Firefighters worked hearts out

Posted: Thursday, September 02, 2004

I read Mr. Anderson's My Turn in the Sept. 1 edition of the Juneau Empire regarding the operation of my fire department on the Skinner building fire with great interest and I would like to comment upon his allegations. I would have been happy to speak with him on these topics if he had attempted to contact myself or my staff prior to publishing his opinion in the paper.

I congratulate him upon his perception that the fire originated on the building canopy as the result of a torch improperly used in applying roofing tar. On that fact and one other that I will comment upon shortly, we are in full agreement. On his other allegations, I would suggest that if he is going to Monday morning quarterback he should get the facts before he offers his expert opinion.

The workers had attempted to fight the fire for 10 to 15 minutes before the fire department was summoned. This allowed the fire to spread through the concealed spaces far beyond the place of origin even before the fire department arrived.

The first crew arrived at the fire scene less than five minutes after being dispatched. A team was sent to the inside of the building immediately and began attempts to open up the wall and ceiling using hand tools and a chainsaw. This is proper because if you attack the fire from the outside, you risk pushing the fire farther into the concealed spaces. A layer of sheetrock backed by two layers of plywood greatly hampered this effort.

Within 10 minutes of the alarm, Training Officer John George arrived on the scene and using a thermal imager found that the fire had already spread through the second floor, the first and second floor walls and the roof. We couldn't access these spaces because of multiple layers of wall coverings and roof coverings but the fire could and did continue to spread through the combustible concealed spaces.

Mr. Anderson is a "licensed professional engineer with 20 years of experience advising businesses how to prevent fires." When has he tried to open up the walls and roofs of buildings constructed in this manner? This operation was beyond our normal tools even with Herculean efforts by the firefighters. I applaud Chief Beckner's and Fire Marshal Etheridge's innovation of using heavy equipment to get to these concealed spaces.

Now to his recommendations. The City and Borough of Juneau enforces the International Fire Code, which has the same provisions as the NFPA codes he referenced. A permit was obtained for the work. Permits and codes do not always correct human error or natural disasters. That's why there is a fire department.

Second, I am in agreement with him regarding the issue of sprinklers in the downtown businesses. They are highly effective and the downtown area does present a serious fire challenge. In this case the Skinner building was sprinklered and wherever the fire broke through, the sprinklers stopped the fire cold. The problem was that sprinklers were not installed in the concealed combustible spaces. I will recommend to the city manager, mayor and Assembly that they explore a requirement for sprinklers in these older buildings, but it up to our elected officials to make this decision.

Finally, regarding training and the abilities of my department; I find it difficult to accept advice from a person who considers my firefighters "idiots." My firefighters train daily. They have many years of experience and training and our standards are high. Chief Beckner has nearly 30 years of experience in the fire service and Marshal Etheridge has been with the department since 1992. They and our other 40 career and volunteer personnel worked their hearts out to stop this fire. They were successful. There were no fatalities or serious injuries and the fire did not spread to nearby buildings. In fact, most of the contents were also saved.

A critique was held after the fire by the department to examine what went right and what could have been improved. As with any emergency situation, in the calm of the aftermath, things that could be done differently were identified and the lessons learned. One of the lessons that I learned was how good this department is and how proud I am to be a part of this organization.

Mr. Anderson, I hope that you enjoyed your stay in our community.

• Eric Mohrmann is the fire chief of Capital City Fire and Rescue.

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