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SFD History: 1980's
Submitted by dennis on Tue, 12/26/2006 - 7:00pm
Fires in several Las Vegas high‑rise hotels caused the Inspection Division, under Fire Marshal Bobby Lee Hansen, to scrutinize closely the fire and building codes in Seattle.
The codes were researched especially where they applied to the high‑rise structures whose number was steadily on the increase. Amendments were passed in the early 1980s concerning elevator control, detection and alarm systems, and automatic sprinklers. A special squad from the Fire Marshal’s Office was formed, to inspect and approve the new installations and supervise the progress made by existing structures in meeting the provisions of the revised ordinances.
A potentially lethal fire occurred in an excelsior plant in the Interbay district shortly after 8:00 p.m. on September 15, 1980. A short circuit in a conveyor belt motor ignited combustibles in the vicinity of the machine, which shredded newsprint paper for making insulation material. Fire raced through stacks of shredded paper completely destroying the two‑story metal‑clad factory. The possibility of the fire’s extending to the adjacent acid and ammonia warehouse of the Cascade Chemical Company, and to two railroad tank cars on a nearby siding, brought about the evacuation of nearby occupants. The first of three alarms was sounded at 8:17 p.m. “Tapped” time was 9:35 p.m. Two fire fighters suffered injuries.
The hazardous materials team, with radio designator “Unit 77,” went into service late in 1980. The entire crew of Headquarters Station 10 underwent special training on hazardous chemicals. All units in the station respond to such incidents with their own apparatus as well as the special hazardous materials van. The van carried the protective clothing, monitoring equipment, and decontamination gear, along with a library of publications containing data necessary for identifying the products, assessing their hazards, and handling their disposal. A “Microfiche” unit was installed initially for quick information on most products, which were likely to be encountered. In 1986 the “Microfiche” and library were replaced by a sophisticated “CAMEO” computer system. The mass of information stored in the computer allows quicker and more accurate identification of products. New data can be entered into the computer as quickly as it can be typed. The system is also hooked up to wind and weather monitoring equipment in the van, thus predicting the size and location of trouble spots in the event of a leak. In early 1988 a second truck was added to the team, on which the decontamination and disposal gear are stored. This relieved the original van of some of its storage and allows more operating room inside it.
A forklift truck, moving car‑tons inside Wienker Carpet Service warehouse in the Ballard district, accidentally damaged the building’s natural gas meter on the afternoon of August 13, 1981. Initial reports to the Fire Department indicated an odor of gas outside and the gas company was duly notified. A response was dispatched after subsequent phone calls were received, which indicated that there may be a more serious problem. Engine 18 was just about a block away when the explosion occurred. Fortunately, only three persons on the nearby sidewalks suffered any injury, and those were all minor. The carpet warehouse was destroyed and fire extended into the P.S. Aluminum Products next door.
The dollar loss was exceedingly high when another carpet firm, The Carpet Exchange, suffered an arson‑caused fire on the night of January 17, 1984. Flammable liquid was used to spread the blaze in the company’s warehouse and main store, just south of the downtown area. The building was destroyed and its masonry‑block walls buckled and fell as fire raced through rolls of carpet, padding, and linoleum, fed by stocks of adhesive cement. Ice buildup on the streets and sidewalks hampered operations. With a 1st alarm at 10:36 p.m., a 2‑11 at 10:44 p.m., and special calls which brought four more engine companies, the fire was declared “tapped” at twenty‑eight minutes past midnight. Four fire fighters suffered injuries and burns.
It was high drama on the morning of October 13,1984, when Fire Fighters Tom Erickson and Albert Smalls were lowered on ropes to rescue a 56‑year‑old woman who was suspended from two cables beneath the Aurora Bridge, 175 feet above the waters of Lake Washington Ship Canal, after what appeared to be an abortive suicide attempt. The incident occurred about 8:30 a.m. when the two fire fighters descended to her location. After a life belt was secured around her, which was then hooked onto Erickson’s life belt, the trio was pulled back up to the bridge deck level. Fire fighters from Engine Company 9 and Ladder Companies 6 and 4 along with paramedics from one of the medic units, took part in the operation under the direction of the 4th Battalion Chief.
