Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Greek Wildfires: Terrorism or Lack of Firefighting Resources?

Lack of resources and arsonists plague Greek firefighting effort
Greek government declared a countrywide state of emergency to help mobilize resources to fight the far-reaching wildland fires, that are being blamed on arsonist and terrorists. The worst fires are concentrated in the mountains of the Peloponnese Peninsula in southern Greece and on the island of Evia north of Athens.Tuesday morning, firefighters said 89 new fires broke out overnigjht and dozens of others were burning throughout the country unchecked.

The firefight is proving to be very difficult as poorly-equipped municipal firefighters muster citizens to serve on hand-to-hand bucket brigades in some places. France, Italy, Cyprus and Israel have sent firefighters, with aircraft coming from France and Italy, sources reported. As of this writing another 12 countries were sending reinforcements.

Blazes came within inches of destroying the museum at Olympia, housing famous classical sculptures such as Praxiteles' Hermes. But air tankers, helicopters and scores of firefighters beat it back. 60 Firefighters and 6 engines remain on the scene in case the blaze flares up again.
“The destruction is of biblical proportions,” Nicholas Orphanos, a volunteer firefighter in the Peloponnese, told Reuters. “There are villages we want to go to (but) cannot because the roads are blocked. In 30 years, I have never seen such destruction.” (2)
According to conservative estimates, 110 villages have been razed to the ground, six and a half million acres of farmland consumed, and countless acres of pine forest and olive groves reduced to cinders. “Much of Arcadia, in the central Peloponnese, a prime tourist attraction, is reminiscent of moonscape and thousands of rural Greeks fear financial ruin.” reported The Guardian. (3)

On Monday, Prosecutor Dimitris Papangelopoulos ordered an investigation into whether the fires could have been the work of terrorists. 33 people have already been arrested on suspicion of arson, including an elderly woman who was cooking outside her home.

With all of the unrelated, spontaneous outbreaks, one can accept the fact that these fires are arson in nature. But the real problem here isn’t terrorism, it is Greece’s inability to deal with large scale fires of this nature and magnitude. In a country whose landscape is much like that of California, there is no dedicated Forest Firefighting service, no incident command system and nothing even close to hot shot teams. Without the ability to build and maintain firebreaks, these massive blazes simply roll across the landscape, fed by hot, dry winds from the Middle Eastern deserts.

In 2003, the Greek government appropriated 18 million Euros to revamp the Greek Fire Service. There were to be 735 new firefighting vehicles, new protective gear for firefighters, new fire stations, in addition to helicopters and fireboats. The idea was to place the Greek Fire Service on equal footing with the USA, UK, Sweden and Germany. But somehow that procurement came up short, and only 50 apparatus were actually delivered -- all of them to Athens. Some claim that government’s investment was a ruse, simply to impress foreign visitors who attended the 2004 Summer Olympic Games.

In recent months, there have been complaints of inefficiency of the fire service in Greece. Average response times by fire units serving rural areas is 35 minutes – and remember, that’s the average. This is compounded by the fact that Greek government recently prohibited the use helicopters for the firefighting for fear that such operations would create additional power cuts, a common occurrence in rural Greece.

The problem of controlling the huge fires is a general lack of investment in firefighting equipment and personnel, reports the popular UK-based blog EU Referendum. “ In Greece,’ the blog reports, ‘investments happen only after the horse has bolted". (4)

And then there are the politics of natural disasters. In a move reminiscent of FEMA’s response to Katrina, government in Greece has firmly placed the blame on someone else – in this case the unseen terrorist. That’s understandable -- if you’re an idiot. National elections are in 3 weeks, and Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis would prefer to be viewed as a hero – not the one responsible for cutting funding for firefighters and firefighting.

(1) BBC World News
(2) Reuters News Service
(3) The Guardian
(4) EU Referendum
(5) Wired News (sat image)

Friday, August 24, 2007

Remembering Andrew: 15 Years Later

15 years ago today, Mother Nature decided to pay a visit to bustling Dade County, Florida. She actually arrived as a "He" and nearly everyone knew of her intentions, so few were there to greet him.

Hurricane Andrew is the second-most-destructive hurricane in U.S. history, and the last of three Category 5 hurricanes that made U.S. landfall during the 20th century. Andrew caused $26.5 billion in damage ($41.1 billion in 2007 US dollars), with most of that damage cost in South Florida. The hurricane resulted in 65 deaths. (1)

Compared to Katrina, Andrew was small – just 110 miles wide. But as the storm approached the Florida coast, Andrew whipped up fierce winds of 175 miles per hour. That’s when he decided to make landfall, taking aim at one of South Florida's most densely populated areas -- Dade County.

In addition to the unprecedented winds (one gust was clocked at 212 mph) Andrew spawned hundreds of tiny tornadoes called mini-whirls. It was these vortices -- not straight line winds -- that are believed to have caused the major damage.

Residents of South Florida, specifically Dade County, had plenty of time to heed warnings from emergency officials. Evacuation was mandatory and most citizens made their way North into Central Florida to wait out the storm. Only a few teams of emergency personnel remained behind.

Because of its size, Andrew crossed the peninsula and and into the Gulf of Mexico in just a few hours, but destruction that the storm left during such a short period was unimaginable. The swath extended from Miami in the north – to Homestead, Florida and the upper Keys in the south. Virtually all of southern Dade County lay in ruins. Final tally: More than 25,500 homes were destroyed, over 101,000 others damaged and 65 people killed.

Andrew caused so much damage at Homestead Air Force Base, very near the point of landfall, that the base was forced to close and its squadrons relocated to Italy. Metro-Dade Fire and Rescue was on the street in full strength within an hour of Andrew’s passing making a systematic search of neighborhoods. The department was joined by other emergency personnel from throughout the nation as they combed through the ruins searching for trapped victims. And there were plenty of ruins to search.

Even though Katrina eclipsed Andrew, the statistics from the storm still hold considerable weight. Following the storm, the federal government, the state and municipalities considered Andrew’s visit as a wake-up call and soon took the concept of storm preparedness to new levels.

I believe that writer Ken Kaye of Florida’s Sun Sentinel sums it best.

“Today, South Florida in many ways is stronger because of Andrew, considering that the storm prompted a massive rebuilding and resulted in tougher building codes. But before dawn on that Monday, when the winds were screaming, it was one of this region's darkest hours.” (2)

(1) Wikipedia summary
(2) Sun Sentinel


Sunday, August 19, 2007

2 FDNY Firefighters Killed at Ground Zero

Blaze Rekindles The Horror of 9/11/01

by: Lou Angeli
compiled from dispatches

Two New York firefighters perished while fighting a major blaze in the Deutsche Bank building, just 50 yards from Ground Zero. The building was in the process of being dismantled after it was deemed unsafe following the events of 9/11/01.

The deceased firefighters, both assigned to Ladder 5 amd Engine 24 have been identified as Joseph Graffagnino, 34, an 8 year member of FDNY and 23-year veteran Robert Beddia. On 9/11/01 their firehouse in the Soho section of Manhattan lost 11 members.

WNBC likened the scene to 9/11/01. The acrid smell of smoke, which hung over the neighborhood for days after September 11th, returned to lower Manhattan along with the wail of emergency vehicles.

The abandoned building was being dismantled after it was contaminated in the September 11th attacks. On Tuesday of this past week, workers had dismatled the former 40 story high rise to the 26th floor.

According to initial reports, the blaze broke out at 3:30pm (EDT) between the 14th and 15th floors. The attack was delayed when firefighters found that standpipes were not operational, allowing the blaze to free burn. Firefighters bgean the lengthy task of carrying hoses to upper floors, while others were hoisted by rope to the 17th floor, where the fire started. Within two hours, fire commanders escalated the incident to 7 alarms, bringing 270 firefighters and paramedics, and 70 pieces of apparatus to the scene.

Only a few fire service vehicles were actually operating on scene, directly under the building. Those companies included Engine 10 and Ladder 10, both stationed just feet away on Liberty Street. The remaining companies were staged on West Side Highway and along Church Street – familiar names for those who served at Ground Zero.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency had required that polyurethane sheets surround the building to prevent asbestos and other harmful debris from leaking out. But according to New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, those safety barriers hindered the firefighting operation.

The polyurethane in the building "may in fact have made this fire harder to fight," Spitzer said.

Concerns were raised that smoke plumes coming from the burning building contained the same hazardous materials that caused the building to be condemned several years ago. The most dangerous of those toxic materials is asbestos in a building loaded with the banned fire retardant.

At a Saturday evening press conference, Mayor Michael Bloomberg sought to reassure residents that the chemicals in the building did not present a significant health risk, saying officials saw no need to establish a frozen zone. Firefighters on the scene weren’t buying the mayor’s appraisal, recalling promises by former EPA head Christy Todd Whitman, who claimed on September 13, 2001 that the air at Ground Zero was OK to breathe.

"Terrible event, terrible tragedy, and that house being hit again makes it all the more devastating," said Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta. At least six other firefighters suffered minor injuries, none seriously.

