From Ashes to Indy, Part 1

Running calls-that’s what the Kentland (MD) Volunteer Fire Department in Prince George’s County is all about.

And, Kentland’s busiest unit is its rescue engine, a Pierce Dash heavy-duty rescue-pumper. This hybrid unit was purchased in 2000 to serve a dual role. First was to supply a much-needed extrication and rescue unit for one of the busiest areas of the Washington, D.C., Capitol Beltway, and surrounding roadways. Second was to provide a backup unit to the busy engine company out of the firehouse located on Landover Road. After a long vetting process with the county fire department, the apparatus was granted status to run as a rescue squad and an engine company on the dispatch run cards. This created a very active and well-traveled rig that responded to all types of incidents within the county and beyond during its 15 years of service.

Surprise Ending

April 6, 2015, was just another busy day for the members of Kentland and the entire Prince George’s County Fire/EMS Department-one of the largest combination departments in the country. There are 860 career firefighters and 1,600 volunteers that respond to an estimated 142,000 calls each year. They protect more than 500 square miles out of 45 fire stations. Like any other active day, fire and emergency medical service (EMS) units were busy responding all over the county. Units were clearing a fire in the Kettering section of the county when another box alarm was struck for a commercial building fire on Ashwood Drive in Company 37’s area. Four engine companies, two ladder trucks, two command officers, and Kentland’s rescue-engine were dispatched by the communications center.

Units had no doubt they were going to work as a very large column of black smoke could be seen from the area. As units arrived on the scene, a request for a second alarm was transmitted because the fire involved a number of vehicles, roofing materials, a storage yard, and a building. The department has a set of standard operating procedures that dictates apparatus placement on building fires and each unit’s responsibilities on arrival. Rescue Engine 33, acting as the second-arriving special, was assigned to side C of the structure. They positioned on side C of the D exposure about 300 feet from the fire building. To execute their objectives, they had to cut through a number of protective fences for the large number of commercial properties in this location.

1 The Kentland (MD) Fire Department’s Rescue Engine 33, a 2000 Pierce Dash heavy-duty rescue-pumper. [Photos courtesy of the Kentland (MD) Fire Department unless otherwise noted.]
1 The Kentland (MD) Fire Department’s Rescue Engine 33, a 2000 Pierce Dash heavy-duty rescue-pumper. [Photos courtesy of the Kentland (MD) Fire Department unless otherwise noted.]

The officer in charge (OIC) of Rescue Engine 33 gave returns (radio reports) on the conditions of the fire building and the multiple exposure buildings. Although there was some heat from the fire, the conditions in the storage yard were tenable. As other units began to arrive and worked to establish a water supply in the rear, the crew of the rescue engine was able to examine and report the conditions of the fire building and exposures. Approximately eight minutes into the incident, the winds shifted toward side C, and conditions immediately deteriorated to near-zero visibility and high heat.

As the fire reached pallets in the rear, the storage yard of foam-type insulation panels became a flaming, molten liquid that began to follow the path of the terrain, igniting everything it touched. Within seconds, what had been a tenable operating position in an open-air environment became a rapidly advancing wall of fire as pallet stack after pallet stack lit off.

Recognizing the severity of the situation, the rescue engine OIC immediately made the call for the crew to evacuate the area, but the speed of the flowing “lava” was so great that the crew became cut off from the exit. As members attempted to make their way toward the hole they had minutes ago cut in the fence, the liquid-which can only be described as flaming lava-enveloped their feet and legs, hardening to their gear and burning their skin. The members used everything available to gain elevation from the molten liquid and to remove themselves from the deteriorating wildfire-like scenario. Drawn by the contour of the land, the burning liquid reached Rescue Engine 33 parked behind the exposure building, igniting the vehicle immediately on contact. Within a minute, the unit was fully involved in fire despite the efforts of the crew to extinguish it.

2 Drawn by the contour of the land, burning liquid, caused by a storage yard of foam-type insulation panels, reached Rescue Engine 33 parked behind the exposure building, igniting the vehicle immediately on contact
2 Drawn by the contour of the land, burning liquid, caused by a storage yard of foam-type insulation panels, reached Rescue Engine 33 parked behind the exposure building, igniting the vehicle immediately on contact.

Unimpeded in its progress, the wall of flame continued to advance while the crew managed to escape the area to the location of Engine 28, several yards behind the rescue engine. Here they were able to get water on their super-heated gear and begin to reinitiate the fire attack. However, mere moments later, the steadily advancing flame front reached the front of Engine 28, and it soon met the same fate as Rescue Engine 33. A short time later, a water supply for the rear was reestablished and the rescue engine’s crew worked with other crews to extinguish the flames.

In total, the fire went to three alarms before being brought under control. When all was said and done, the rescue engine was a total loss to the fire including every piece of equipment that was on it. Luckily the crew members, who had to have their personal protective equipment cut off of them because of the hardened, tar-like material that adhered to their legs and boots, suffered only minor injuries. It was a long night for the department as members came to the realization that the apparatus was a total loss and considered what the future would hold to overcome this incident.

The Aftermath

Members were already thinking of the next move before leaving the fire scene. Operational and administrative leadership met on the fire scene and then back at the station to start estimating the damage. They were also already working on making notifications to not only the county fire department but also members of the department who are scattered across the country and in other countries.

