Thursday, April 24, 2008

Fire Station 5 - Wilmington, Delaware

Fire Station 5
Originally uploaded by LouAngeli2008

Wilmington (DE) Fire Department's Engine Company-5 serves the northwestern portions of the city from this landmark firehouse. The station was originally built for the Water Witch Volunteer Fire Co. #1 in 1893, and the department has been using it ever since. Station 5 will soon be relocating its engine and staff, but the building will remain, protected as part of the Historic Register.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

A great Firefighter – An even greater Friend

Chief John P. Mulhern Passes
by Lou Angeli

Wilmington, DE (April 18, 2008) – It is with sadness that I share information dealing with the death of a great firefighter and friend, John P. Mulhern, Jr. Sean was 66 when he passed away on April 15th at the Christiana Hospital (Wilmington, DE), where he was surrounded by his family and friends.

If ever a man was born to serve others in this world, it was Sean Mulhern. During his early years he leaned toward a military career, attending Valley Forge Military Academy as a cadet, then as a member of the Delaware National Guard.

He entered the fire service some 40 years ago during the height of Wilmington’s infamous King riots – a city ablaze for months. It was the late 60’s and Sean saw a great deal of action as an Auxiliary firefighter with the city's Civil Defense Reserve Unit. With Wilmington still a hotbed of action, it was no surprise when Sean entered career service with the WFD as a firefighter assigned to Rescue-1.

As a Wilmington firefighter, Sean served in every division, including fire suppression, administration and as an arson investigator. He earned his bars both as a Lieutenant and Captain as soon as he was able to test for those ranks, and not much later was promoted to Battalion Chief under the command of Chief Jerome Donahue.

One evening, as Sean and I shared war stories on the bench in front of the old Fire Station 2 (12th and French Streets), he told me what I considered to be a pretty tall tale.

“Louie,’ pulling the unlit cigar away from his lips, ‘someday I’ll be chief of this department.”

I laughed and reminded him that his last name needed to be Malloy to achieve such an honor. At the time, 3 generations of the Malloy family were on the job, serving from Chief down to firefighter. But nevertheless, he assured me that the 5-bugle shield would someday be attached to his jacket.

Sean Mulhern was appointed Chief of Department in 1985 at a time when city fire departments throughout the East Coast were losing jobs to layoffs, cutbacks and station closings. But Mulhern managed to keep the Wilmington Fire Department at full force, maintaining staffing of four firefighters on every apparatus. “The Chief” was aggressive when it came to the actual firefight, and during his tenure, companies were trained to fight fires more efficiently and in safer fashion. The safety of his crews was at the top of Mulhern's "to do" list at every incident.

His work as a tactician and administrator were recognized nationally, and the Wilmington Fire Department soon became a template for similar sized agencies nationwide. The key to his success, as Sean always noted, was that he surrounded himself with a talented fireline and administrative staff.

In 1993, Sean fell victim to Wilmington’s political machine, and upon the election of Mayor James Sills, the city’s greatest firefighter was asked to step down. He may have stepped down, but his career continued to move upward serving as head of the State’s Emergency Management Agency (DEMA) and in 2001 as Vice President of Security for MBNA Bank's worldwide facilities.

There is a time each day that I think about the brave men and women that we in the firefighting family have lost. The 343, the Charleston Nine, the Worcester Six as well as great individuals like Jim Page, Tommy Brennan and so many others. From this moment on, when I recall those great firefighters, John P. Mulhern, Jr. will be the first to come to mind. Sean Mulhern was my friend, colleague and mentor, and now that he’s gone, that relationship has even greater meaning to me.

Sean is survived by the woman he adored, his wife Coleen Pope-Mulhern and their children Felicia M. Pope and Victoria L. Pope.

In lieu of flowers, the family suggests contributions to the education fund for daughters, Felicia M. and Victoria L. Pope. Checks made payable to Felicia M. Pope/Victoria L. Pope; WSFS Bank, P.O. Box 1889, Wilmington, DE, 19899-9713, ATTENTION: Pope Education Fund on envelope.

Mass of Christian Burial will be offered at 11 am on Tuesday April 22, 2008 at St. Elizabeth's Roman Catholic Church, 809 S. Broom St., Wilmington, DE 19805. Entombment will follow Mass in Gracelawn Memorial Park. Family and friends may call from 5-8 pm on Monday April 21 at CHANDLER FUNERAL HOME, 2506 Concord Pike, Wilmington.


Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Little Fireboat That Could

If they’d just open the drawbridges

by: Lou Angeli

Wilmington, DE (April 15, 2008) – On Monday of this week, Wilmington Fireboat Captain Joe Kempista listened closely to one of the dozen or so Fire-EMS dispatches that blare through his portable hand-talki each day. “Structure Fire – Kahunaville – along the Riverfront.” The tone of the dispatcher's voice was noticeably different -- there was urgency. That combined with the fact that he added a RIT Team as part of the first alarm assignment was an indication to the veteran Wilmington fire officer that there was work.

Kempista and two crew members immediately stepped aboard “Firefighter,” Wilmington's mighty 65ft Class-A fireboat, and prepared to push off from its berth alongside the Winchester Bridge in the Christina River. (see map) In just a few moments Fireboat-7 (the vessel’s radio designation) was underway, responding as quickly as land-based companies.

Normally Joe Kempista would point Fireboat 7's bow toward the Northeast, making way downriver along the Christina toward the Port of Wilmington, or even out into the Delaware River shipping channels. But on Monday, after clearing the berth, the Captain brought “Firefighter” 180 degrees about and began an upriver heading, toward the city’s highly touted, revitalized Riverfront.

Well, let’s say he attempted to travel upriver.

Unlike the trip into the Delaware River, when Fireboat-7 is required to respond upriver to the high-value riverfront district, the boat must pass under three drawbridges, one of which is unstaffed. The city’s Marine Emergency Services Facility stands in the shadow of the first span, the Winchester Bridge.

Even before he got underway, Captain Kempista signaled the Winchester bridge operator that he would need to pass through quickly. This wasn’t another training exercise – Kempista, the bridge operator and everyone on Wilmington’s Southside could see the heavy smoke lifting into the sky over the Christina River.

The bridge operator went about the routine of lowering the warning gates and stopping traffic. Next he pressed buttons to lift the recently renovated steel span – but nothing happened. He tried again to no avail. The old 3rd Street Bridge wasn’t budging.

Now, firefighters don’t curse while on duty, but I can only imagine the expletives flying about on the bridge of “Firefighter”, especially when the first-due Battalion Chief reported heavy fire conditions on the river side of the former warehouse-sized nightclub. Quartered just a half mile away from the fire structure, Kempista (and every other firefighter responding) knew that the job would have been easy work for “Firefighter” and its array of master stream nozzles and 6500 gpm pumping capacity.

But the damned bridge wouldn’t lift. And so the fire burned.

In the meantime, land-based companies began to arrive, stretching handlines to attack the blaze. Much of the vast outside wooden deck structures and adjoining facades were well involved, and it didn't take along for flames to make their way through broken windows and open doors into the main structure. The firefight was made even more difficult to control as flames snaked through voids between interior walls and the building’s corrugated steel exterior.

It was the type of blaze that demands a constant watch over the troops. The concern is building collapse and the conditions at Kahunaville were ripe for the prospect. Staying ahead of the game, Command quickly called for additional alarms, bringing in mutual-aid companies from surrounding New Castle County towns as well as off-duty shift members.

An hour later, the bulk of the blaze was knocked down. An hour later, Fireboat-7 finally arrived, docking just 50 feet from where the blaze had started. Joe Kempista, the most experienced marine firefighter in Delaware, stood on the aft deck simply shaking his head.

As the City of Wilmington continues rapid expansion along the Christina Riverfront, fire protection should remain a priority concern. Newly-constructed offices, residences,and commercial structures are clustered together with century old warehouses in an area that was once a major US port. Many of the buildings, which are being renovated, are vacant warehouses and factories, built at the turn of the 20th century. Old structures, when combined with a welder’s torch make for a lousy combination, and the WFD has experienced dozens of such fires.

Is there someone at fault? Certainly not the Fire Department nor the City of Wilmington, since the bridges are operated and maintained by the State of Delaware. And it would be bad gesture to point the finger of blame at the state. Two of the bridges, including the Winchester, recently underwent multimillion dollar renovations.

If you ask Joe Kempista, I’d bet he’d chalk the event up to Murphy’s Law. In the fire-rescue business, we often cite Mr. Murphy and his law when a job goes south and we don't feel the need to explain it. The heartbreak about the Kahunaville incident is that those of us who were on scene didn’t have the opportunity to watch Fireboat-7 in action.

But as long as there are old buildings and welder’s torches, we may still have that opportunity.
More importantly, this incident teaches us a lesson about firefighting marine vessels. Wilmington Fire Department’s “Firefighter” remains a vital fire-rescue resource for the entire region, as it is the ONLY Class A firefighting vessel operating along the busy Delaware River, from the Port of Philadelphia to the Atlantic Ocean.

PS: Next time, the bridge will open! Mr. Murphy

Photos of the incident: