Honolulu can stake a claim to having the oldest fire department west of the Rockies because of the legal status granted it by Hawaiian King Kamehameha III who signed an ordinance establishing the HFD as the first fire department in the Hawaiian Islands in December 1850. Today the HFD has over eleven hundred firefighters deployed in five battalions and 44 stations around Oahu. It is the only fire department in the U.S. that was established by a ruling monarch.
In 1941 the department had eight two-piece (pumper and hose wagon) engine companies and an aerial ladder deployed in seven stations around the city, as well as two single-piece engine companies in rural Oahu thus comprising a total complement of 161 officers and men.
The Honolulu Fire Department was dispatched to Hickam Airfield at 0805 hours to assist military and federal crews with multiple fires involving military aircraft, barracks, and hanagrs on December 7, 1941. The department lost three firefighters that day. Firefighters on duty that day noted the activities in a company journal as follows: "8 a.m. Tel. alarm Hickam field, #4 Co. responded."
The entries, penned in longhand, continue: ".Rec'd 25 mattresses from Central. Dead at Hickam field fire were Captains Carriera + Macy, Pang, hoseman. Injured hosemen Kalihbane, P.J. McCabe, J. Gilman, Sol Naavao." In addition to Co. 4, companies 1 and 6 also responded to the attack. The 100 firefighters and six apparatus remained on the scene most of that infamous day. All off-duty firefighters were called to report as well.
Chief W.W. Blaisdell wrote a brief report for the January 1942 edition of The Quaterly of the NFPA. The chief reported that as all of Hickams's military fire apparatus were put out of service, the three companies of the HFD provided fire service as best they could between the waves of attack. As bombs had rendered the hydrant system useless, the firefighters used their equipment to draft water from bomb craters. The three pumpers using the crater pumped through 6,400 feet of 3 inch and 2-1/2 inch lines. All of the HFD apparatus at Hickam Field received damage from bullets and bombs. Outside of Hickam Field in Honolulu, the department modified its regular run response and apparatus deployment for the duration of the attack and the days following.
In time the military awarded Purple Hearts to those HFD firefighters injured and killed on December 7th, they are the only U.S. civilian firefighters so honored. The fallen firefighters of the Honolulu Fire Department on December 7th, 1941 were Captain Thomas Macy of Engine 4, Captain John Carreira of Engine 1, and Hoseman Harry Tuck Lee Pang of Engine 6.
Learn more about the firefighting at Hickam Field and in the city of Honolulu on Decemeber 7th.
It was nearly dismissal time for the local parish school in a Chicago neighborhood. But a fire would interrupt the orderly schedule of the Catholic school and alter the lives of the students and teachers forever. The date was December 1, 1958.
In the basement of Our Lady of the Angels School, by the open stairwell, a fire began sometime between 2:00 and 2:20 p.m. In quick time, the fire would grow causing heat and deadly smoke to rise upward through the stairwell, down the hallways, and into the classrooms.
Our Lady of the Angels School Fire
In just about one hour the fire would cause the deaths of 92 students and 3 nuns as the smoke, heat, fire, and toxic gasses cut off their means of escape. In addition, approximately 77 more suffered injuries, mostly from jumping from classroom windows on the second floor. (Due to the basement being partially above grade-level the second floor was more or less the approximate height of a third floor.)
At the time of the fire it is believed that there were 1,200 to 1,300 occupants in the building. In the two-story, north wing where the fire occurred, there were 569 pupils and teachers. On the second floor of that wing there were 329 people in the six classrooms. The official reports hold that the fire originated in a trash barrel located in the basement, near a stairwell in the older north wing of the brick schoolhouse. The smoldering fire went undetected, gradually filling the stairwell with thick smoke.
The school did not have an automatic fire sprinkler system, nor did it have any form of heat detection (smoke detection technology did not exist at the time). The impending danger was first recognized around 2:30 p.m. by two girls from Room 206 on a routine errand that took them to the basement incinerator to empty a wastebasket where they encountered thick smoke.
An investigation report published in the January 1959 edition of the Quarterly of the NFPA reports that the girls returned and informed their teacher. The teacher told her students to remain seated as she departed to Room 207 to inform that teacher. The teacher in Room 207 then hurried to inform the principal, however the principal was in first floor classroom filling in for an absent teacher. The teachers of 206 and 207 then decided to remove their classes from the building as the smoke began banking down to about head-level in the corridor. Once the two classrooms were safely removed the teacher of Room 206 returned to the school and pulled the local fire alarm at 2:42 p.m.
