The influence of historical fires on modern fire operations allows firefighters an opportunity to learn from the past. A triple Line of Duty Death (LODD) fire event on March 28th, 1994, now known as “The Watts Street Fire” created several lessons learned opportunities that still apply to present-day fires. From their deaths, it is our obligation to learn from history, to prevent a recurrence of the past. After Watts Street, the FDNY made a significant operational update and overcame politics holding back necessary equipment. The fire reinforces the need for all firefighters to be combat-ready when going above the fire to perform any fire ground activities, recognize the warning signs of hostile or extreme fire events, and how actions taken in ventilation limited fires affect the whole fireground. Utilize the lessons learned by brothers and sisters who made the ultimate sacrifice to do your best to return home to your family.
Technical Data & Reports to Review
- Official FDNY Investigative Report 62 Watts Street March 28th, 1994
- Division 7 Training & Safety Newsletter June 2018 – 62 Watts Street Manhattan
- Thermal Protective Performance – NFPA 1971, Clothing for Structural Fire Fighting
- Fire Behavior Case Study – Apartment Fire: New York, NY (62 Watts Street)
- NIST – Modeling a Backdraft Incident: The 62 Watts St. (NY) Fire
- Fireman Dies In Battling Blaze in SoHo – New York Times
- Giuliani Promises Firefighters New Gear – New York Times
- Talk of Life And Death Of Firefighter From Widow – New York Times
- There Are No Medals For Common Sense – Vina Drennan
- Diary of a Hero’s Widow – NY Daily News
- Fire Development Changes When A Fire Becomes Vent Limited – UL FSRI
On Monday, March 28th, 1994 at 1936 hours, Engine 24, Engine 55, Engine 7, Ladder 5, Ladder 8, and Battalion 2 responded to Manhattan Box 308 for a telephone alarm reporting smoke on the top floor of 60 Watts Street. Following the FDNY’s standard operating procedures the inside team of the 1st due Truck (Ladder 8) operates in the fire apartment. They perform forcible entry for the Engine, and primary search in the fire apartment. The inside team of the 2nd due Truck (Ladder 5) searches the floor directly above the fire. Unknown to the first arriving companies the fire had been burning inside the fire apartment for over an hour creating a ventilation limited fire. Several updates to the building had occurred since its original construction in the late 1800s. Prior to the fire, the fire apartment had seen several updates to increase its overall energy efficiency that includes energy-efficient windows, extra thermal insulation, and new doors.
Upon arriving at 1940 hours, Ladder 8 noticed smoke from the first-floor apartment of 62 Watts Street and transmitted the 10-75. The roof firefighter from Ladder 8 entered the fire building thinking it was Exposure 4 of the dispatched address, 60 Watts Street, to get to the rear of the reported fire building. He later gained access to the roof by climbing to the roof of Exposure 4, crossing over to the fire building’s roof, and opened the scuttle above the open stairwell in the multiple dwelling to allow for the escape of heat and fire gases once the apartment door was opened.
Ladder 5 notified Ladder 8 they were going above the fire, and Ladder 8 started forcing the apartment door on floor one. Ladder 5 encountered a fortified door to the apartment on the second floor, and the additional entrance normally found in this building style had been removed by construction. Engine 55 laid out their uncharged hose line near the apartment entrance awaiting water. Ladder 8 forced the apartment door open, and smoke from the fire apartment initially pushed into the hallway and then pulled back inside. Ladder 8 was unable to enter the apartment due to high heat conditions and ordered the Ladder 8 OV to vent the front windows.
Upon taking the windows the fire began overtaking the first floor, filling the stairwell, and Ladder 5 transmitted an “URGENT”. Engine 55 began attacking the fire and the intensity had increased tremendously. The fire was filling the entire stairwell from the first-floor apartment to 10 to 15 feet above the roofline from the scuttle and skylight. Moments later Engine 55 and the Ladder 5’s tillerman discovered Ladder 5’s three-person inside team badly burned with one fatality. This hostile fire event occurred within the first 10 minutes on the scene. Firefighter James Young died on the day of the fire. Firefighter Chris Siedenburg died one day after the fire. Captain John Drennan died 40 days later from his third and fourth-degree burn injuries covering over 60% of his body.
The men of Ladder 5’s inside team experienced temperatures over 2,200 degrees for 6½ minutes based on NIST modeling that occurred as a result of a backdraft. Previous attempts to upgrade from boots and long coats to encapsulating bunker gear from Morning Pride were denied by the previous mayor (Dinkins) and the budget office as too costly. Political arguments about the survivability of Ladder 5’s crew had they been equipped with turnout gear ensued, and firefighters stood firm that their brothers may have still been injured, but survived. The newly seated mayor that took office three months prior to the fire said the city would find a way to afford the 10 million dollar expense. Mayor Guliani even took the budget office director that denied previous requests, to the hospital to see the burned firefighters and impress the need for this personal protective equipment. The goal was to provide bunker gear that would sustain a 17.5-second flashover. The FDNY also added the FAST Truck on the transmission of the 10-75.
What This Means For Firefighters Today
- This event pushed lagging departments nationwide to move into Turnout Gear from long coat & hip boot configurations.
- Going green, and energy efficiency building initiatives are not going away. Tighter homes will continue to increase the potential to produce hostile/extreme fire events in ventilation limited fires.
- When operating above a fire, notify the Engine and Truck companies below where you are going. If time allows, establish an area of refuge prior to the companies operating under you opening up the fire apartment.
- Know the location of other companies operating on the fireground, and understand the greater impact your tactical actions can have on other firefighters operating within a fire building.
- Be prepared to protect the interior stairs in a single or multiple-family dwelling.
- Have all your bunker gear on and buttoned up, SCBA on, and flowing air. Anticipate rapid changes in conditions when the fire apartment door is opened up, and with modern combustibles.
- All firefighters need to understand fire behavior and reading smoke. Drivers are critical to keeping watch curbside even if an incident commander is present. If smoke conditions are not improving, hostile conditions may be imminent.
- The Watts Street fire had a significant hostile fire and flow path event. Another significant flow path fire event killed Firefighter Mark Falkenhan, January 19th, 2011, in Baltimore County Maryland.
- Fireground Commanders must be ready to deploy a rapid intervention team when crews are operating within the IDLH atmosphere and have an immediate plan if the first due unit is making an immediate rescue.
- Recognize near-miss events as learning opportunities through tailboard talks and AAR’s.
- Discuss this fire with your crew, and assess how you would operate in a similar fire situation.
- Know the TPP rating of your PPE, know what it means, and utilize time delayed tactics if needed.