Akron Airdock Fire
A Different Kind of Building, A Different Kind of Call
NFPA Journal®, July/August 2008
By District Chief Brent Combs
When the alarm was sent out over the public address system at the Akron, Ohio, Fire Department on May 18, 2006, the firefighters on duty would quickly learn this wasn’t merely a box drop or an "investigate the odor" type of call. When the dispatcher announced the address as Akron Fulton International Airport, the prevailing opinion was that the call would be a plane in distress or some similar emergency—until they heard the rest of the announcement: "Blimp hangar on fire…multiple calls ... flames and smoke coming out of the top."
The blimp hangar is an Akron icon and landmark, a source of civic pride, and part of the fabric of Akron’s history. Built in 1929 by the Goodyear-Zeppelin Corporation on property adjacent to the airport, the Goodyear Airdock was the world’s largest structure without interior supports.1 At 1,175 feet (358 meters) long, 325 feet (99 meters) wide, and 211 feet (64 meters) high, it encompasses 364,000 square feet (33,816.7 square meters) of unobstructed floor space. The airdock is large enough to house an airship with a capacity as large as 10 million cubic feet (283,200 cubic meters).2 Local lore dating back to the 1930s says that it’s so big that it actually "rains" inside. In fact, high humidity and sudden temperature changes cause condensation to form on the inside girders and, as this condensation falls, it creates the illusion of rain.3
Now called the Akron Airdock, many still refer to the structure as the Goodyear hangar. At both ends of the building are two huge, semi-spherical doors weighing 600 tons (544 metric tons) each.
In 1987, the building was purchased by Loral Corporation, which was acquired by Lockheed Martin Corporation in 1996.4 Eventually, the Summit County Port Authority became the owner and leased the building back to Lockheed Martin. It was used mostly for storage.
In 2003, Lockheed Martin started renovations in an effort to boost its bid to win from the U.S. Missile Defense Agency the $149.2 million high-altitude airship contract, which Lockheed describes as a "guardian in the sky to air and ground missile defense needs."5 In 2005, Lockheed won the contract to build a high-altitude airship prototype 400 feet (122 meters) long. By May 2006, most of the roof, window, and siding material had been replaced, and exterior renovations were nearly complete, while interior renovations continued. Not used for aircraft for many years, the facility does not comply with NFPA 409, Aircraft Hangars.
Saving the balloon house
As the first-due fire companies hurried to the scene, hundreds of gawking spectators were already starting to gather on surrounding streets and in nearby parking lots, snapping pictures with cameras and cell phones. Before they even arrived on scene, responding companies reported a large column of black smoke visible on the horizon. Miles away at the Fire Administration offices in downtown Akron, the upper echelon of the department reported looking out their tenth-floor windows and seeing the smoke rising.
Starting near ground level and traveling the entire height of the structure, a large section of the foam insulation and the rubber composite material that cover the 687,000 square feet (63,824 square meters) of Airdock’s roof was burning in bright orange flames with thick, black smoke pouring off it.
For decades, the standard running joke in the Akron Fire Department was that there were only three buildings in town they could never allow to burn down: Portage Country Club’s clubhouse, Stan Hywet Hall, and the Airdock. After a three-alarm fire consumed much of the country club’s clubhouse in 1999, the joke was revised to, "There are only two buildings in town that can never be allowed to burn down…." Faced with winds whipping around the wide-open landscape at the airport and confronting flames extending more than twice as high as their tallest aerial ladders, many responders were concerned that the running joke would have to be revised again.
Less than two minutes after being dispatched, companies began arriving at the Airdock. Command was established and passed several times as higher ranking officers arrived on scene. The shift commander, a deputy chief, arrived and established a command post at the northeast end of the Airdock. With the exception of a handful of independent contractors working at the site, the building was empty. All of the contractors were accounted for, simplifying what could have been labor-intensive and time-consuming primary and secondary searches of the huge facility.
The workers had been using a torch to cut away a corrugated metal "skirt" ringing the entire structure from the ground to a height of about 25 feet (8 meters) on one of the doors, and this hot work ignited the roof. While NFPA 51B, Fire Prevention During Welding, Cutting, and Other Hot Work, was company policy for welding and cutting operations, the workers strayed from the requirements of the hot work permit and written job procedures. Their preventive measures were insufficient to halt the fire’s spread up the northeast end of the structure, and the combination of insulation, rubber composite, and adhesive used to secure the components to the structure was a one-two-three punch that contributed to the rapid spread of fire.
