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First Hose Co. applauded for response to 4-alarm fire

June 03, 2008|By MARLO BARNHART

BOONSBORO - It's not surprising that Oley Griffith has seen a lot of devastation in his 20-plus years as fire chief of the First Hose Co. of Boonsboro.

But the Feb. 22 fire that nearly consumed the Boonsboro town square was the worst he ever experienced.

"I live 3 1/2 miles from the center of town and had just pulled into the driveway from my job at Fort Detrick," Griffith said. "I could see it when I pulled out a few minutes later."

Boonsboro Mayor Charles F. "Skip" Kauffman Jr. experienced a similar feeling of dread when he heard the call on the scanner that morning.

"I hoped it was minor, but then my wife, Cindy, and I heard the explosions," Kauffman said.

Outside, he looked toward the square from his home just four blocks away and immediately got in his car to look for Griffith.

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"He told me all citizens were accounted for," Kauffman said. "And I said 'thank God.'"

When the day ended, the Boone Hotel and several buildings had been heavily damaged in the four-alarm blaze. But through the efforts of volunteer firefighters and others, no lives were lost, and the Boonsboro Library and Town Hall were spared.

All that effort didn't go unnoticed. The First Hose Co. of Boonsboro won special recognition in late April at the Governor's Office on Service and Volunteerism's 25th annual volunteer service awards program in Annapolis.

Kauffman accepted the citation on behalf of the town.

"I want to congratulate these outstanding men and women for their accomplishments and service to our state," said Gov. Martin O'Malley of the volunteers who were honored.

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown was on hand to present the awards to the honorees.

But as Griffith and Kauffman pointed out, the real benefit coming out of the events of Feb. 22 were the lessons learned about battling a major, downtown fire and how to do it better.

"We did a PowerPoint after the event to see what we did right and what could have been improved," Griffith said. "It is a learning experience for all communities."

Communications between fire companies was primitive the day of the fire. The loss of power at the fire hall just yards from the fire scene meant a second engine was trapped inside. Plans were under way to crash it through the door when volunteers forced the door open manually, Griffith said.

"We have spoken with Allegheny Power about the power problems," said Debra Smith, town manager. The problem of power loss was further complicated that day because the schools - the planned evacuation sites for such an emergency - also lost power.

Plans are afoot to secure a generator for Boonsboro High School so it can be powered up to be a shelter in the future.

"We also learned that our 75-foot-high ladders weren't high enough with the setbacks along the streets," Griffith said. "Now we know we need 100-foot ladders."

But there were many positive revelations that came out of the events of Feb. 22.

"It was truly a joint effort between us, the town and other fire departments from three states," Griffith said. A total of 36 agencies responded.

Before the fire was fully extinguished, more than a half-million gallons of water were used. The maintenance and testing efforts of Boonsboro town employees all year meant that a huge amount of water was available from the reservoir and could be quickly transported to where it was needed that day, Griffith said.

Kauffman said people came from everywhere to help save valuable documents and records from the town hall and library when they were in danger of being burned.

"We grabbed the computer server first," Smith said. Then plats, billing records, deeds and minutes of town meetings were carried out.

The PowerPoint presentation will be introduced at the June convention of the Maryland State Fireman's Association in Ocean City, Griffith said.

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