CENTRAL FALLS — Brutally hot outside temperatures and a fire and chemical spill inside a paint factory combined to cause a hazardous and uncomfortable scene for dozens of area firefighters on Monday.
Firefighters responded to the five-alarm blaze at around 11:30 a.m. at General Polymer Inc., an industrial paints and coatings company located at 59 Foundry St. The company occupies a three-story, 75,000-square foot brick mill building located in a densely populated neighborhood off Broad Street.
Thirteen members of the Woonsocket Fire Department’s regional hazmat team were sent to a fire in a three-story mill building in Central Falls as a decon team to provide chemical decontamination for firefighters at the scene. The decon team was requested after the fire on Foundry Street was declared a hazardous-materials situation.
According to Central Falls Fire Chief Robert Bradley, a fire ignited in a large metal vat containing flammable chemicals that were being mixed in the production process. The fire in the vat was fully involved, he said. The blaze set off the sprinkler system but the water caused a second vat next to it to overflow and spill its contents all over the factory floor and into the basement. Over 300 gallons of chemicals, some believed to be hazardous, were spilled.
Bradley said no employees were hurt in the mishap and the building was evacuated. However, the large chemical spill and need for a hazardous materials clean-up prompted a call for mutual aid and specialized equipment from as far away as Warwick and Smithfield. Also providing key assistance to Central Falls were fire and rescue companies from Pawtucket, Cumberland, Lincoln, East Providence and Woonsocket, along with personnel from the Rhode Island State Fire Marshal's Office.
Bradley said that because some of the chemicals were believed to be hazardous, the massive clean-up efforts required firefighters to don protective gear and oxygen masks despite the 90-plus degree temperatures outside. He said he expected firefighters and clean-up crews to be at the site for much of the afternoon.
As firefighters exited the building, they immediately removed their equipment and were doused with water from the fire hoses. Many were visibly weak from the heat and had to be helped out of their gear, while some required extra oxygen and fluids. The Providence Fire Department's canteen unit dispensed countless cups of water to those on the scene during the long clean-up process.
Three first responders were transported to the Memorial Hospital, said press spokesperson Dyana Koelsch. Two were treated for heat exhaustion and released and another was being held for an evaluation, she said.
About a half dozen more firefighters became overcome by the heat to varying degrees and were treated at the scene, said Bradley and Pawtucket Fire Chief William Sisson.
Bradley said that due to the types of chemicals involved, much of the firefighters' gear was contaminated and will have to be destroyed. He lamented the considerable costs associated with this loss of gear, noting that much of it is custom fitted to the firefighters.
While a large rear section of the old mill building had windows that were missing or boarded up, Bradley said the paint company was operational and its fire alarms and sprinkler system were fully functioning. He did not know how many employees worked there. He said a long rear section with a loading dock, which once housed a bingo hall, had served as storage for the company but was no longer being used.
Bradley said that while the clean-up efforts were going to be considerable and time-consuming, he didn't think the building was damaged beyond repair. He also that the cause of the fire is still under investigation.
Several apartment buildings and businesses are in close proximity to General Polymer. David Story, who lives in the apartment house next door, at 61 Foundry Street, said his landlord suggested that the tenants evacuate as a precaution. He and other neighbors stood outside watching the long-unfolding scene, which brought an array of specialized fire and rescue equipment that ranged from hazardous materials trucks, foam and air-supply units to a large T.G. Green Airport fire and rescue van.
According to its website, General Polymer has been involved in the engineering and production of custom industrial paints and coatings for over 25 years. Product users range from cosmetic manufacturers to industrial production companies.
Follow Donna Kirwan on Twitter @KirwanDonna