Fortunately, the department was very familiar with the building. Part of Lockheed Martin’s renovation included polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) abatement on the support girders and the inside of the structure’s walls. As the Airdock is the height of a 22-story building, workers would have to perform this work high off the ground using scaffolding and equipment suspended from above. In preparation for this phase of the renovation, Lockheed Martin asked Akron’s Technical Rescue Operations Team (TROT) to plan for the possibility of an accident involving workers suspended high above the interior floor. The TROT team drilled inside the Airdock, practicing their rope and high-angle rescues. On the day of the fire, several firefighters who had participated in the TROT training were again at the Airdock.
Fire crews quickly realized that they wouldn’t be able to extinguish this fire working only from the ground and using elevated streams. Knowing that the fire running up the outside skin of the Airdock was already beyond the reach of the aerial ladders, the incident commander (IC) quickly devised a plan to get crews above the fire and combine those efforts with those of the crews on the ground.
Watch your step
There are three 2 1/2-inch (6-centimeter) dry standpipes at the roof level, one at each end and one in the center. The IC’s plan was to take a 2 1/2-inch (6-centimeter) hose to the roof, hook into the standpipes, and attack the fire from the top down.
Safety was the priority for the IC, who was Department Chief Larry Brunner, then deputy chief, who was very familiar with the building.
People unfamiliar with the roof of the Airdock might think that a plan to work from the roof would be ludicrous—that firefighters couldn’t possibly operate on the roof without falling off. In reality, the structure is so large that at the top there is a flat area approximately 40 feet (12 meters) wide. You could literally park two Greyhound buses side by side, and there would be no danger of them rolling off the roof.
There are also railings that prevent someone from straying too close to the sloped sides of the building. Chief Brunner considered this expanse when sending firefighters to the roof. The egress to and from the roof was remote enough from the fire area that even if the fire had advanced further, firefighters could have retreated and safely left the roof. Fears of structural collapse were also minimal because, for the most part, the fire was burning a section of the building’s covering and underlying foam insulation.
At first, several fire crews started climbing stairs to reach a catwalk near the structure’s ceiling. Later, crews used a pair of old, rickety-sounding elevators located opposite each other near the building’s midpoint to move personnel and equipment to the catwalk and then to the roof of the structure. The catwalk presented a bit of an adventure, too. Earlier renovation work had revealed that many of the 75-year-old planks were rotted. These planks had been marked with a large, bright-orange "X," but had not yet been replaced. Firefighters were warned to avoid stepping on any plank painted with an "X."
Once on top of the Airdock, the crews connected their hoses to the standpipe system and moved to the northern end of the building. At each end of the building, above the doors, there is an elevated platform of approximately 100 square feet (9 square meters) surrounded by a safety railing. Still needing to be closer to the sloped edge of the Airdock to be effective, firefighters donned safety harnesses and were securely tied off before venturing beyond the railings.
Water supply was not a problem. The facility has 10 hydrants located around the base of the structure that are supplemented by two 157,000-gallon (568-kiloliter) reservoirs and two 300,000-gallon (1,136-kiloliter) reservoirs. With a pumper engine on the ground supplying the standpipe, water pressure on top of the Airdock was sufficient to obtain good fire streams.
The campus has four electric fire pumps and two diesel fire pumps, all of which were used. Loop pressure with the pumps running was around 150 pounds per square inch (psi), and the fire service pumped it up to around 170 to 180 psi to get the required pressure at the top.
Once the crews were operating above and below the fire on the skin of the structure, it was merely a matter of coordinating the attack to extinguish it. The alarm had been dispatched at 11:14 a.m., and the fire was reported under control at 12:39 p.m.
It’s all about the training
Fifteen pieces of equipment responded on first and second alarm assignments. There were four engines, one with an elevated stream waterway; three ladders; two ALS ambulances; and five command officers.
Other responders included the chief of the Training Academy, who is the department safety officer; two fire-safety inspectors, one of whom is a department public information officer; two officers from the Hazardous Materials Bureau; and a special fire investigator. The department also sent a foam truck and an air truck, although neither was used.
Although the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company no longer owns the structure, its fire department is located in the neighborhood and has a thorough knowledge of the Airdock. The Goodyear Fire Department notified Akron’s Combined (Safety) Communications Center that it would be on standby with its foam-pumping engine should Akron request assistance.
There is no question that the fire department’s earlier training and planning played a significant role in the successful outcome of this incident. Being familiar with the structure and the options available to the firefighters proved to be a key element in extinguishing the blaze. Once fire crews attacked the fire from both the ground below and the roof above, they brought it under control in a relatively short time.
Damage to the building was confined to the skin of the structure, and the initial damage estimate was set at $800,000. Although this spectacular fire has provided a wealth of war stories for the firefighters who responded, they were very relieved that the department’s running joke would not have to be revised again.