The school’s fire alarm did not ring into a city master box. It would be a telephone call from the parish’s housekeeper that first notified the fire department at 2:42 p.m., as she was prompted to do so by the school’s janitor who had also discovered the fire. The Chicago Fire Department dispatched a standard response to the still alarm, one engine, one ladder, one rescue squad, and a battalion chief. One Chicago Fire Insurance Patrol unit also responded. The CFD units were Engine 85, Ladder 35, and Rescue Squad 6.
The fire grew rapidly causing smoke and heat to build up in the second floor hallway. The transom windows above the classroom doors then failed allowing flames, heat, and toxic smoke to enter the classrooms where dozens had remained faithfully awaiting rescue by firemen. The fire was also now above the ceiling over their heads in the attic space. The second floor of the old North Wing was now a perfect fire trap.
For over 300 children and 5 nuns escape now meant jumping from the second floor windows to the concrete and crushed stone below or waiting for the fire department to arrive and effect their rescue. Fire department units arrived within approximately four minutes of being dispatched. The first units on scene faced a scene of stark horror that would only grow worse in the next few minutes.
The fire had possibly burned for forty minutes and was now fully out of control. The firemen were hampered because they had been incorrectly routed to the rectory’s street address around the corner on West Iowa Street, thus losing minutes they and the trapped occupants could ill afford to lose. Additional alarms were called to bring more firefighting equipment.
The delayed discovery and reporting of the blaze and the misdirection of the first apparatus meant the firemen arrived too late to save more, but it was not their fault. They rescued and recovered more than 160 children, though too many of the students carried out were already dead. Some of the small bodies were so badly charred that they could not be handled without breaking apart.
“When Kamin, in charge of Truck Company 35, arrived he saw the desperate situation in the courtyard between the north and south wings of the school. Children in rooms 209 and 211 were hanging out the windows, yelling and screaming, some jumping. Kamin climbed a ladder placed at the front window of room 211 and began rescuing children. He repeatedly reached in and grabbed students, mainly boys because he could grab them by their belt, lifted them out and dropped them on the ladder below him. The situation in the room deteriorated fast, though. After rescuing about 8 children, the air inside the room reached ignition temperature and the entire room erupted in flames, forcing Kamin back from the window. In horror, he watched as the remaining children disappeared in the conflagration. Kamin and his crew were credited with saving 63 of the 160 children and nuns saved from the burning school by the Chicago Fire Department. Later that evening, Kamin was treated and released from Garfield Park Hospital for minor injuries. In a 1977 interview, he said, ‘Every once in a while it still bothers you. You can see those kids, and you hear them. I mean, screaming. I can hear the screams right now. And sometimes you're OK, but when you sit down sometimes. It really bothers a fellow. It really does about all those kids.’ The tears welled in his eyes with these words.”
In the estimation of the NFPA’s fire engineers the outcome of this fire might well have been different had the school complied with existing building exit codes. The Commissioner of the Chicago Fire Department, R.J. Quinn disagreed with this opinion and laid the blame for the resulting high loss of life on the delayed alarm.
Angels Too Soon, a documentary produced by Chicago station WTTW calls into question one of the most persistent stories of the fire: the charge that nuns endangered their students by insisting that they pray, rather than escape.
Also addressed is the responsibility for conditions at the school that may have worsened the outcome of the fire. Hal Bruno, later a prominent political journalist with ABC News, was one of the first reporters on the scene. “We went down to the basement. And it was like a textbook version of how a fire spreads,” Bruno remembered. “And up at the top of the second floor, there was the killer -- an open stairwell. So regardless of what caused the fire, if there had been a fire door at the top of those stairs, nobody would have died.” We learn that a shocking number of other schools – both public and parochial – were similarly ill-equipped. We also hear about the improvements that were made to fire safety in wake of the tragedy.
Monthly fire drills became a fact of life for Chicago schoolchildren. Many schools were fitted with sprinklers, and all schools were given fire alarms directly connected to the fire department.
Two years later, a new Our Lady of the Angels school was built on the site of the old one, and this new structure had all the state of the art fire safety features that were missing in the old building.
Soon after the fire, the head of the National Fire Protection Association was asked what had been learned from the tragedy at Our Lady of the Angels. He responded that there were no new lessons to be learned. Only old lessons that tragically went unheeded.
Learn more about the school fire...