Fire apparatus at the Kentland Volunteer Fire Department are woven into the fabric of the organization. Firefighters and officers spend an incredible amount of time on the rigs going to calls, managing the upkeep, training, and cleaning and polishing them. The apparatus are part of the organization and have personalities just as unique as the members’. They are a part of the Kentland family.

That night and the next day, personnel were already compiling the equipment list to make sure it was up to date. The rig had a large complement of extrication tools and firefighting equipment that needed to be fully inventoried and current to submit to the insurance company. The department’s agent from VFIS, who it has a stellar relationship with, was already in contact with Kentland and assisting with understanding the department’s policy and what everything was insured for.

3 When all was said and done, the rescue engine was a total loss to the fire including every piece of equipment that was on it
3 When all was said and done, the rescue engine was a total loss to the fire including every piece of equipment that was on it.

The department learned over the next few days that all the equipment on the apparatus-from the screwdrivers in the toolbox to all the hydraulic rescue tools-was fully insured and would be replaced by the insurance policy. That was the good news. The bad news was the rig was purchased from Pierce for $360,000 dollars and the department had chosen not to keep the apparatus insured for full replacement value at the current market price. There were several reasons for this decision, because of some past vehicle accidents and their repairs, but no one had this scenario in mind.

This certainly caused a huge problem for the department, as members wanted this unit replaced as soon as possible and back on the streets running calls and protecting the community. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to tell them that the insured value and the cost of a replacement were nowhere close. The rising cost of apparatus 15 years after the original purchase, plus all the standards and specifications that apparatus manufacturers must meet today, certainly created a problem. Additionally, the department has to meet all the standards set by the Prince George’s County Fire/EMS Department in reference to a number of items including axle weights, braking, and maintenance items. All of these come with a cost, and that is all before picking options to make the unit functional on the incident scene. The initial estimates looked like the department was $400,000 short on the cost of a replacement-not a good day when those facts hit you in the face.

Funding Plan

Members immediately started working on how to make up this difference through a number of fundraising ideas. As they worked on this aspect of the project, the department’s leadership started looking for grants and loans to make up the difference. This, of course, was all in close communication with the department treasurer, who still needed to make payments on Kentland’s tower ladder and engine. He knew where the department stood financially and what it could absorb as additional debt. This was very crucial to the process as he was very analytical about the problem, whereas the operational members were still emotional about the replacement. The department could not go bankrupt or stop making payments on the other apparatus just to replace the rescue engine.

4 The liquid that ignited Rescue Engine 33 also enveloped the crew’s feet and legs, hardening to their gear and burning their skin
4 The liquid that ignited Rescue Engine 33 also enveloped the crew’s feet and legs, hardening to their gear and burning their skin.

The chief, president, and treasurer had many discussions in the days and weeks after the event to determine how to financially solve this replacement issue. With input from friends of the department and its own research, the department was fortunate to find a low-interest grant from the State of Maryland to help pay for the balance of the replacement. Unfortunately, the closing date for submission was coming to a close in a few weeks. Now Kentland had another crisis on its hands as in a couple weeks-yes, a couple of weeks-the department had to develop a set of specifications for a brand new apparatus and get it out to bid to manufacturers.

Spec Process

Developing specifications for this complex hybrid unit in a normal situation could normally take months to be fully confident that all needs and requirements are covered in the document. Members had two weeks to complete the specification to provide enough time for the apparatus dealers to create bids and get the bids back to the department. The manufacturers were able to quickly respond back with bids and options for the department to consider in its purchase-even with no guarantee it would be able to buy the apparatus if it did not secure the loan.

There were several long nights of reviewing the returned bids for accuracy and to ensure all options were included. Members were able to decide on the final three manufacturers’ bids to take to our loan review. The process for the loan required the department to pre-sent its plan for replacement in person on how it chose the bids it was presenting and which builder it actually wanted to go with for the new apparatus. Finally, after numerous follow-up phone calls and a formal meeting, the department was awarded the funds to fully purchase its new rescue engine.

5 The department decided to purchase a 2016 Arrow XT heavy-duty rescue engine manufactured by Pierce Manufacturing. (Drawing courtesy of Pierce Manufacturing
5 The department decided to purchase a 2016 Arrow XT heavy-duty rescue engine manufactured by Pierce Manufacturing. (Drawing courtesy of Pierce Manufacturing.)

The department recognized this new apparatus would not have been possible without the guidance of its president, Donald “Patch” Aker. Aker steered the department in the right direction, kept members in line, and made sure the department met every deadline. Without him, this new apparatus would not have come to fruition. Sadly, Kentland lost Aker to cancer in 2015 right before going to the engineering conference for the new rig. When the department receives the new rig, I’m sure it will be dedicated to the man who made it possible to make this purchase and to continue to provide the service to our community.

The department decided to purchase a new 2016 Arrow XT heavy-duty rescue engine manufactured by Pierce Manufacturing in Appleton, Wisconsin. The next article will cover the engineering conference conducted at the factory.

RICKY RILEY is operations chief for the Clearwater (FL) Fire & Rescue and a member of the Kentland (MD) Volunteer Fire Department, where he served as chief of department. He also served for 20 years with the Fairfax County (VA) Fire & Rescue before his retirement in 2005.

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