Damned by success: the GFD dilemma


by Mike Kroll


Fires in Galesburg are rare. Rarer still are structure fires. The preponderance of fire calls in this town are for emergency medical reasons or traffic accidents, not fires, and this makes each structure fire stand out whether it is huge like the O.T. Johnson fire or modest like the fire at 1777 Grand Avenue that occurred on Friday, May 9th. This fire destroyed the contents of a single apartment unit and damaged the structure itself but was largely confined to just that unit in the 16-unit complex. No one was injured but some onlookers were openly critical of the Galesburg Fire Department for what they saw as a delayed response.

According to GFD records the fire was initially called into the 911 dispatch center at 3:14pm and the alarm was put out to the fire companies at 3:15:44pm. This address is located in the southeast portion of Galesburg and the closest fire station is Brooks Street mere blocks away but that station was empty when the alarm sounded. Brooks Street station's Engine 52 with a captain and two fire fighters was positioned at Central Station at the time of the alarm. This fact did not go unnoticed by witnesses to the fire.

As is typically the case today, multiple calls were received for this same incident. “Everyone has a cell phone today and that usually means that when an incident occurs numerous callers contact 911,” explained Brad Stevenson, GFD battalion chief. “There are good and bad impacts to this. While it is good that calling 911 is now so easy to do the automatic location identification for cell phones is both slower and less accurate than land lines and the volume of calls can overwhelm the 911 operators who must also dispatch emergency personnel.”

Engine 52 acknowledged the alarm from the Central Fire Station at 3:16:26pm by radio as the crew suited up in turnout gear and mounted the engine to respond. Fire Prevention Captain Dan Foley was also at Central Station as the alarm sounded and he responded in GFD pickup truck 56 almost simultaneously with Engine 52. At 3:17:59pm Engine 52 requested the Main Street stop lights be turned to green as they headed east toward Grand Avenue. By 3:20:54pm Engine 52 has turned south on Grand Avenue and radios to report heavy smoke visible ahead. Engine 52 and Foley arrived at the fire scene together at 3:21:50pm according to radio records.

GFD policy is that all available companies respond to any structure fire in the city. This provides for the maximum amount of both fire fighting equipment and personnel to put out the fire and rescue any potential victims. A typical Galesburg fire company consists of three or four fire fighters, including a captain or battalion chief. Generally this means that the Brooks Street station is typically manned by three fire fighters on Engine 52 while Fremont Street Station generally has four fire fighters on Engine 53 and five fire fighters are typically on duty at Central Station on Engine 54 and Rescue Squad 55. Fire fighters work 24-hour shifts, one day on and two days off with fire fighters expected to be available for call back as required on their first day off.

At the time of the Grand Avenue fire Engine 54 and Rescue 55 along with Engine 53 were completing a training exercise near the Lake Storey Dam. As the call was received Engine 53 was already en route returning to its Fremont Street station near Yemm Chevrolet southbound on North Henderson Street while Central Station personnel were still on the north end of Lake Storey. It was because of this training exercise that Engine 52 was repositioned from Brooks Street to Central station. At 3:16:19pm Engine 53 acknowledged the alarm and began responding to the Grand Avenue fire location. Engine 54 and Rescue 55 radioed at 3:19pm that they were then responding. All available fire companies were thus responding within five minutes of the initial 911 call and the first units arrived on-scene in just over six minutes after the alarm sounded.

Galesburg fire chief John Cratty has frequently stated that the national standard is a four minute response time once a company leaves for the scene of a reported fire, allowing 60 seconds to suit up in turnout gear and mount their vehicle following an alarm. “There is a second less known standard calling for three fire companies arriving at the scene of a fire within eight minutes of the alarm,” noted Cratty, “but I think you'll agree that this is a much lower standard. I would prefer to get the first company on scene as fast as possible to begin rescue or fire fighting early. In the case of the Grand Avenue fire our response was delayed by a couple of minutes because of positioning due to training but this was not a significant delay.”