“It’s the Coconut Grove and it’s going like hell!” These were the words shouted by a Boston police officer from a radio-equipped patrol car as it passed the dooryard of the firehouse where Ladder 15 and its crew were reacting to a third alarm on Box 1521.
It was 10:23 p.m., November 28, 1942. By a twist of fate, the Boston Fire Department had responded to a car fire near Box 1541 around 10:15 p.m., roughly three blocks from the Cocoanut Grove. The firefighters of Engine 22 and Ladder 13 found a vehicle fire on Stuart Street. While picking up after extinguishing the car fire, a civilian ran to them and told fire captain John Glynn of Engine Company 22 of a fire at the Coconut Grove. Glynn ordered the apparatus to respond to check out the report.
From outside the Coconut Grove looked inconsequential. The original structure built as a garage, later housed a film distribution business. However, on this night in the fall of 1942, the Cocoanut Grove was a nightclub and it was the place to be in Boston’s city hub. It was the first year of a world war and people needed a place to unwind and forget their worries. The Grove met their need, it was hot, noisy, crowded, and the alcohol flowed.
Sometime around 10:15 PM, in the basement, a fire broke out in the crowded Melody Lounge. Author Stephanie Schorow wrote in her book, The Coconut Grove Fire, that… “Within a minute the fire had spread to the foyer upstairs. By 10:18 p.m., the main dining area was embroiled. Two minutes later, fire raced through a passageway into the Broadway Lounge. The fast moving fire covered 225 feet, involving both floors of the building, end to end, in about five minutes.”
Arriving at the Grove, firefighters found a heavy smoke pushing from the building as both patrons and employees were fleeing. At 10:20 p.m., Boston’s Fire Alarm Office received Box 1521 for Church and Winchester Streets (pulled by a civilian bystander). The fire chief on scene ordered his aide to skip the second alarm and request a third alarm, via fire alarm telegraph, from Box 1521. This order transmitted at 10:23 p.m. was followed quickly by a fourth alarm at 10:24 p.m. and a fifth alarm at 11:02 p.m.
Riding the tailboard of Engine 22, firefighters Johnny Rose and Bill Estes were eyewitnesses to the scene of horror and death in the doorway of the Grove’s Broadway Lounge. The firefighters reacted quickly, connected to a hydrant, and advanced a line, as pump operator Joe McNeil charged the line to feed their nozzle.
The two firefighters faced a plug of people jammed in the exit-way, with flames racing over their heads. The roaring fire was in search of the necessary oxygen needed to sustain its combustion and it was in the same path as the means of escape. With no chance of helping the burning victims by pulling them out, Rose and Estes tipped their nozzle upward into the flame path to cool the heat. As the stream struck the ceiling and broke into droplets of spray the water provided at least some protection to those jammed in the exit.
The narrow and congested streets around the Grove clogged with fire apparatus, police cars, and ambulances. The fire though extinguished in short order none-the-less took a great toll in lives. Even though rescue and body recovery operations began immediately near the exits, firefighters would find greater horrors deep inside the building. Patrons who had exited collapsed in the street and stacks of bodies, both living and dead, piled up by the exits.
The final death count established by the investigating commission was 490 dead and 166 injured. The number of injured was a count of those treated at a hospital and later released. Many more patrons were injured and did not seek hospitalization. As the years went by, the recognized number of fatalities became 492.
Learn more about the Coconut Grove fire:
One-hundred and forty-one years ago tonight the city of Boston experienced a great fire. The Great Boston Fire of 1872 was Boston's largest urban fire. Discovery of the fire came at around 7:20 PM on Saturday, November 9, 1872.
It originated in the basement of a commercial warehouse at 83-87 Summer Street, in the built-up district, of Boston (Massachusetts). The fire was finally contained 12 hours later, after it had consumed about 65 acres of the downtown, 776 buildings, and much of the financial district, causing $73.5 million in damage. At least 30 people are known to have died in the fire.
Boston's Chief Engineer (fire chief) was John Damrell. He had a practical and technical understanding of buildings which he applied to fire fighting, as well as the establishment of new building codes. Damrell placed the first known instance of a call for mutual aid early in the fire bringing fire apparatus and firemen from around New England. Damrell went on to later be a founding member of the International Association of Fire Engineers (now the IAFC) and to draft what would eventually become the the first model national building code.
Following is an excerpt from my book, Crucible of Fire, Chapter 13 - Boston and the Standardization of Fire Protection....
