WOONSOCKET — When firefighters have to take on the challenge of putting out two major tenement fires in less than 12 hours, it pays to be well-trained and have experienced leadership.
That is the view Fire Chief Gary Lataille offered late Thursday while watching his department's firefighters, lieutenants, captains and deputy chiefs mop up a fire that could have been tragic without those factors and the precautions of proper fire alarm equipment and mutual aid coordination.
After responding to a fire that displaced 13 residents of a six-family dwelling at 183 Lincoln St. Thursday afternoon, the same shift was called back that night to battle a fire that broke out in a first-floor apartment in a six-unit tenement at 272 Front St., which threatened two connected six-unit wings.
The large, wood-frame building had active wired smoke detectors and residents were self-evacuating from the structure's three entry ways when firefighters arrived on scene just before 10 p.m.
After rushing out into the street with her son, Roland, and her husband and neighbors, Barbara Parenteau said she felt the evacuation had gone pretty well, given the potential risks.
"The most important thing is that everybody got out of the house safe and sound," she said. "That is the most important thing. Nobody was hurt and nobody died."
Parenteau sipped a cup of hot chocolate she and her neighbors had been given while they waited for news on whether they would be able to return to their unaffected apartments and said she considered herself fortunate to not have lost her belongings in the fire.
"I would say all and all it was very good," Parenteau said of the effort local firefighters made to control the fire. "They were here right away."
As she exited her portion of the extended building, Parenteau said, she could see a small amount of flames coming from the affected apartment and watched it suddenly burst out as a gout of flame rushing up the exterior wall of the building to the second and third floors.
"It was frightening and I am glad everyone got out," she said.
Dennis Dutra said he and his wife were going to sleep when they heard the building's smoke alarms going off.
"We heard the alarm but we only thought it was a false alarm because every time it goes off, it is a false alarm," Dutra said. This time, that wasn't the case and city firefighters were soon at the apartment door telling the family to get out, he said.
"We smelled the smoke and they came banging on the door and we came outside," he said. Dutra said his wife, Ann, has difficulty walking and firefighters helped her down the stairs from the second floor. The couple's son, Dennis Jr., also got out safely.
"Out here, we were just watching them as they put out the fire and were going up the stairs," he said. Like Parenteau, Dutra said he hoped to be able to get back into his apartment later in the night. The fire was ultimately deemed to have been serious enough to keep the structure evacuated through Friday while a repair plan was considered. The affected families were assisted with temporary housing arranged by the city and the Rhode Island Chapter of the American Red Cross.
Lataille did not know how all that would turn out as his firefighters were still working in the building late Thursday night but he was relieved that their training and professionalism had contributed to a positive outcome on an otherwise difficult day for the city.
"No one was hurt to my knowledge," Lataille said while noting the size of the building and number of residents that had been displaced.
Fires do occur at this time of year as they do even in better weather, and the safety of everyone involved is always the main concern, according to the chief.
The department was able to recall 12 of its members from a planned training class scheduled for Thursday and also brought in some off-duty members to join the mutual aid firefighters in assisting the on-duty personnel, he noted. The responding firefighters also counted on their training in making a quick sweep of the large structure to ensure everyone was out and also on its planning for attacking the source of the fire while minimizing the damage it would cause.
The training was also visible after the fire had been put out and the clean-up work began on Front Street. Small groups of firefighters formed as they were called out of building and debriefed by their captains and deputy chiefs. Lataille had his own quick talks with the officers as emergency lights bathed them in red and white and the sound of running engines and air pack alarms filled the night.
"We’ve had no civilian or professional injuries reported in either of the two fires," Lataille said. "That's because of the professionalism we have here in the fire department. They pride themselves on this, it is what they do."