Subsequent interviews by fire prevention officers reveal that Carissa Simmons, a resident of the apartment, was asleep with her three year old son and woke up when she felt the fire near her legs. The bedding was already well involved when Simmons awoke and she initially attempted to fight the fire herself. “The resident apparently tried to throw water on the fire herself well before anyone called 911,” said Stevenson. “But the fire was already well engaged in bedding and the mattress and such efforts couldn't succeed. It is our advice that the very first thing you do when a fire is discovered is to get everyone out of the building and call 911 to report it-- BEFORE you attempt to fight it yourself. In most cases people shouldn't even attempt to fight the fire themselves as that puts them as great risk.”

Stevenson continued, “In this case the fire began accidentally when the child was playing with a cigarette lighter and caught the bedding on fire. Not only did the occupant attempt to fight the fire herself but she left the apartment door wide open as she left. Between the bedding and mattress and the heavy fire load present in the apartment plus ample outside air to feed it the fire grew very, very quickly within the apartment. The fire had become very hot and flashed over before Engine 52 arrived, that's why the two cars were burning just outside the apartment door. Actually the fact that damage was confined to the apartment and the two vehicles parked just outside the open door can be credited to our fire and building codes and responsible remodeling by Carver Center when they converted the old motel into this Transitional Living Center.”

By the time Engine 53 arrived on scene the initial responders already had the fire under control and Engine 54 and Rescue 55 were almost immediately released as Engines 52 and 53 completed work on scene. “The Brooks Street crew did a tremendous job engaging a structure fire and getting it under control before the rest of us arrived,” commented Stevenson. “While Engine 52 did get connected to the fire hydrant on site they really could have fought the fire with just the water on their truck. It is amazing how little water regularly gets used when we fight a typical structure fire and it is not uncommon to use more water during ventilation than putting the fire out.”

Less than 20 minutes after the initial 911 call the fire was under control.

Cratty speculates that because of the delay in initially calling 911 it appeared to some observing neighbors that the fire department's response was much more delayed than the records indicate. “I also understand how it must have appeared to see the Brooks Street station empty as this fire was called in but citizens must realize that during daytime hours it is actually rare to find all three stations fully manned and waiting for a call. The fire department engages in a number of activities nearly every day that require our crews to leave their stations but as policy we always try to keep one company on either side of Main Street and the tracks unless we are responding to a fire.”

At the time in question much of the GFD was engaged in training, an activity that consumes more of a fire fighters duty time than anything else. “Next to emergency responses training is our most important departmental priority,” stated Cratty. “There aren't that many real fires that develop our skills and we wouldn't want to risk lives or property unnecessarily so we spend a lot of time training and retraining ourselves trying to anticipate any possible emergency.”

“And training isn't a one-time thing,” added Stevenson. “You have to keep refreshing those skills and building that knowledge so it doesn't get stale or fall behind new developments or technologies. Constant training helps us fight fires better but more importantly it helps assure the safety of both the public and our own personnel.”

As described by both Cratty and Stevenson GFD training activities strive to be as realistic as possible and that often means conducting training exercises not only away from the fire stations themselves but also away from the department's training facility at Hawthorne Center. “We really don't do as much training at Hawthorne Center as people think,” noted Stevenson, “it is much more common to find us out in the community somewhere training unless we need the props available at Hawthorne.”

“And a considerable amount of training is really classroom based and that does take place in individual fire stations,” added Cratty. “But when we engage in field training you are just as likely to find us near the rail yards as Lake Storey or taking advantage of a building about to be demolished. We try to use buildings scheduled for demolition as training opportunities whenever possible because it affords our crews the opportunity to practice attacking a house fire or ventilating a structure where we can actually use all of our equipment. And you know the neighbors like to see us do such training as well because our presence signals that demo day is quickly approaching.”