When a massive fire broke out at the Foster Parrots facility on Woodville Alton Road on April 1, firefighters from a dozen departments across the region sprang into action to provide a steady water supply to the rural property.
The fire, which had erupted in the northern end sanctuary building serving as home to hundreds of exotic birds while no one was present, killed 80 animals and threatened the lives of several hundred others. Ashaway Fire Assistant Chief Todd Allen said following the response that mutual aid and a steady supply of water from nearby sources proved vital in helping to control the blaze and prevent far more animal deaths.
"Our firefighters used a number of pumper and tanker trucks in rotation to deliver water that was collected from nearby locations, including Alton Pond and Woodville Pond," Allen said. "The effort is known as a level 2 tanker task force, and it allowed firefighters to attack the blaze and prevent it from spreading to other parts of the building."
For departments throughout southwestern Rhode Island and southeastern Connecticut, responses like that at Foster Parrots require a multi-step process that involves coordinating delivery of water when fire hydrants and other ready sources aren't available. Firefighters from 23 agencies came together Sunday to hone their skills, learn new techniques and make sure no matter where a fire occurs, volunteers are ready to respond.
The training program, hosted by the Southern Rhode Island Firefighters League in partnership with its member agencies and mutual aid partners, drew over 160 volunteers to Ninigret Park in Charlestown to receive personalized instruction and hands-on drills specific to a large scale rural water supply and tanker responses.
Richmond-Carolina Fire Chief Scott Barber, who serves on the league's board as director, said the Sunday training helped address a training topic that volunteers across the region felt was important in order the hone their skills and be prepared for the worst.
"There is a big difference in the responses for those in an urban setting and department's like ours that are in more rural locations," Barber said. "We don't always have hydrants and water systems readily available, so there is a different process that goes in to making sure there is a steady supply of water in an emergency."
Barber said for many in the region, the reason such training is necessary is that it hits close to home. In addition to proving critical in the Foster Parrots response, rural water supplies were also essential during a massive July 2018 fire at the Meadowbrook Waldorf School in Richmond that was sparked by an overnight lightning strike.
Barber still recalls how hundreds of firefighters relied on each other and delivery of outside water sources to eventually extinguish the massive blaze.
Fire departments in communities like Richmond, Hopkinton and Charlestown, water systems and hydrants hydrants aren't always readily available. The solution, he said, then becomes to first identify and relocate water from a reliable location to the site of the fire before then using it to battle the blaze.
"It takes twice the effort and it takes considerably more manpower to set up and maintain operations versus having a hydrant," Barber said.
Officials with the Southern Rhode Island Firefighters League said Monday that the training was the culmination of a survey conducted late last fall through league members. Of more than a dozen topics, several members of the league's Board of Directors said members were by far most interested in seeing training for rural water supplies.
In a press release, members of the board said the request resulted in the development of a steering committee led by Barber that formed the three-part series. The training began a few weeks ago with the league's first-ever Zoom training session before participants were given hands-on instruction at four stations emphasizing different aspects of the response.
Veteran firefighters and officers with the Richmond-Carolina Fire Department led interactive discussions on nurse tanker operations; Hope Valley-Wyoming volunteers led instruction of dump site operations; Charlestown firefighters hosted fill site demonstrations; and Werst Kingston personnel and Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency Chief Chris McGrath led a station on safety and communications.
Volunteers with the Ashaway, Westerly, Misquamicut, Watch Hill, Dunn's Corners, Stonington Borough, Quiambaug, Wequetquock and North Stonington fire departments all took part in the training as well.
"Following the stations, a 'real time' water supply drill was held in the park and surrounding area," the league said in a press release. "This involved placing the apparatus on location into operation as if they were at a real fire scene. We employed officers from the representing agencies to coordinate the operations while having a senior chief officer with them to guide them along the way."
In total, officials said over 130,000 gallons of water were shuttled and dumped out of 13 Tanker trucks using two ladder trucks and several fire engines in under 2 hours.
Barber said in addition to the hands-on practice, Sunday's drill also provided a crucial communication point for members of different departments. The COVID-19 pandemic caused roadblocks that slowed inter-department interactions, he said, and the training was a way for new volunteers to meet one another and a chance for officers from different agencies to connect in a non-emergency setting.
Not only was participation in Sunday's training well received, but Barber said he has already received requests to see the training offered on a more regular basis.
"This really was the culmination of a team effort by fire officers and departments from across the region, and we hope we can build on this to make the training an important part of annual instruction," Barber said.