Chief Swartout took leave of Seattle on December 28, 1984, to accept a post with the Houston Fire Department. Mayor Royer appointed Assistant Chief T.E. Gideon as Interim Fire Chief during the process of selecting a permanent replacement. Chief Swartout had spear‑headed the move for the recruitment of women fire fighters when he was Chief of Training. He had served as Chief when a large percentage of women were appointed. On his departure there were forty‑five women in the uniformed ranks, several in officer positions. Also, during this time, one of them, Fire Fighter Molly Matthews, was the first to be killed in the line of duty in an accident while responding. This I incident led to the gradual installation of crew cabs on all the older apparatus. At that time twenty‑six of the forty‑one first‑line and reserve pumpers were not crewcab‑equipped. As a result, the crew cab installation process is still on‑going as of this writing.
Improved protective gear was developed and, for the first time, the City provided all combat fire fighters with the new turnout coats and pants, boots, gloves, and other safety clothing. Prior to then, all fire fighters were responsible for providing and replacing their own gear from a clothing allowance. New, longer‑duration breathing apparatus for extended operations were also procured, and the trailer‑mounted compressor which was used for the on‑scene refilling of their expended air bottles was built in to a new special air truck for quicker and more convenient operation.
Effective January 1, 1982, the additional marine engineer and the pilot of the back‑up fireboat “Alki” had been eliminated from the budget, making the second fireboat strictly a reserve. In the event the second boat was needed at an incident, off‑shift personnel would have to be called from home to man it. On January 8, 1985, the ancient “Duwamish” was replaced as the first line boat. For $2.5 million a new boat, the “Chief Seattle,” was built as an all diesel craft of lower capacity, only 7500 GPM, but capable of twice the speed of the boat it replaced. The “Chief Seattle” can be entirely controlled from the bridge, eliminating the need for engine room personnel. The old “Duwamish” was tied up in storage and was designated a City Landmark on October 10, 1986. The 6 1 ‑year‑old “AM” remains the reserve boat tied up alongside the “Chief Seattle” at waterfront Fire Station 5.
Caution was the rule at a 3‑alarm fire, which occurred during lunch hour, March 4, 1985, in research laboratories on the 13th floor of a seventeen‑story wing of the Health Sciences Center on the University of Washington campus. The large Health Sciences complex is part of the University’s School of Medicine. The University Hospital is also part of the complex. The fire was caused by a short circuit in wiring to vapor removal fans. The lab, in a section of the Infectious Diseases Department, was unattended during the lunch break. The fire was detected by the building’s fire alarm system, but its spread was rapid. Flames were boiling out the windows when the first fire units arrived in response to the 12:37 p.m. alarm. Fire had spread into an adjacent room and seriously threatened to extend into the windows on the 14th floor. The presence of radioactive trace material brought a special call for the hazardous material team from Station 10 downtown. A 2‑11 alarm was requested at 12:41 p.m., and a 3‑11 at 12:48 p.m. The fire was “tapped” at 1:10 p.m. after causing about $750,000 in damage and destroying eight months of research on a project to determine the causes of gum inflammation.
On July 1, 1985, Mayor Charles Royer made Seattle history when he appointed Deputy Chief of Personnel Claude Harris to replace the retiring Interim Chief Gideon. Claude Harris, the Department’s first Black fire fighter, was now the Department’s first minority Chief. At the time of his appointment, Chief Harris promised to remain with the Department to see its successful Centennial celebration and even beyond.
A feeling of nostalgia was expressed by the news media at the fiery destruction of Ray’s Boathouse seafood restaurant, lounge, and fishing charter center on the evening of May 26, 1987. The landmark structure, located on a pier near the Shilshole Bay Marina in the Ballard district, had become a familiar attraction for both tourists and local residents. The fire started under the pier deck beneath the restaurant building and was spreading rapidly in all directions when fire fighters arrived on the 6:50 p.m. alarm. Fire fighting was hampered by an extremely high tide, which prevented the access of fire fighters in small boats and negated the effectiveness of the water‑line monitors in the fireboat “Chief Seattle.” Control was obtained by digging trench cuts through the pier deck both north and south of the restaurant and lounge building. Batteries of basement distributor nozzles were operated into the open cuts to act as water curtains, thus stopping the spread of the under‑pier fire before it reached any of the boat house or boat charter buildings. The first alarm was followed by a 2‑11 at 7:01 p.m., a 3‑11 at 7:07 p.m., and finally a 4‑11 alarm at 7:19 p.m. As the evening passed, the tide gradually subsided. This eventually allowed fire fighters more direct access beneath the pier to effect final extinguishment of the fire, but not before the two‑story restaurant and lounge building was completely destroyed. The fire was “tapped” at 10: 15 p.m. Help from the water side was received from vessels of the U.S. Coast Guard and the Seattle Police Department’s Harbor Patrol. As of this writing, a new and larger Ray’s Boathouse restaurant and lounge have been erected. Its opening was in April 1988.