The Deutsche Bank Building sustained major damage during the events of 9/11/01 and was ultimately deemed unsafe to restore. Deconstruction began in 2005 but work was halted for a week last year when a 22-foot-long section of pipe fell from one of the upper floors and went through the roof of a neighboring firehouse, Fire Station 10.


resources: WNBC, WCBS, NY1
photos courtesy: Brian Fountain

Saturday, August 18, 2007

What Happened in Charleston…And Why?

by Lou Angeli

Charleston, SC (August 18, 2007) -- The tragic fire that snuffed the lives of nine of Charleston’s Bravest is the worst tragedy beset the fire service since 9/11/01. Of course the immediate need following the disaster was to mourn the loss of so many great men, and console their families.

But now -- months following the incident, after reports and critiques are beginning to flow in. In a nutshell, we’re learning that the Charleston Fire Department is operating in the past.

Use of 1” Booster Lines

One of the earliest criticisms came from firefighters around the country. Video and still images showed small, snaking red hoses leading into the building. Is it possible that Charleston made the initial attack using booster lines? The answer is yes – because it’s how they’ve always done it.

These 1” diameter rubber hoses, known as booster lines, were commonplace on fire trucks here in the USA 20 years ago. In most cities they were nicknamed “trash lines” and were used to extinguish small nuisance fires. They have since been phased out in most departments because they proved extremely ineffective during the structural firefight and placed firefighters at risk.

Jamy Cote, a former Charleston firefighter, told the Charleston Post and Courier, “The (booster) is usually the first to be pulled off the truck," he said. "Big fire, small fire, it's so ingrained to pull the booster." Such safety inadequacies convinced Cote to resign from CFD

The water flow of a booster line is often debated but experts agree that 50 gallons per minute is the normal maximum. Compare that to the flow rate of an Inch and ¾ handline, which are also carried on Charleston’s engines., which is 150 gallons per minute. Nationwide, these inch and 3/4 handlines are most often used to extinguish a room and contents fire in a single-family dwelling. Potatoes compared to the job facing Charleston firefighters.

“With the amount of fire showing upon their arrival at the sofa warehouse, Charleston firefighters should have chosen to advance more powerful 2.5 inch lines,” says Battalion Chief Ron Vista of the Charlotte (NC) Fire & Rescue. Monsters yes – but at 350 gallons per minute, deuce and a half hose have 10 times the firefighting potential of a booster line.

Charleston Response SOPS

When a fire is reported, most departments have a pre-planned response that takes into consideration the type and size of the building and its occupancy. For example, if the sofa warehouse fire had taken place in Philadelphia, 4 engines, 2 aerial trucks, a heavy rescue squad and 2 Battalion Chiefs would have responded. Count 31 firefighters on scene.

But during the real-life fire in Charleston, only 2 engines and an aerial ladder were dispatched. Upon arriving at the warehouse at 7:11pm, only 11 firefighters were assembled. Their initial focus was on extinguishing a blaze in the rear loading dock area, with a secondary effort to evacuate civilians and prevent the fire from spreading to the showroom and warehouse.

The Firefight

A narrative of the incident reads, “As time progressed, smoke began to appear in the showroom, and shortly thereafter an exterior door was opened near where the (loading dock) fire was raging.” At that point the fire entered the showroom, feeding on a wealth of fuel – several tons of furniture.

Reports are that only one hoseline was in place to defend against the rapidly moving blaze. At the same time, dispatchers notified companies that they had received 9-1-1 calls from an employee who had become trapped in a closet area.

Firefighters rightfully turned their attention toward the rescue operation, and the firefight took a back seat to the most immediate task. At 7:20pm the trapped victim was freed after firefighters had breeched an outside wall.

Following the rescue, firefighters should have been ordered to evacuate the building. With no further life-safety issues, the firefight should have moved from inside the builidng to an exterior attack. However firefighters remained working in the showroom, many of whom became disoriented in the smoke.

News video shot from the front of the store clearly shows firefighters breaking windows in what would normally be an attempt to vent the interior of the building. However in this case, the tactic was mis-timed and firefighters unknowingly fed the blaze with the oxygen it needed to grow even larger. In a published timeline at 7:25pm the interior of the structure erupted into a massive flashover consuming the buildings contents as well as the firefighters inside. With the store fully engulfed in flames, rescue was impossible and by 7:30pm the structure collapsed onto the bodies of the nine Charleston firefighters.

Early Findings

In recent days, the early findings from the dozen or so federal and local investigations that are taking place confirm that Charleston is a department that has been (and continues to be) operating in the past. Here’s the short list of findings…and they’re saying it nicely.