....The chief engineer and his assistants had control of the fires, but it seems they controlled little else in the Boston Fire Department. Each company of the department had a foreman and assistant foreman, with each being elected annually by the company’s members. Each engine company (with a steam engine) had a paid driver, paid fireman, and a paid engineer, all being permanent positions. Each engine company also had eight hosemen (including the foreman) who were all only paid-on-call members. The hose companies (with a hose wagon) each had a permanent paid driver and eight paid-on-call men. The ladder companies (with a hook & ladder) had a paid driver and a complement of either 14 or 21 paid-on-call members. This latter core of members was assigned as follows: one foreman, one assistant foreman, four ax-men, 4 rake-men and either 6 or 13 laddermen. The entire Boston Fire department had 459 positions. Except for the elected engineers, all other members had tenure based on good behavior. At the time of the fire, the department had 21 steam engines, capable of pumping 300 to 550 GPM (gallons of per minute) a horizontal distance of 320 ft. and a vertical distance of 220 ft. with each carrying 450 ft. of fire hose. They had 10 hose wagons or carriages with each averaging 900 ft. of fire hose. The ladder carriages each carried 15 to 20 ladders of varying lengths. There were nine men assigned to salvage and property preservation work the positions paid for by insurance companies.
For fires below the third floor of a building fireman connected hoses directly to the nearest fire hydrant without a steamer to boost pressure. This statement implies that the Boston water system at the time had sufficient pressure to allow for friction loss in the hose, nozzle pressure and elevation losses. For fires on the third floor and above a steam engine was required to boost the pressure lost due to friction and elevation. The engine would connect to the hydrant and pump the line to the fire building. The hosemen of the engine and hose wagon companies handle the hose-lines while laddermen opened up the building to ventilate smoke and expose hidden fire. Boston also had a fireboat and Babcock chemical fire engine. This chemical rig was useful for small and incipient stage fires. It weighed just over 3,000 pounds, pulled by up to two horses. With two chambers to maintain constant pressure and using a 1-inch nozzle, it could pump extinguishing agent a vertical distance of 75 feet. Bugbee believed that these chemical rigs could take the place of the hand-pumps that Shaw thought so highly of and in use in Europe.
Boston also benefited from a municipal fire alarm system run by the city, and under control of the Superintendent of Fire Alarm, not the fire chief. Boston had fire alarm pull boxes located on street corners throughout the city and wired to the city’s fire alarm office. Alarm bells were located in the fire stations, public buildings, churches, and the homes of the department’s engineers.
Boston’s great fire came on November 9, 1872, starting around 7:00 PM. It originated in the basement of a warehouse that measured 50 ft. wide by 100 ft. long and 72 ft. in height and it had a Mansard-style roof. The front, exterior wall was granite and the other exterior walls were brick. The warehouse was at an intersection of two streets, 40 ft. and 45 ft. in width. Surrounding buildings were of similar construction and had the Mansard roofs. Being early Saturday evening, no one noticed the fire until it was at an advanced stage.
By the next morning the entire complement of men and apparatus of the Boston Fire Department, as well as those of surrounding cities and towns were engaged in the firefight. Boston at the time of the fire had an area of 15.5 square miles and 260,000 residents. The fire department had 459 assigned personnel and 21 steam fire engines. Contrast this with London which had a population of 3.34 million and an area of 122 square miles, but whose fire brigade had just 28 steam engines and 396 assigned personnel. On the night of the fire, with a recall of the entire department Boston could field more firefighters than London. In testimony to a study commission after the fire, Harvard’s president claimed that he saw a large number of what he termed superb resources at the fire, yet the operation was run poorly, lacking overall coordination and control. He was not the only person to make this observation.
In his testimony, President Elliot stated, “In short, the fire department seemed to lack the methods of an army altogether, about receiving intelligence and conveying orders.” Others testified to the commission that fire streams were ineffectively applied, even some went so far as to say that the department entered the fray without a plan and fell quickly behind. Some thought that the Boston firemen, being so accustomed to routinely entering burning buildings to extinguish fires, may have been shocked by the intensity and severity of the situation. Eyewitnesses to the actions of the assistant engineers testified that arriving officers would stop and remain at the first steam engine they came across. Referring to Chief Officer Shaw’s observations on the lack of training in America’s fire departments, Bugbee seemed to agree that a general plan of action did not manifest itself that night. Rather than placing themselves and the apparatus in strategic locations, they simply entered the fight wherever they could. Bugbee writes that Shaw on the other hand, would have been able to offer a dissertation strategy. Shaw demonstrates in his book Fire Surveys: A Summary of the Principles to be Observed in Estimating the Risk of Buildings a thorough understanding of building construction and fire behavior.
