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Fire On The Lot! Behind the Scenes at the 2008 Universal Studios Fire
Author: Nancy J. Rigg
Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content
Originally Published in our Nov/Dec 2008 issue.
EXT. MOTION PICTURE STUDIO BACKLOT – DAWN
A typical street in New York City, with rows of picturesque brownstones and store fronts, waits for the sun to rise and the day’s activities to begin. The CAMERA slowly PANS around to one side, revealing that the buildings are not permanent structures, like they appear to be, but are open, three-sided motion picture sets or façades.
CLOSE ON FLAMES
Growing inside one of the façades.
INT. SECURITY GUARD’S OFFICE – DAWN
A SECURITY GUARD scans a bank of security monitors.
CLOSE ON SECURITY GUARD
who pauses, concerned, then picks up a telephone and dials 9-1-1.
CALL TAKER (V.O.)
Fire-paramedics, what is the address we’re responding to?
3900 Lankershim Boulevard, Universal City.
INT. FIRE COMMAND AND CONTROL – DAWN
A Los Angeles County Fire Department CALL TAKER views her CAD monitor while taking down information.
What’s going on there?
There’s a building fire on the backlot. New York Street.
Are flames and smoke visible?
Yes, flames and smoke. I’m looking on the camera. It’s red. There’s fire and smoke.
We’re on our way. Thank you.
Heavy smoke looms over Universal City on Sunday, June 1st, 2008, when a fire broke out on the Universal Studio back lot. Initial responders were faced with an aggressive and well-involved fire with lots of ready fuel in the wooden and paper facades and reels of flammable film, while dispatchers facilitated and coordinated the response of dozens of units from three departments. Photo: Larry Cummings/courtesy LA County Fire
It was a stunning scene, set against the familiar backdrop of the Hollywood Hills overlooking the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles. A massive black cloud of smoke pillared above a burgeoning firestorm on the Universal Studios backlot. In the pre-dawn light, it looked like the kind of mesmerizing, dramatic special effects that the studio is famous for. Only this was no movie.
On June 1, 2008, Los Angeles County Fire Department (LACFD) Command and Control Center personnel were wrapping up an earlier structure fire south of downtown Los Angeles. It was 4:44 AM. “We had just begun to take a breath after responding to a second alarm commercial fire in the city of Inglewood that had started at 2:41, when the call from Universal came in,” Supervising Fire Dispatcher Andre Gougis explains. County fire units responded quickly. “When our squad got on scene at Universal, they asked for a second alarm response three minutes into the call, which was a clear indication that we had a bad situation on our hands.”
Fire protection for the 400 acre Universal Studios lot is provided by LACFD Station 51, named on honor of the 1970s television show, <I>Emergency</I>. “County Fire Station 51 is dedicated to serving Universal,” Gougis says. “We handle all of the calls on the Universal CityWalk.” Like other independent cities throughout Los Angeles County, Universal City is nestled within the sprawling County of Los Angeles. The Los Angeles City Fire Department (LAFD) and Burbank Fire Department cover areas that are immediately adjacent to Universal, with proactive mutual and automatic aid agreements in place. “The Universal Studios fire was an automatic aid response,” Gougis adds. “We run a lot of calls with other local agencies, so we’re familiar with how they operate.”
Left: Los Angeles County Fire Dispatcher Robert Markham on the console. Nearly twenty calltakers, radio dispatchers, and supervisors were on duty when the fire broke out on the Universal lot. Photo: L A County Fire
When fully staffed, there are 19 civilian call takers, telephone radio operators (TROs), and supervisors per shift at LACFD Command and Control. Two sworn personnel, the head fire dispatcher and battalion chief, oversee operations, and serve as liaisons with the field units. Battalion Chief Daniel Ertel explains, “Once a call taker gets a call, she or he sends it to a dispatcher, who dispatches it. Then it’s sent to a telephone radio operator, or TRO, who takes over the call and is dedicated to it throughout the incident.” With a second alarm, Ertel adds that, “a communications plan is requested and a minimum of one command frequency and two or three tactical frequencies are dedicated to that incident.”
