Badging effort helps to organize workers after deadly Worcester fire
Badging effort helps to organize workers after deadly Worcester fire

Feb 1, 2000 12:00 PM
Carol Carey

There was no shortage of professionals, volunteers and concerned citizens offering their help after a December 3, 1999, fire at the abandoned Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Co. in Worcester, Mass., claimed the lives of six firefighters. Thousands of municipal, state and federal emergency personnel were on the scene, along with representatives from the Salvation Army, the Red Cross, and other civic and government agencies. A photo ID badging system played a key role in establishing order from chaos.

The six firefighters died looking for two homeless people they believed might be inside the windowless five-story warehouse, which had been abandoned for 10 years. The firefighters were among the first to enter the building. The rapidly spreading fire limited visibility and caused the wooden floors to collapse. One two-man team became trapped inside, sending out a radio message that they were dangerously low on oxygen. Four additional men went into the building to rescue the first two. Despite being tethered to the outside with ropes, they too became trapped. All six died. It was the worst loss to a city fire department in America in the past 20 years.

The two homeless people believed to be in the warehouse had left after allegedly knocking down candles which set off the blaze. They have been charged with involuntary manslaughter.

The State Division of Fire Services, Northampton Fire Department, and fire departments from surrounding and outlying communities rushed to the scene to help with the rescue operation and to assist the Worcester Fire Department. Police and fire officials were valiantly attempting to organize the emergency and charitable workers and to ensure their safety.

The newspaper and television news crews were ever-present, anxious for information. Other organizations that were present included HAZMAT, Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA).

The search and rescue operation was slow and torturous. Three days after the fire, only three of the six men had been found. As news of the tragedy spread, hundreds of volunteers came to the site to help. But the building, with its collapsed structure and smoldering ashes, posed an imminent danger. Clearly, the emergency workers had to be protected. The firefighters who wanted to help had to be organized.

Badging brings order Issuing ID badging to firefighters, emergency personnel, members of charitable and municipal organizations, and family members helped to establish order at the scene. Employees of Imaging Technology Corp. (ITC), in nearby Hudson, Mass., ran the badging operation. ITC has been providing identification solutions to private industry and government for six years and employs 15 people.

For the next seven days, executives and employees of the company donated their services and equipment to the fire rescue effort.

The first badging station erected was a makeshift tent consisting of a tarp hung between two fire trucks. The tent contained a mini-PC, a CCD 1000 digital camera, portrait light, and a Fargo Quatro Pro PVC/Card printer. An Integral Technologies Inc. capture board was installed on the PC. ITC used its software, ID Card Maker, to print approximately 1,600 badges.

"Boundaries and access areas were continually modified so people needed to get their badges reissued showing new access information," recalls David Scott, a technical writer for ITC who helped produce badges at the first badging station.

An area of approximately 20 acres had been cordoned off, with specific zones set aside for eating, and for the family members of the dead firemen. The site of the building collapse was another, limited-access zone. In addition, police had set up roadblocks around the scene, routing traffic from a nearby interstate to protect drivers should the warehouse building collapse.

Color-coded badging "Each photo ID badge had a color border corresponding to perimeters or locations within the emergency scene. For instance, you might have red for the center of the site where the warehouse building itself was located, green for the area where charitable groups such as the Red Cross and Salvation Army were located. The badges also had the individual's name, organization and, in the case of fire officials, department, engine company, ladder or truck designation, and search and rescue team," says Scott. "We had to create database fields that matched the tracking requirements of the fire departments."

The ID Card Maker software maintains a database of personnel records, creates badge designs, has the capacity to capture pictures, fingerprints and/or signatures and prints to a variety of printers. An affiliate of ITC, Silcox Plastics, also of Hudson, Mass., supplied the ID cards.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, teamwork between ITC and fire officials was critical in making the badging operation successful. ITC's experience demonstrates how a private company and public emergency service personnel can work effectively to maximize safety in a crisis situation.

Over the course of the rescue operation, ITC officials learned that the presence of a knowledgeable emergency service individual - such as a fire or police official - was important in keeping ID badges and access levels up-to-date. Emergency service officials could also be invaluable in helping perform security services such as printing out badges.

"After several days, we saw that it was important to have a fire official present at all times when the badges were issued to make sure people were given proper access," says Scott. "Before that, we were given a list of organizations that included the level of access. After 24 hours, the number of organizations began to grow, and eventually went from the eight on the original list to some 50 groups."

Fire service personnel also began to help print the badges. "We set up two additional stations with their help," says Scott. "In addition to people waiting to get their initial badges, we had hundreds of emergency personnel who needed badges reissued with new color-coded access information as the boundaries and access locations changed. It was this situation which led us to enlist the help of fire personnel to help man the additional capture stations."

A laptop computer and second printer were added and then a third station was added as well to handle the fire personnel who needed badges reissued with the changed access color codes, but whose pictures were already in the system. These second and third stations, stand-alone like the first, were designed to reprint badges but not to take pictures. Therefore the reissuing operation was faster and easier to operate.

Scott emphasized how well the badging equipment worked under adverse conditions. The weather was cold, and it often drizzled. The Fargo printer, the keyboard and the computer became coated with a thick layer of soot from the smoldering fire. "It was a wet, dirty, cold environment, but the printer held up," says Scott. "In addition, it was easy to replace the ribbons when they ran out, a bonus for the fire personnel operating the badging stations."

Working with government agencies is nothing new for ITC. While the company usually sells its products and services through a dealer network, it sells directly to government agencies. The U.S. Navy, U.S. House of Representatives, U.S. Senate, Bureau of Engraving and Printing, and Pentagon are among its government clients.

The fire shed light on something firefighters have always known - abandoned buildings pose the greatest threat to their lives. Such fires have claimed the lives of more firefighters than any other type between 1990 and 1995.

On December 10, 1999, the day of the memorial service at the Worcester Centrum, the city of approximately 170,000 remembered the six firefighters who gave their lives. It was an official day of mourning; schools and city offices were closed. Many private businesses shut down. Tolls were lifted on the Massachusetts Turnpike, and Amtrak made a special train available to more than 1,000 firefighters from Connecticut. Thousands lined the three-mile stretch of the city where the procession of firefighters from as far away as Australia and Ireland marched. There was a moving tribute to the men by President Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, Massachusetts Governor Paul Cellucci and Senator Edward M. Kennedy. An estimated 30,000 firefighters attended the tribute.

Seven days after the tragedy, the ITC employees, who had taken over a thousand pictures of firefighters, city officials, and family members, packed up the three badging stations and returned to their office.

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