“The distance apart of buildings fronting each other should be in proportion to their height; in fact, as a simple rule, it might be laid down that they should be separated by a distance equal to half their combined height. Thus, for instance, a building of sixty feet and a building of thirty feet might occupy sides of a street forty-five feet wide. With a well-organized and properly equipped fire brigade it is found that sixty feet is the greatest height at which a building can be quickly protected, and that the cube of 60, or 216,000 cubic feet, is the largest cubical capacity which can be protected with reasonable hope of success after a fire has once come to a head.”
In the case of the building of fire origin in Boston, Bugbee used Shaw’s formula and determined that the fire department never had a chance to save this building due to its’ size and width of the street. The other contributing factors included the delayed alarm, the sick fire horses, and the inadequate water supply. Noting these factors a fire commander should have set a strategy of fire control focused on defensive posture, first protecting the exposed buildings, rather than directly extinguishing the main fire. At some point, if the main body of fire were controlled, with no threats to exposures, and no problem with brands carried on air currents the operation might become offensive in posture, if necessary for any reason. Given the size of the building, the size of the fire, and the additional problems protection of exposures was the best choice. This would only be practical if well-supplied engines and water towers massed their flow of water on the closest exposures. All of the nearby buildings had Mansard-style roofs so once they allowed the fire to jump from building to building the battle was lost. Saving buildings that night required a defensive strategy that focused on protecting exposures and controlling spot fires from flying brands. Given the fact that fire crews had to pull their apparatus to the fire because of the sick fire horses, the delay in response time would likely have negated the possibility of a massed attack in the early stages. In addition, Chief Damrell would have had to coordinate the various arriving steamers, assigning them a hydrant and a location to set up. Eyewitnesses recount minimal strategic coordination or that is what appeared to happen. The fire eventually burned some 65 acres of built-up area, destroyed 776 buildings in the heart of the city’s commercial sector, with losses of $75 million in 1872 dollars, or about $1.350 billion in 2004 dollars.
America cities would continue to pay the price for failing to learn what European cities had learned about the mansard-style wood roof. European cities banned such construction and suffered fewer such conflagrations. In addition, while American fire insurance companies new about the problem they were unwilling to act. As (Percy) Bugbee (he was an insurance man who helped found the NFPA) later of the points out, Americans knew well the danger of wood construction for cities. Consider his partial list of disastrous fires: 1835 in New York, 640 warehouses; 1838 in Charleston, 1,158 buildings; 1845 in Pittsburgh, 1,000 buildings and New York, 302 stores and houses; 1848 in Albany, 300 buildings; 1849 in St. Louis, 350 buildings; 1850 in Philadelphia, 400 buildings; 1852 in San Francisco, two fires that year claimed 3,000 buildings; in addition, Bugbee reports that, Troy, Savannah, New Orleans, Mobile, Portland, and Brooklyn burned. During the roughly same 40 year time span in Europe, there were only two significant urban fires, Hamburg in 1842 and Constantinople in 1870.
Bugbee could not seem to reach a conclusion, was it the attention that Europeans paid to the process of maintaining superior building construction or their trained professional fire departments that contributed to their excellent record of fire protection. Perhaps multiple, inter-related factors were at work in the form of an open-ended technological system. The technological system or network in this case has various contributing factors and many diverse participants with no entity in control, thus it is open-ended. The participants in this technological system might include government, the public, the fire service, engineers, builders, and fire insurance companies. The elements or factors in the system might include uncontrolled fire, water supply, combustibles, high-density urban development, and firefighting apparatus. Seeking the easy answer, as did Shaw, Bugbee agrees that the relative success of European fire departments is their reliance on the small, portable hand pumps distributed strategically throughout their cities. This situation of deployment using portable pumps remained viable for many more years in some of Europe’s largest urban centers. By stark contrast, American departments of that era invested heavily in powerful steam fire engines drawn by horses....
For an excellent resource on Boston’s Great Fire of 1872 and Chief John Damrell check out the website, Damrell’s Fire.
