Fire Chief's lessons from papal visit and fire

A small fire at the seminary housing the pope put one fire department's planning and execution to the test

When a small combination fire department learned the pope was visiting, they spent months preparing and planning with a bevy of federal, state and local agencies. Then, they hoped nothing would go wrong.

Yet on Sept. 26, when a seldom-used elevator caught fire at St. Charles Borromeo seminary where Pope Francis was spending the night, Lower Merion (Pa.) Township Fire Chief Charles McGarvey found out what his plan, and the crew he entrusted to carry it out, was made of.

Lower Merion Township Fire Department runs about 2,600 fire and emergency calls per year out of seven company firehouses. Each fire company has three career members and support staff, which are augmented by volunteer firefighters — that breaks down to 125 volunteers and 25 career staff.

Their response area covers almost 25 square miles on the western boarder of Philadelphia and includes a population of nearly 60,000 with everything from rural to urban areas, rail and highways and light industry. The department does not run EMS calls.

Leading this team is Fire Chief Charles McGarvey. He's got more than 25 years of fire service under his belt, has been chief of the department for 10 years and serves as fire marshal.

And when word came through that Pope Francis would hold two events and be spending the night in his jurisdiction, that leadership took on a new dimension.

Preparation begins
This wasn't McGarvey's or the department's first rodeo when it came to dignitaries. Several presidents have come through the area. But they tend not to stay long and planning is done over a period of weeks.

For the pope's visit, planning began in April and involved more than a dozen outside agencies, including the FBI, Secret Service and the Postal Service. The Postal Service?

"A lot of people send him things by mail to have them blessed," McGarvey said.

McGarvey's challenge: protect a heavily fortified seminary of late 1800s' construction with multiple buildings and a closed-hydrant system — as well as the motorcade routes. Oh, and they had to provide normal protection for their district.

"We were fortunate that it was kind of slow," McGarvey said of the regular call volume. "We had a gas leak and Philly had a high-rise box alarm at the time he was coming in and his motorcade had to be diverted three different ways. But we got him in without issue."

One call was a motor vehicle crash involving a drunk driver who hit a few cars and came to rest on someone's lawn. He fled on foot but "toward the event location that fortunately was filled with cops," he said.

Staffing up
Because of the crowds and staffing, they went to a minimal response depending on the call. That meant sending a lead car to investigate alarms or a normal response if they had smoke showing, which would be two companies. They also reached out to a bordering township to have an engine on standby.

The volunteers who make up most of the department are pure volunteers — no per-call pay whatsoever. So staffing a major event was a concern.

The volunteer firefighters put in as much as 80 hours of free time just to prepare for the visit, the chief said. "The morale of the guys was great. I can't say enough. They stepped up."

The staffing plan involved a ladder truck, an engine and an engine with a decon unit attached each manned with five and an officer — all of whom were volunteers — at the seminary. Four career firefighters, including the chief, were on site. And individual firehouses were backfilled with career firefighters.

"We had it set up so that if there was a major incident at the seminary, they were coming," McGarvey said.

Too many resources?
They had a group staged at the security room in the seminary and a fire investigation team staged at the alarm panel.

"I had an engine come from the next closest station for water supply just to supplement because the city water is better than private sources, although the seminary had great water."

They also had apparatus staged along City Avenue, which was the motorcade route.

"Every time he went out Saturday and Sunday, we had three engines along the route and Philadelphia had two on their side," McGarvey said. "Just in case somebody threw something at the car, we could spray it off real quick." No one threw anything.

Some, the chief said, were critical, saying he had too many resources committed to the event. But McGarvey held his ground and stuck to his plan.

And at about 9 p.m. that Saturday when a fire alarm came in from the building where the pope was sleeping, McGarvey found out if his best-laid plain was in fact best laid.

"I was in the security room with Secret Service when the fire alarm came in," McGarvey said. "The alarm system is very antiquated. The manager came out to say the elevator was on fire in the kitchen."

There are two elevators: one the pope used in his section and another in the kitchen. Fire crews checked both elevators.

"When our guys investigated the source of it, they saw a small fire in the elevator and heavy smoke coming from it," McGarvey said.

During the alarm investigation, all of the first-due firefighters standing by donned their full PPE and got in the apparatus ready to go on the chief's call.

"Once I received the message that we had smoke and a small fire, naturally I told them to proceed in," McGarvey said. "They were there in less than a minute. The first engine came in and pulled a 1 3/4-inch line. The second engine came in and laid a line to the fire hydrant.

"We were in the warm zone and there was a cyclone fence between us. We had to come out a gate and come back in the main gate to get to the area that was on fire. We had to put the bike rack fence down; guys were hopping fences to get in there.

"The ladder crew didn't end up laddering, but did their ventilation work. It worked perfectly. They guys were trained. They knew what to do. We pre-planned the building prior."

Wiring issue
A couple of week after the fire, they still hadn't gotten into the elevator car that was stuck between floors, but the fire was most likely electrical.

"We were able to get the hatch open and get some pictures," McGarvey said. "It appears that some of the buttons were on fire. The top wiring is all burned up."

An elevator company representative was on site the entire time because the pope's elevator wasn't working before his visit. At about 9 p.m., the service elevator stopped working; when the rep checked on it, he found a blown fuse and saw smoke.

"They tried to hit it with an extinguisher, and that's when the kitchen guy came out yelling that the kitchen elevator was on fire," McGarvey said. "That service elevator in the kitchen probably wasn't used that much in the last 10 years as it was that day."

Best form of flattery
The plan was put to the test and passed. In fact, it passed with such flying colors that the Secret Service agent who worked closest with the fire department asked if he could use their plan as a template for other fire departments.

"That's a heck of a compliment and I'm proud of that," McGarvey said. "I'm shocked at how well it works, which goes to the planning and the guys knowing what they had to do."

It was a lot of work that probably brought the seven fire companies closer together. "They tend to act a little independently. When the rubber hits the road we are all there together," he said.

For other fire chiefs who may have to protect an overnight dignitary, McGarvey advises to communicate often with outside agencies like the Secret Service and get help from other fire departments. Aside from those close by, he also reached out to fire chiefs who had hosted previous popes.

And, he said, leave your ego at the door. "You have to remember it is a Secret Service event. Sometimes you have to leave the five bugles at the door when you go in to talk."

Putting a price on it
No event like this is free or cheap. While the final tally is still being worked up, McGarvey estimates that the additional coverage cost about twice his annual budget — and with no federal, state or international financial relief coming.

"My office, we worked for 31 hours straight, everyone in here," he said. "We're still trying to get all of the monetary numbers together, but it's significant."

Time and expense aside, the effort did have its personal rewards.

"The most unexpected part was we got called down to the hallway prior to Pope Francis leaving," McGarvey said. "I think the seminary was grateful for what we did and set it up so the six of us who were inside at that time were able to meet the pope and shake his hand. I'm a Catholic, so I kissed his ring.

"It was worth every minute of the time it took to prepare for it. I had people thanking me for being part of this, but I don't think it is something that anyone involved will ever forget."

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