Keeping the Sprinklers On Gives the Norwood Fire Department a Tactical Advantage at a Wooden Pallet Warehouse Fire

John Cody
Deputy Chief John Cody (Norwood, MA Fire Department) works at the pallet warehouse fire. Chief Cody is an 18-year veteran of the Norwood Fire Department. He began his career as a firefighter/EMT, then became a lieutenant in the Fire Prevention Office, and promoted to Deputy Chief in 2020. His responsibilities include developing a standardized training program for the department. Photo credit: Live Boston

When two engines and a ladder from Norwood Fire Department (MA) rolled up in the early evening of June 11, 2023 to respond to a master box activation at a 100,000 sq. ft. wooden pallet storage warehouse, they immediately saw they had a working fire. Smoke was showing from all sides. The fire alarm was sounding and the sprinkler system was flowing water from three sprinklers. They knew it was a pallet warehouse and where the FDC’s were, but they hadn’t had a company walkthrough because, with almost 7000 runs a year out of one station, they don’t have sufficient personnel.

They stationed a member in the sprinkler room then made entry on the Alpha side. While a crew stretched a ladder to the roof, the interior crew working to the Charlie side lost visibility. Although the ambient environment had darkened down to zero visibility, crews still couldn’t feel any heat. The size of the building and the heavy smoke were making it difficult to find the fire. Water was continuing to flow from the sprinklers.

Norwood Ladder 1 works the roof. Photo credit: Live Boston.

“We were pretty deep into the building at that point,” remembers Deputy Chief John Cody, who assumed rooftop command that day. He worked in cooperation with the shift commander (who was also incident commander) on operations and a safety officer. “We struck a second alarm for manpower. Our handlines were stretched, and we brought in an additional 150 feet of hose to add to the 250 we had already laid. Once we found the seat of the fire within the warehouse floor, we knocked it down pretty quickly because the fire was relatively small even though the entire place was stacked with wood pallets. Three sprinklers had controlled the fire until we could get in position deep inside the warehouse and flow water from our hose lines to extinguish the fire. The sprinklers made our job a lot easier,” he said.

Firefighters work around the trucks and trailers parked at the warehouse to stretch multiple lines hundreds of feet long each into the warehouse. Photo credit: Live Boston.

Rather than shut the sprinkler system off once they extinguished the fire, Norwood Fire Department decided to keep the sprinklers on. “Due to the significant amount of combustibles in the warehouse and its large size, we felt it was better to keep the sprinklers on during overhaul to limit the possibility of rekindle,” he explained, “We were on the back side of the fire event and did not want to give up that advantage. We still had a lot to do to get the smoke out of the building and make sure all those pallets were cooled.”

Trailers parked at the warehouse made access and maneuvering a challenge. Photo credit: Live Boston.

Ventilation became the major challenge. “Access to the exterior of the building was pretty restricted,” Deputy Chief Cody recalled. “Parking was tight. There were trailers parked at the exterior bay doors effectively blocking them. Ventilating the roof was the best way to clear out the smoke. We struck a third alarm for fresh crews to help us out.” For two hours, Norwood crews and ten mutual aid agencies worked to clear the building. With multiple hand lines in place and the fire extinguished, Norwood Fire Department ordered a crew to secure the sprinkler system valves and shut the system down.

Chief Cody (far right) works with other members of command to lead the response. Photo credit: Live Boston.

“The automatic sprinkler system was our partner in suppressing this fire,” said Deputy Chief Cody. “Locating this relatively small fire that created a lot of smoke inside a big building took almost 45 minutes and the sprinklers gave us that time by controlling the fire and keeping it small until we got eyes on it. The sprinklers were an important factor in saving that building.” All told, the response was a six hour event for a relatively small, contained fire.

Norwood is a small town of 31,000 southwest of Boston with a city-like fire department serving a diverse property base, including an airport, major interstate highway, a large food processing plant, commercial buildings, and manufacturing facilities in residential neighborhoods. To respond to the changing needs of the community and to address the fact that they did not have enough personnel to fully pre-plan and walk through properties like that pallet warehouse, Norwood Fire Department recently added a fire prevention division, and the Town of Norwood created a new position for a fire prevention captain. “We’re currently reshaping and expanding our pre-planning program to cover more properties and go into greater depth with walkthroughs and advanced pre-plans,” says Deputy Chief Cody. “We recognized that it wasn’t enough to do an annual inspection and know the occupancy and where the FDC’s were. Due to our strong partnership with our municipal government, we’ve been able to add the structure and personnel that will enable us to take our preplanning to the next level. Building a team with the town manager, inspection, building owners, occupants, operations…it’s the key to successful responses to our commercial and industrial properties. We are partners with our local property owners in improving the safety of everyone in their buildings.”

Reflecting on the Norwood Fire Department’s experience at the pallet warehouse fire, Deputy Chief Cody points to four key factors in their successful response:
  • Keeping the sprinkler system on and placing a department member in the sprinkler room to monitor the system.
  • Practiced response training resulted in coordinated actions because everyone was on the same page.
  • Communication with the property manager during the response to explain what the department was doing and why; it’s their facility and potential loss so you need to keep them in the loop.
  • Mutual aid response.
“We’re building on the things we’re doing right by adding this new layer of fire prevention to level up our pre-planning,” Deputy Chief Cody reasons, “We’ve got to keep pace with newer warehousing technologies and occupancies that are challenging us, and it all starts with pre-planning and training on those pre-plans.”
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