This photograph is a statue in Edinburgh, Scotland erected to the memory of James Braidwood. Braidwood (1800–1861) founded the world's first municipal fire service in Edinburgh in 1824, and was the first director of the London Fire Engine Establishment. The brigade would eventually to become the London Fire Brigade. He is credited with the development of the modern municipal fire service. In America, the fire service knows little of Braidwood and his remarkable accomplishments, that is unfortunate. In a future post I will talk more about Mr. Braidwood.For now, my thoughts are on some of our own notable, but mostly ignored American fire service figures and how they relate to contemporary times.
What were they thinking back in 1953 and 1973? What mattered to the fire service? For a start, there was no one group representing the “fire service” and this is what “they” think, any more than there is such a group today in 2013.
Questions are important for the answers they yield and tell us a lot about what people are thinking. Answers hold opinions that offer useful ideas, thoughts, or nothing of value. This is important to understand because we filter what we hear in order to make value judgments to help form our own reality.
What are important questions for firefighters, at least when they are gathered in the fire station and talking? Almost without question, the concern centers on calls, more importantly fire calls. What is burning and is it “our” fire. In the inevitable back-story, the questions are on who did what in the fire attack and who had the nozzle. Now and then, someone might ask what caused the fire, but origin and cause is mostly the domain of fire investigators and fire marshals.
Firefighters see a “working fire” as essential and necessary to the good order of a well-functioning firehouse. To firefighters, going to fires marks a successful day or tour of duty. A fire is an opportunity for action. A fire attack stirs everyone up. Adrenaline primes us for physical action and heightened emotions. The result is a release of energy. We can argue that we do it for valid reasons, for example to help people, and that is true, but we like going to fires.
Judging by firefighters postings on social media, it becomes obvious what is important and what it is not important to us, or at least the select users of that media. Also clear is the notion that the tougher the firefight the better, no matter that it was someone’s property. In our skewed frame of reference, a fire is a plus while at the same time it is a loss to someone.
Do we ignore that reality at our peril? On second thought, maybe we do not need to worry about it so much because if society sees fire as inevitable and firefighters as necessary then there is no harm in firefighters wanting to “catch fire” at every opportunity. Ready acceptance of this very American social construct appears to serve our innate need to fight fires and to fit nicely within the accepted social norm. The downfall comes when society changes its mind and its expectations prodding us across a new bridge.
While we are not in sight of any such bridge, that does not mean we need not give it a thought now and then because there are people who would like to change the fire service status quo. It is a sure bet that the agents of change are not part of the “brotherhood” and that they would like nothing more than to see any firefighter who Tweets “living the dream, ten days a month” in another line of work. Obvious though is a sense of an “us vs. them” mentality and a longing to fight against those who dare to make firefighting too safe. That sentiment underlies the message “take back our fire service” seen on Twitter not long ago.
Attitude imparts behavior on the occupational culture. Armed with “war stories” we take what we like of the past and weave it through the present. Put another way, we use the past to create an image of the present, a construct with which to view the world and judge others. If something or someone does not fit our image, they might as well not exist. In that environment, no one who dares to make change survives and so a couple of hundred years of tradition unhindered by progress is securely entrenched as the underlying theme. Tradition though is a two-sided coin, one side strength and the other inflexibility.
The nature of executing critical and dangerous tasks demands real world, real-time experience, solving problems as part of a team. Sometimes we forget this fact–no one person invented firefighting. Each step forward, every advance, from one new discovery to the next, we learned to add upon our own experience that of others willing to share with other firefighters what they had learned. By and by, through a process of trial and error, day in, day out, one fire after another, we learn how to fight fires.
Of late, there is a growing recognition that our fire problem has changed. Today’s fires are more severe because fuel-loads are more volatile and buildings are more tightly constructed changing the behavioral dynamics of interior fires. The nature of fire running uncontrolled in a modern building demands that we adapt our firefighting tactics. In tangent with the changing fire dynamics, we have what amounts to greater emphasis on the combat-ready, warrior-firefighter. Fortunately, the two are not mutually exclusive, provided common sense and judgment persist to override outmoded tactics.
To keep free of our own behavioral and cultural traps (i.e., tradition over change) requires us to recognize the influence of science and technology in changing the fire service. Scientific understanding and correct application of new technologies is as important as organization and deployment of resources in making fire service operations effective and efficient. Leadership and management play major roles to the extent that they serve to make good things happen by using people, resources, and knowledge to achieve successful outcomes.
What would Franklin think?