July 12, 1987, was a sad day for the Seattle Fire Department, when an incendiary fire damaged the interior of the vacant Crest Hotel building at 10 19 Pike Street. The empty building had recently been “home” to transients who had broken in. The afternoon fire heavily damaged the lower floors and spread heavy smoke throughout the building. After extinguishment, Fire Fighter Robert Earhart of Engine 10 was found unconscious in a top floor room where he had gone to open up walls to check for fire extension. He became the victim of smoke inhalation as heavy smoke suddenly engulfed that floor. He was pronounced dead at Harborview Hospital shortly afterward. Subsequently, the man who set the fire was identified by another transient. The arsonist has been convicted and is now serving a term in the State Penitentiary at Walla Walla.
A fire of unknown cause destroyed a two‑story brick mercantile building covering a quarter of a square block at the southeast corner of 6th Avenue South and South King Street in the early hours of March 8, 1988. The building, in the City’s International District, was not occupied at that hour. Fire raged through the entire structure and the flames, which erupted through the roof forced evacuation of the six‑story Alps Hotel across the alley to the east. Damage was done in several rooms of that building as heat cracked the windows. Five fire fighters on the roof of the fire building beat a hasty retreat as the roof collapsed and they narrowly escaped falling in with it. One of them was injured while escaping. The first alarm at 3:42 a.m. was followed by a 2‑11 at 3:54 a.m., a 3‑11 at 4:28 a.m., and a 4‑11 at 4:40 a.m. The fire was fought by seventeen of the Department’s thirty‑two engine companies and six of its eleven ladder companies. By the 6:05 a.m. “tapped” time only a smoldering shell of brick walls remained. The ground floor businesses ‑ which included Furusato Japanese Restaurant, The Green Village Chinese restaurant, the Kwang Chow Barbecue House, a Chinese bookstore, a Chinese grocery, and two card rooms ‑ were entirely wiped out.
Progress in emergency medical service was greatly improved during the 1980s. In 1981 a program to have fire fighters other than paramedics use a portable defibrillator on victims of cardiac arrest was begun, when the crews from selected companies were trained to operate a compact “Life‑Pak” with a heart monitor which, when placed on a patient’s chest and then activated, printed out exact instructions to its operator. The initial training was for aid car crews from stations in areas remote from a medic unit. By 1985 this “Life‑Pak 200” equipment was on each of the first aid cars and on almost every engine company in a station which had no aid car. The crews, having been trained in its use, can and do deliver an initial “shock” to the patient before the medic unit’s arrival, which can be delayed because of long distances and unavailability during busy hours. The medic units, now five in number, have an even greater probability of successfully resuscitating their patients with the able assistance of the aid car crews, the fire company crews, and citizen‑graduates of the Medic 11 CPR classes.
The Seattle Fire Department has evolved from a volunteer bucket brigade to the present modern emergency delivery system in a mere 118 years, a small span or time in the world’s history. While the future cannot be foretold, it can be hoped that upcoming advances in technology will only serve to improve the present level of service in fire fighting, in emergency medical service, in building construction and fire code adaptation, in communications, and in all other spheres of activity which involve our fire services. No matter, things will change and life will proceed. With this in mind, we can end this story in only one way. To be continued ...
I gratefully acknowledge the patience and assistance of all the fire fighters, both active and retired, who helped me in the research of the above history. Thank you! Richard J. Schneider July 21, 1988.
When we last left off with our history of the Seattle Fire Department in July, 1988 a 5‑alarm assignment had recently controlled a major fire in the cockloft of the “Victoria Apartments” on the top of Queen Anne Hill. The June 24 blaze began in electrical wiring inside the walls of a top floor unit and spread up under the roof. The fire was reported at 9:47 A.M. and wasn’t under control until shortly after noon, Fire crews worked feverishly to check the flames’ spread from the west wing of the cockloft into the east wing of the block‑square building,
Emergency medical service was again expanded on December 1, 1988 by the creation of a sixth medic unit. Aid Car 31 was staffed from then on by paramedics. That fall and winter seasons brought a rash of fires involving cold storage insulation. The first occurred on the rainy night of October 11 at Kolstrand Marine Supply Co. in the Ballard District. The 4‑story masonry warehouse had formerly been the “City Ice & Cold Storage Co.”, but was now used for warehousing and sales of marine hardware and equipment. The old sawdust insulation was still present in almost all walls and ceilings. Fire had started under the heavy 4‑inch thick roof and spread throughout the top floor. The fire in the insulation burned down into the 3rd floor. The 3‑11 alarm assignment took from 6:03 P.M. to 11:20 P.M. to effect control.
