I was off work yesterday when I heard about a three-alarm fire at 19-21 Willow Street in Lowell. Minutes later, as the blaze became a five-alarm fire, I could see and smell the smoke even though I live a mile away on Bridge Street.
It was a tough day to be off work.
Tonight, as soon as I started my shift, I started helping my esteemed colleague Jennifer Myers track down rumors that Engine 4, stationed at 198 High Street, near the fire, was out of service when the blaze began.
The rumors were true.
Here’s a photo taken by Kelsie Lei, of Lowell, sent via Facebook.
Fire Chief Edward Pitta confirmed tonight for Ms. Myers that both Engine 4, which is stationed two-tenths of a mile from the fire scene, and Ladder 3, which is stationed downtown, were out of service when the fire began.
Jen asked if having Engine 4 and Ladder 3 in service could have changed the way this fire turned out. Here is what she’s reporting in tomorrow’s paper:
“It is always hard to tell, but I certainly would have liked our chances better had Engine 4 been in quarters, especially with how quickly that fire moved and was jumping from building to building,” Pitta said. “We may have been able to get a line on it and stop it from jumping to the other buildings.”
The city has been closing some stations at different times since 1992. From January 2009, when the city budget crisis hit a peak, until late 2010, there were, at times, up to three companies out of service.
The practice became a hot-button issue, raised by Lt. David Keene, president of the firefighters’ union, in October 2010 in the wake of a fatal Bridge Street fire that left two residents dead and two firefighters injured. At the time of that early-morning blaze, Ladder 4 on West Sixth Street, Engine 4 on High Street and the rescue company downtown were closed. Had all three been staffed, there would have been nine additional firefighters available.
“After the Bridge Street fire, there were a lot of conversations between myself and (City Manager Bernie Lynch) and between the manager and the union,” Pitta said. “In February of 2011, the manager put more money into our overtime account and since that point we have not closed three stations on one shift. The most we close now are two at a time and we hire if we have to.”
Here’s a photo Tory Germann took at the scene on Friday.
I spoke to Keene tonight. He agreed with Pitta that it is impossible to tell how much of a difference Engine 4 could have made, but he also agreed it could have made a difference. “The faster you can get water on a fire, the faster it goes out.”
Keene said the City Manager and Chief Pitta both worked with the union to address concerns after the Bridge Street fire.
“The manager has worked with us 100 percent on this, as has the chief,” Keene said.
I also brought this issue up last fall following another fire where the first responding engine was out of service.
To better illustrate how this station closure changed things, I’ve put together this list of links to Google Maps driving directions. Drive times are, of course, not for fire trucks, but they should still make for a good comparison.
Engine 4, in the High Street station is 43 seconds away from the fire.
Since Engine 4 was closed, units responded from these stations:
Engine 11 and Ladder 1 came from Lawrence Street, which is four minutes away from the fire.
Engine 3 and the Rescue came from the Civic Center, which is five minutes away from the fire.
Engine 6 and Ladder 4 came from West Sixth Street, which is six minutes away from the fire.
Tory Germann took this photo of the fire’s aftermath today.