of fire.

Less than a week later there was a serious fire on the upper floor of a building under construction at the Manchester Street power plant. There was also a worker injured on the fire floor who needed to be rescued. A fire 7 stories above the ground of an unfinished building required firefighters to carry all of their equipment to the scene. Carrying 100 lbs. of equipment (including their turnout gear) up seven flights of stairs on a hot summer day would be beyond the endurance level of most people. Unfortunately for these firefighters, that’s when the real job began. It’s easy to see that this fire required more than a 4-Alarm assignment to provide the needed manpower to allow the Chief in charge of the operation to alternate fresh crews in order to prevent heat related exhaustion to cripple the attack. Don’t forget that these firefighters were wearing heavy turnout pants, coat, bulky boots, helmets and air pacs.

Once again the Providence Firefighters were up to the task. The fire was extinguished, the worker rescued, and the building sustained minimal damage. Both these fires, however, required virtually every working member of the department to be utilized in order to gain control of the emergency. Luckily for the city, these fires did not grow any larger or advance so quickly that the members of the Providence Fire Department could not get ahead of them and bring them under control.

In these instances we were all fortunate in that another dwelling fire did not erupt during the many hours the entire working shift was tied up. What if a 3-story, 6-unit occupied apartment building – and there are many throughout the city – caught fire and people were trapped in the upper floors? Many areas were completely without fire protection. Other areas were covered by fire companies from other cities and towns via our Mutual Aid agreement with other communities. The members of these companies don’t, however, have a working knowledge of the streets and the neighborhoods – causing a major delay in getting to the scene. Many of the companies sent here to cover our city are woefully undermanned – many with just 2 firefighters! Many of these companies don’t have the proper equipment to quickly hook up to our hydrants or our buildings’ sprinkler systems. Some are manned by firefighters who have never fought a fire in a three-decker!

This is a formula for disaster. Once again, on these two occasions, we dodged a bullet. No other fires occurred during this time frame. I am, however, not sure of how many Rescue calls were victims of delayed responses due to out-of-town companies covering them. I’m also not privy to any information regarding serious consequences resulting from these delays.

Again, on the night of July 18th, there was a serious fire which required the entire Providence Fire Department to bring it under control. The fire at the Port of Providence on the dock of Motiva Enterprises’ terminal was potentially a disaster which could have easily grown beyond our capabilities to contain it. It required the fast action and professionalism of the workers at Motiva and those of the Danish tanker, Nordeuropa, as well as those of the Providence firefighters to avert a major disaster that evening - not to mention to incredible conditions they were forced to work under due to the storm. This left much of the remainder of the city unprotected. There were some Mutual Aid companies at our stations, but most of our neighbors were busy themselves and couldn’t spare too many resources. Once again, despite so much potential for additional disaster, we were fortunate that the storm didn’t cause more life threatening situations to which we would have been unable to respond.

Again Providence dodges a bullet. A question for all you gamblers out there – how many more times do you think we’ll be able to dodge the bullet before we pay a hefty price in destruction?

Mayor Cicilline remains committed to gaining “staffing prerogatives” from the Providence firefighters. Enough with the political double talk. I think every citizen understands that the mayor means staffing cuts. He is determined to be able to either cut the number of fire apparatus on duty at any given time in the city or to cut the number of personnel on many of the trucks – period. Either way he saves money on the fire department’s budget, therefore he’ll take either option. He wants to cut the fire department in a city that’s been called one of the fastest growing cities in the Northeast! Just look around at all of the new construction going on in the city. Look at all of the new luxury condos that the mayor himself has boasted about. Look at the incredible resurgence in the city that he so proudly points out has taken place under his administration. The number of people in the city at any given point is growing at an alarming rate, yet the mayor is determined to cut back the fire department resources that are already being forced to stretch to the brink of disaster time and time again.

I think it’s time for Mayor Cicilline to find another place to balance his budget other than on the backs of the City’s firefighters. I believe that we’ve been fortunate up to this point but I am not willing to leave the safety of the citizens of this great city to chance. It would take but one time for a secondary disaster to strike while the majority of our fire department is tied up to wreak upon us a hefty price for his short-sightedness – very possibly a price measured in human lives.

No comments: