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Reflecting on Tragedy: The Worcester Cold Storage Warehouse Fire

Posted on December 2, 2009 by Deputy U.S. Fire Administrator, Glenn A. Gaines

Ten years has passed so very quickly since that unforgettable day, December 3, 1999. Our fire service will never be the same thankfully, because there have been many important changes made to policies and procedures to help ensure that there is never again a fire like that which occurred in Worcester, Massachusetts.

I am certain that families, colleagues, friends, neighbors, city officials, and others find it difficult to see this date on a calendar, watch, cell phone, etc., without thinking about the six men who died fighting fire in that abandoned building. But, I believe that the loss of these precious lives has brought the fire service to a better place for preventing fires in abandoned buildings across the United States. Do we still have work to do? I believe we do—wouldn’t you agree?

I know that many of you read the reports and participated in workshops and discussions about the events of that day. I know that many of you made policy and operational changes. But, have you and your department put off acting on what you learned? Is there anything you and your department have yet to do that can improve your operation and decision-making as we remember our lost comrades of ten years ago?

I took some time to review two reports as part of my reflection on the tragedy of December 3, 1999. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health released a fire investigation summary in November 2000 and the United States Fire Administration (USFA) published a technical report titled: Abandoned Cold Storage Warehouse Multi-Firefighter Fatality Fire Worcester, Massachusetts, No. USFA-TR-134 (PDF, 1.0 Mb, Adobe PDF Help), in December 1999. This was a powerful exercise for me as I took time to focus on the many critical recommendations that were made to us—ones that we can certainly implement. Two stand out for me: 1) “Ensure that inspections of vacant buildings and pre-fire planning are conducted that cover all potential hazards, structural building materials, and renovations which may be encountered during a fire, so that the incident commander will have the necessary structural information to make informed decisions and implement an appropriate plan of attack.” and 2) ”Ensure that the Incident Command System is implemented at the fire scene.”

I know that in the wake of the heartbreaking tragedy in Worcester ten years ago there are more vacant buildings boarded up and more abandoned buildings identified. There are more pre-planning and better response strategies. Improved building codes and ordinances allow fire departments important access to these buildings and potential deathtraps, greatly reducing the risk to firefighters.

Perhaps you and your organization would benefit from a “stand down” to do a status check on your progress of how well you are doing to mitigate the dangers of vacant and abandoned buildings. Take some time together to determine how far you have come to eliminate senseless loss of life and injuries. In addition, I encourage you to read the September/October 2009 issue of the NFPA Journal to learn about the Columbus, Ohio experience and what Fire Chief Ned Petus, Jr and his department are doing about vacant and abandoned homes in their city. And visit our USFA Website to take a special edition of Coffee Break Training—Special Blend: Abandoned Buildings (PDF, 178 Kb, Adobe PDF Help).

Are you doing all you can do to ensure that the six valiant Worcester firefighters did not die in vain?

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