What would our first American volunteer say of our contemporary fire service? The obvious differences aside, he might ponder our capacity to suppress fire and focus on the cost. It is easy to imagine the sage who coined “a penny saved is a penny earned” musing about our failure to deploy automatic fire sprinkler systems in all occupied buildings, instead relying predominantly on very expensive fire engines.
Would he ponder the sanity of firefighters celebrating a “working” fire? Would he view our reliance on municipal fire departments as exhibiting poor judgment or at least being less than frugal? Would he view the fire service delivery of emergency medical care and all-hazard response as truly enlightened? I think Franklin being a man of science would be most upset with firefighters for regularly ignoring new technology and misunderstanding or misapplying scientific principles.
More drops of water, 1950
In a recent National Fire Heritage Center newsletter, J.C. “Robbie” Robertson revisited the legacy of Lloyd Layman (fire chief of Parkersburg, WV many years ago). In 1950, Chief Layman presented a theory that radically changed fire suppression tactics for decades. Reviewing the trade journals of the era reveals that fire departments began to conduct field experiments with Layman’s fog-based fire suppression theory, first duplicating exterior attacks then later adding evolutions with firefighters in breathing apparatus, presumably leading to interior attacks with fog nozzles. What would Chief Layman have thought of that turn of events?
In 1953 and 1955, Chief Layman, published, Attacking and Extinguishing Interior Fires and Fire Fighting Tactics. These would become the leading textbooks of fire attack for generations of firefighters and remain in print on into the 1970s. Despite the radical nature of the idea, changes in fire attack with water fog came only incrementally fed periodically by new products from fire equipment manufacturers, specifically fog nozzles, lighter hose, and breathing apparatus. Ultimately, variations in Layman’s method of fog attack were adopted as tactics by some who misunderstood the precepts of the original theory. In the process, many firefighters suffered injuries.
America Burning, 1973
The National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control proposed many ideas in the landmark publication America Burning. Of interest is what the experts who testified before Congress had to say. One of those who testified on behalf of the Commission in 1973 was then Maryland State Fire Marshal J.C. Robertson (mentioned above) who spoke to the need for the collection of better fire data and a study of fire prevention methods. In an age when we expect little from our Congress, the significance of the publication of America Burning and the corresponding testimony before the Congress of that era cannot be understated for the results, a national fire agency and a National Fire Academy.
One member of the Commission was very outspoken on the matter of suppression versus prevention and what he said is worth noting. An assistant vice president of the American Insurance Association, John Jablonsky, said, “It is a sound observation that each incidence of fire suppression in our built environment represents a failure of fire prevention. He asked, “Do we have our priorities backwards?” He referred to a hypothetical tenement fire with a contingent of 20 firefighters and 4 apparatus present and nicknamed them “failure fighters.”
Fire behavior dynamics, 2013
In December 2012, a group of fire researchers met in College Park, Maryland to discuss how changes in building construction methods, materials, and building contents are affecting the way fires grow and develop in today’s homes. The result of that meeting is a report titled, Changing Severity of Home Fires Workshop Report. Firefighters may agree that fires today are growing more severe, they may not agree though on the suggestions made in the report, primarily that we need to address our fire attack methods to compensate for the change in fire severity.
The reality of fires in 2013 puts us in a place not unlike 1953 and 1973, times when new ideas and facts did not necessarily fit with traditional methods and concepts of what it meant to be a firefighter. The question you may want to consider is whether a fire is cause to celebrate or notable only as a failure. The risk we run is in ignoring the beacon of research and science through the thick smoke of tradition.
My interest in fire history means that I will read almost anything that seems to have an urban fire or disaster narrative. I am now reading Flammable Cities: Urban Conflagration and the Making of the Modern World an academic's book if I ever read one. But, that is not necessarily so bad as it seems to imply.
It is an edited work and at least two of the contributing authors have worthy credentials, as researchers and historians, and their writing or story-telling ability is attention getting. They are Professor Amy S. Greenberg and Sara E. Wermiel, both of whom I have read and quoted from in my own work of fire history, Crucible of Fire.
Greenberg's work on 19th century volunteer firemen and Wermiel's work on technology of fire protection in the same era are, in my opinion, required reading, for any well-rounded, educated, urban firefighter. In Chapter 6, Professor Greenberg writes about urban fires in 19th-century Mexico. Her narrative tells us that professional or fully-paid fire forces are a symbol of modernity and urban progressiveness (my words) although they may not be singularly responsible for ending the plague of urban conflagrations.