  • Establish Fire Department Safety Officer position
  • Apply incident command procedures on all incidents (ICS – NIMS procedures)
  • Rapidly implement personnel accountability system with passports and PAR
  • Reinforce appropriate use of personal protective clothing and SCBA.
  • Increase initial structure fire response to three engines and one ladder.
  • Utilize the third engine as the Rapid Intervention Team (RIT)
  • Working fire – dispatch 2nd Battalion Chief, 4th engine company and an EMS unit.
  • Utilize the second-arriving Battalion Chief as the incident safety officer
  • Communications changes including the use of the 10-code
  • The use of the tactical radio channel for responses.
  • Changes in water supply standard operating procedures with near-term transition to large diameter supply hose.
  • Use of 1-1/2 inch hose, or larger, for interior attack as well as vehicle fires.
  • Changes to standard nozzle configuration and flow for all handlines
Incredibly, the changes suggested here are not new to the fire service. In fact, they are standard procedure for even the smallest of volunteer fire departments in this country. It begs the question, “What the hell was Chief Rusty thinking?”

Some experts say that the department is so far behind current trends that only a major restructuring could possibly solve the problems in order to allow the department to operate more effectively – and safely. The panels can only make recommendations, so the ability to change, if it is to take place at all, lays solidly with the community, the good citizens of Charleston, who deserve much better fire protection.



(1) Firefighter Hourly Jay Lowry

Fire Strikes Italy's Famed Cinecitta Film Studios

complied from reports

ROME - Last week fire struck Italy's legendary Cinnecita Film Studios causing extensive damage. The fire apparently broke out in a warehouse where the sets of the Anglo-American television blockbuster "Rome" were stored before spreading to other buildings in the vast complex on the outskirts of the Italian capital.

"The flames, may have been caused by a short circuit, started in a highly flammable storage area ... and it didn't take much for everything to be reduced to ashes," Rome fire chief Guido Parisi told reporters.

Then the fire spread to a nearby television set, which isn't in use during the holiday period," he said, adding that no one was hurt in the blaze. A little less than 4,000 square metres (40,000 square feet) of the total area of 40 hectares (100 acres) of the complex was consumed by the flames, which reached up to 40 metres high.

The Vigili Del Fuoco (Italian Fire Service) spent days at the scene dousing the smoldering ruins.
In all, 30 fire apparatus and 300 firefighters responded to the call.

Cinecitta (literally "cinema city"), conceived as a rival to Hollywood, was inaugurated on April 28, 1937, by the dictator Benito Mussolini, who saw its potential as a propaganda tool.

In 2002, Italian-American filmmaker Martin Scorsese came here to produce "Gangs of New York", followed two years later by Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" in 2004. "Rome," the TV series which relates the birth of the Roman empire, is the latest mega-contract.


Sunday, August 12, 2007

Firefighters Remain Critical After Parkside Fire

PARKSIDE BORO, PA (August 11, 2007) - Three volunteer firefighters were injured, two critically, after a home partially collapsed during a fire in Delaware County early Saturday morning.

Just after 2am this morning, Delaware County (PA) Firefighters were alerted to 11 Park Valley Lane for a report of a building fire. Police units arrived quickly and radioed a well involved structure fire at Green Tree Village Town Homes on Park Valley Lane in Parkside, Pa

Parkside Fire Company Engine 45 arrived and its crew advanced an inch and 3/4 line with Truck 65 (Garden City) and Rescue 63 (Green Ridge) close behind. As companies entered the building, the 2nd floor collapsed, trapping 3 Parkside firefighters. A mayday call was issued and rescue operations quickly got underway.

Crews from Green Ridge and Parkside removed 2 of the firefighters from the rear of the building, with the 3rd yet accounted for. As the R.I.T. team was already active, Parkside Command called for the full second alarm assignment. Alerted by his PASS device the 3rd firefighter was found under several feet of debris after 15 minutes. Crews from Garden City and Green Ridge removed the injured firefighter to an awaiting ambulance where he was transported to Crozier-Chester Burn Center.

According to police, a homeowner was awakened by the smell of fire inside his home. The blaze reportedly started on the first floor, so the homeowner was forced to jump from a second story window.

Officials said volunteer firefighter Chase Frost, a 21-year-old Widener University student, suffered burns on more than 50 percent of his body. Both he and Firefighter Dan Brees, 20, of Parkside, were being treated at Crozer-Chester Medical Center and were listed in critical condition. Frost’s mother was flying in from California Saturday night.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Minneapolis Bridge Collapse Scene 8/01/07

Rescuers and civilians joined together as First Responders during the collapse of the 35W bridge in Minneapolis. It's this spirit of volunteerism that sets Americans apart from most other countries. The citizens of Minneapolis re-defined the true meaning of the American Spirit during the moments following the collapse. They risked their lives to help save others -- and there is no greater service to mankind than that. Our thoughts and prayers are with you.