The next fire on November 13 was potentially even more serious. The “Rainier Cold Storage & Ice Co.” was in a century‑old, block‑long, 4‑story brick building in the Georgetown District. Wiring in a large, old fuse box had seriously overheated. The 8:33 P.M. emergency call to dispatchers was garbled and unintelligible due to major electrical interference, and Engine 27 was sent alone to investigate. On arrival the crew found fire had ignited inside the walls adjacent to the fuse box and called for help. Transformers exploded on power poles outside, igniting the poles and dropping wires. Electricity was cut off for a mile, Fire inside the walls ruptured ammonia lines, causing a severe leak throughout the neighborhood. Before a 5‑11 alarm response could bring the fire under control at 11:49 A.M. the next day, large parts of the north and center sections of the building had collapsed. Seven fire fighters suffered injuries or ammonia inhalation.The evening of February 17, 1989 was extremely cold. Snow had fallen the week before, and some was still on the ground. At 8:23 P.M. a fire was reported at the “Maritime Building”, 2610 Commodore Way on the Ship Canal not far from the Ballard Locks. Crews from Station 18 could see a large fire while crossing the Ballard Bridge. The building had been a shipyard structure, but was now used by several seafood packing, processing, storage, and distributing firms. The cold weather had forced cutting off the water supply to the property, thus negating the sprinkler system and the yard hydrants. Long hose lays were required. Fire eventually destroyed the building’, collapsing the roof and portions of the north and east walls. Also destroyed was a small machine shop building, along with several campers, house trailers, and a motor home on the pier just north of the building. One fire fighter was injured before the 4‑11 alarm response brought the fire under control at 11:52 PM.
The “M.V. Golden Alaska” ‑,as a 340‑foot seafood processing ship. It was tied up alongside Pier 66, the Port of Seattle’s administration pier, for minor repairs below deck. A fire started when ‘neat from a welding operation ignited foam insulation in the cold storage hold below. Fire crews arriving on the 11:24 PM alarm on May 9, 1989 four‑Ad extreme heat and, poor visibility in all. below‑deck areas of the vessel. ‘ The twelve occupants still on board were safely evacuated, with one suffering mild smoke inhalation. Fire eventually spread to the main superstructure and the bridge. Eighteen fire fighters suffered burns, heat exhaustion, and other injuries luring the course of 9, 4‑11 alarm operation. The fire was not controlled until 4:30 PM the next day.
The most tragic fire of 1989 took place the evening of September 9 at the vacant C. Blackstock Lumber Co. yard when an arson fire was set in old sheds adjoining the south end of the main building. An accellerant quickly spread fire into the large main building at 545 Elliott Ave. W. The 9:21 P.M. alarm was quickly followed by 2‑11, 3‑11, and 4‑11 responses. Lieutenant Matt Johnson and Fire Fighter Bill Meredith from Engine 20 were caught when the interior flashed over. Deep inside the building they became disoriented by the heat. Meredith left Johnson to get help when their portable radio transmissions were not received. Bill Meredith eventually worked his way outside, more dead than alive from elevated body temperature, and was unable to explain the situation inside, The fire was brought under control before midnight, but it wasn’t until the very early morning hours that Lieutenant Johnson’s body was found.
A mandatory investigation was conducted by the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries after the Blackstock Lumber fire, L. & I. found the Fire Department negligent in several areas, notably Self‑Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) training and tracking of fire crews at large scale operations. The city received a large fine as a result. Several new procedures were developed. A battalion chief was assigned to the new post of Safety Officer, working a 40‑hour week and responding to major incidents on nights and weekends. The Department purchased individual P.A.S.S. devices for each member which sound an audible alarm when that individual has stopped moving for a given length of time. The Incident Command System was adopted and a passport system was developed using Dymo‑label it name tags with Velcro backing designating individual crews. During operations these tags for each crew are kept both with the incident commander and with the individual crew’s sector officer.
The Fire Department hired an outside agency., the TriData Corporation,, to conduct a study of all its operations. The study involved internal research, city to city comparisons, and one‑on‑one interviews with both uniformed and civilian personnel. Numerous changes emerged from that study. Most involved the Department administration. A Fleet Manager was hired to supervise all the Department’s vehicles and develop standards for new purchases.