As resources were being deployed to Universal, comm center personnel focused on back filling the stations being emptied. “The initial response to a commercial fire like this is five engines, two trucks, and two battalion chiefs,” Gougis explains. “When the fire went second alarm, we were up to nine engines, four battalion chiefs, and a large area to back fill. The head fire dispatcher and battalion chief have the experience and knowledge to help us evaluate the bigger picture, so we relied heavily on them. We were able to cover everything and there were no reports of any delayed responses anywhere in the county.”
“This fire was a big fire,” Chief Ertel says. And it wasn’t knocked down until 11:00 PM.
Ladder pipe operations, stand by crews, command coordination, and communications interoperability allowed more than 400 firefighters from three agencies to operate effectively and safely. The 3-alarm fire. hampered by low water pressure, was controlled in in 12 hours. Photo: L A County Fire
Although not known initially, the backlot fire was started accidentally by workmen on one of the realistic looking exterior sets, or “façades.” When they left the site, they were unaware that a fire had been sparked that soon took advantage of the abundant combustible fuel in the wooden sets, growing rapidly. An alert security guard noticed the flames on a security camera and made the 9-1-1 call.
LACFD Deputy Chief Tommey Massey recalls, “It was a conflagration that was a lot like a wildland fire. The way the façades are built and the material they’re built from contributed to the fire spread, including the speed at which it spread. Once it got going, it was almost impossible to stop it, just like a brush fire.”
The fire overwhelmed a special deluge system that had been installed on the façades following an earlier backlot fire in 1990. “The fire started inside a façade, but the deluge system was on the exterior of the façades,” Deputy Chief Scott Poster, LACFD Prevention Services Bureau, explains. “The system protected against exterior spread, but there was no protection on the interior. So even though the deluge system was designed by engineers and was supposed to be functional, it failed.”
The initial onrush of resources from three responding agencies posed an incident command challenge, according to Chief Massey, who served as incident commander. “It was difficult to sort out what resources were there and where they were,” Massey says. “It was like there were two independent operations early on. We responded to our first, second, and third alarms. And LA City responded to their alarms. So if you had taken a helicopter ride over that incident at the start, looked down on it and counted the number of resources that were there, LAFD had more resources than we did.” Measures were taken quickly to wrangle all of the assets for accountability and safety. “The incident command system works well,” Massey adds. “Once we established a command system, we had no problems.”
Contrary to news reports, Chief Poster notes that the water system at Universal was sufficient to fight the fire; however, the system was impeded by falling façades and several deluge risers and fire hydrants that were sheared off. “There’s plenty of water at Universal on the backlot,” he says. “It was a fuel issue more than a water issue. The proximity and configuration of the structures, including the wooden sets, created an extreme amount of fuel, and once ignited the water available was not of a sufficient quantity to extinguish that size of a fire. We were able to supplement the system, but prior to doing that, it was tough, because there was a lot of fire.”
The façade fire was mostly contained by mid-morning. Unfortunately, one of the burning façades had collapsed on a large metal film vault building filled with an estimated 50,000 plastic-wrapped film, video, and sound recordings. “Having a burning façade fall into a building filled with plastic video cases, wrapped in plastic and stacked together, was not good,” Chief Poster says. “Burning plastic hardens when you put water on it, but the plastic beneath it keeps burning. So you cannot penetrate deep into a plastics fire. The only way to deal with this fire was to take it apart. We brought in heavy equipment to pull that building apart, expose the contents, and put out the fire. It took a long time.”
“We got as many of the videos and other recordings out of this building as we could,” Chief Massey says, “and Universal assured us that they had duplicates of everything stored in the building.”
Surround and Drown: L.A. County’s Truck 8 in operation during the fire. The blaze broke out on a sound stage featuring New York brownstone facades around 4:30 AM at the 400-acre property. Ground crews were aided by firefighting helicopters that swept in for drops, and cranes also dumped water on the flames. Photo: Larry Cummings/courtesy LA County Fire
“Operationally speaking, firefighters from multiple fire departments did an outstanding job,” Poster adds. “With LA City, LA County, and Burbank all working together on a fire that was that hot and moving that fast, it took a lot of teamwork.” In addition to the film vault, the fire destroyed 15 façades, including two structures, and damaged the King Kong attraction.
Safety and Rehab
Sudden cardiac death represents the most common cause of line-of-duty death among firefighters, according to a July 2007 National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) report. Researchers suspect that many of these deaths are triggered by heat stress, compounded by the use of personal protective garments and exposure to fire.
