As an investigation continues into the cause of a March 4 fire that destroyed a century-old, two-story building at 14 Pleasant St. in downtown Gloucester, the city is calling in an outside firm to evaluate the Fire Department's response as well.
That response "warrants outside review given the questions raised about the flare-up after the fire was thought extinguished and the impact on the surrounding communities which responded with mutual aid," Mayor Carolyn Kirk said Friday.
Conducting the evaluation - sometimes called an after-action report or post-incident analysis — will be Municipal Resources Inc., the same people who worked with the city on a 2009 audit of the Fire Department, according to the mayor.
"My administration last commissioned an outside PIA for the Lorraine Apartments-temple fire," Kirk said. "We used MRI and they produced a 100-plus page report with many recommendations that have since been implemented by the city and by the department."
The Lorraine Apartments fire after-action report recommended more training, modernized equipment and new inter-agency planning.
That report followed a December 2007 Middle Street fire that killed one man, displaced 24 residents and destroyed the apartment building and neighboring Temple Ahavat Achim.
The new evaluation may cost less than half the $10,000 cost of the earlier PIA, according to Kirk.
The intent, says the mayor, "is to have the Fire Department strive to continually improve operations. Review of a specific incident is often the best way to analyze department operations and identify areas for improvement."
Kirk said all personnel involved in the incident will be asked to participate in the post-incident review, including personnel from the Fire, Police and Public Works departments.
The review is expected to look at conditions encountered upon arrival, problems encountered, actions taken, outcome, lessons learned, and to produce recommendations.
The March 4 fire broke out shortly after 6 a.m. on a Friday and, by 8 a.m., was thought to have been put out. What continued to puzzle firefighters in the days that followed, according to Fire Chief Phil Dench, was the explosive force of the fire when it reignited about 9 a.m.
Firefighters thought they had extinguished it and believed they had confirmed as much using seven or eight newly acquired thermal imaging cameras to probe for hidden hot spots inside the walls and ceilings.
The fire largely gutted a structure that housed Patricia Schlichte Johnstone's first-floor law office and the second-story apartment she shared with her husband, city assessor Gary Johnstone.
When flames burst from the roof shortly after 9 a.m., a 2-year-old BankGloucester building separated only by a fire wall to the south and a row of 100-year-old brick buildings that house a reading room and two fine-art galleries in the short block up to Middle Street were also endangered.
Johnstone, one firefighter and four police officers suffered minor injuries or smoke inhalation.
Six pumpers, four ladder trucks, a rescue squad, about 40 firefighters and dozens of police officers were involved in fighting the fire. Mutual aid was provided to the city by Manchester, Ipswich, Rockport, Essex and Beverly fire departments, Capt. Barry Appt said.
The fire was deemed suspicious almost immediately after fire apparatus arrived at the scene. Yet no cause for the blaze has yet been established.
"We're in close contact with the fire marshal and the investigation is ongoing — actively," Police Detective Steve Mizzoni said.
Francis X. Quinn can be reached at 978-283-7000 x3455 or firstname.lastname@example.org.