To monitor the health of firefighters on scene, LACFD commanders established a fireground rehabilitation center where firefighters were rotated in and out throughout the prolonged and stubborn firefight. “The firefighters were working really hard in very hot conditions, with full protective gear and breathing apparatus donned,” Chief Poster says. “Even though a lot of them wanted to stay in and fight the fire, our commanders forced people to take a break. After working a 2 ½ hose line for 15 to 20 minutes, with a mask on, at 80 to 90 degrees outside, you’re cooking in your suit. So we rotated them through the rehab center, had them remove their turnout coats, rehydrated them, checked their blood pressure and heart rate, rested them and then put them back in.”
Poster stresses that rehab was one of the most important elements of the Universal fire operation. “A lot of times you will see large fires, where everyone gets so involved in operations that they forget, in the heat of the firefight, to stop and cool down,” he says. “The most valuable asset we have is our firefighters. So even though we may have a big fire that we need to put out, we must protect our people.”
More than 400 firefighters fought the Universal Studios fire, with a total of only 13 minor injuries.
Communications – Interoperability
“Teamwork in the comm center was automatic,” Andre Gougis says, noting that a number of staff members on duty that night were junior level personnel. “They all performed outstandingly,” he adds. “Afterwards, everyone was really surprised, like, wow, our shift actually did this. It was a tremendous team effort.”
Personnel who were on break scurried back to the comm center to lend a hand. “One call taker sat next to the radio operator to help her with whatever was needed,” Gougis says. “If there was a phone call, it got made. If there was information needed from the gas or power company on an ETA, we got it. When we heard, ‘LA I need this… LA I need that,’ from the incident commander, we acknowledged the request and made sure it was taken care of.”
Interoperability issues were minimized in part because LACFD, LAFD and Burbank Fire respond together frequently. “LA City was operating on 800 MHz radios and LA County was operating on 470 MHz radios, but we work together so much, we’re used to it,” Chief Poster says. “We do have the capability of interoperability through Command and Control. There’s a way to take the different radio systems and integrate them on one frequency. But for this particular fire, we did a lot of face to face communications, and we swapped radios, so we had our people with their radios and their people with our radios.”
To update the communications system countywide, Battalion Chief John Lenihan is representing LACFD on the new Los Angeles Regional Interoperable Communications System (LA-RICS) committee. The goal is to resolve interoperability issues among the 50 law enforcement and 31 fire-rescue agencies that serve more than 10 million residents living within Los Angeles County, which covers 4,084 square miles. “We need to get us all on one consolidated system,” Chief Lenihan explains. “One of our tasks is to make sure that the new system will be engineered with a lot of ‘push to talk’ capacity, when there are a lot of people trying to transmit on the radio, like in a wildland fire.”
Chief Lenihan notes that the new, regional, interoperable radio system is scheduled to be launched within the next five years. “It’s going to be a magnificent project when it’s done,” he says.
The raging fire destroyed some of Hollywood's most familiar backdrops, including the courthouse square from Back to the Future and a streetscape featured in Bruce Almighty, Spiderman 2 and Transformers. Fortunately, fire fighter’s salvage operations and the studio’s foresight in archiving a duplicate film archive off site resulted in saving much valuable movie memorabilia. Photo: Larry Cummings/courtesy LA County Fire
To mitigate backlot fires, fire officials will continue to coordinate with motion picture studio representatives to reduce the hazards and improve response. “Every time we have a backlot fire, we work with the studios to rebuild their façades better,” says Chief Massey, “and to ensure that there are enough systems in place, including sprinklers, to be able to fight these fires better in the future and not allow them to grow as big as this one did, so rapidly.”
“The studios used to build a set, film on it, tear it down, and build another set,” Chief Poster says. “There’s been an evolution with the façades, including giving tours through them. So now they’re more ‘permanent,’ even though they’re not built with the same building standards that would apply to permanent buildings. The studios realize that there is value in the façades and they’re an asset that is worth protecting. Universal has been a good partner, working with us to rebuild with fire resistant materials and add more fire protection systems to prevent future backlot fires.”
Nancy J. Rigg is a writer, filmmaker, and public safety education consultant. She is a frequent contributor to 9-1-1 Magazine.