This is a point that I wish to cover in greater depth (which I will do in future installments) because it is common narrative among 19th-century historians and many firefighters that implies once professional firefighters came upon the scene the volunteers withered away like a dying fire. As we in firefighting know quite well, noting could be further from the truth.
That leads leads me to today when I was drawn to an article and video about the fire problem in Highland Park, Michigan, a small urban city that might as well be Detroit, as that city all but surrounds it. No one in U.S. firefighting should be surprised to hear that Highland Park has a fire problem.
The Highland Park Fire Department formed in 1917 to serve a growing city. Once employing 84 firefighters, today it boasts less than half that number. On average they respond to 1,000 runs a year, including 150-200 structure fires. They have one functioning aerial ladder truck.
I am planning more research on firefighting in Highland Park for a future post here and in a more in-depth FireRescue1 article. It is my intent in that article to talk about Highland Park, the Flammable Cities book, and maybe even dispatch the notion that volunteers were made somehow inconsequential in the face of paid fire forces. Until then, please watch the helmet-cam video about Highland Park's remarkable firefighters on the frontline of urban firefighting.
I have mentioned in other posts the importance of remembering our past, our history. An organization that is trying to preserve an important part of fire protection history is the National Fire Heritage Center located in Emmitsburg, Maryland, just a ways down South Seton Avenue from the National Fire Academy. It is a place worth visiting if you are in that area. Stop by and talk to Wayne Powell the Center's Director (be advised he likes to talk fire and has great stories).
Here is a video that Chief Ron Coleman (if you read Fire Chief Magazine you are familiar with his long-running column The Chief's Clipboard) made for the NFHC where he discusses the concept for the NFHC and the importance of preserving our national fire heritage.
Sept. 11, 2001 was a life-defining moment and as the events of that day became known, we got a sense of history coming into play. As 9/11 now recedes into history, future generations will come to see that day in different terms and we can only imagine how they will view what happened.
Very little is certain and it is safe only to assume that if history is any guide to the future, events unforeseen will occur and render our inadequate predictions meaningless. Read more on FireRescue1 in my history column...
In September 1953, Fire Engineering ran a feature article covering the growing difficulty of volunteer fire departments to raise adequate funds with which to operate. Sixty years later America's VFDs face the same challenge. In Adams County, located in south central Pennsylvania, the volunteers are seeking a .25 mil fire tax levied on property assessments by the municipalities that they cover.
A detailed study of the situation, specifically looking at the growing difficulty of the volunteers to raise sufficient funds to mainatin effective operations, was coordinated by the Adams County Council of Governments (AVCOG) and the Adams County Volunteer Emergency Services Association (AVESA).
The latter organization, ACVESA, is a non-profit, 501(c)(3), organization dedicated to providing quality emergency services to the residents and workers of Adams County by acting as a coordinating body for the member volunteer fire departments. As their website explains, "ACVESA was organized in 2000 by a consolidation of the Adams County Volunteer Firefighters Association, Adams County Fire Chiefs Association, and the Adams County Emergency Medical Services Association. The purpose of the consolidation was to eliminate meetings, and prevent repetitious reports and studies, improve he efficiency of the fire service organizations, and provide better service to the citizens of Adams County."
That is a rather novel idea when you think about and put into perspective because any effort that helps keep firefighters toone one track has to be good, given our general propensity to create divisions and form tribes.
The proposed tax would have each of Adams County's 34 municipalities levy a 0.25-mill tax on property owners to help fund the 20 volunteer fire companies that serve throughout the county. A premise of the study is the continued reliance on volunteer firefighters to provide municipal public fire protection.
In Pennsylvania, 2008 law holds municipalities responsible for providing public fire protection. Based on information the estimated cost of paid career personnel would cost residents a 4.25-mill tax. That cost, according to the council, does not include operational, equipment and workers compensation costs for paid fire and EMS services.
The chief concern expressed by most fire companies in the county is financial sustainability. Based on information contained in the fire company surveys, the existence of several of these fire companies in the future is questionable based on current and future financial conditions.
The consensus of the fire companies is that they cannot remain solvent without increased financial support of their municipalities. Based on this information, the Fire Committee endorsed a concept that would explore fair and equitable funding for the fire companies while not providing an overwhelming financial burden on the taxpayers. Several options were explored and the best option would be for each municipality to adopt a fire tax, including:
Each borough and township has the authority to enact a fire tax in accordance with state law, where as the county has no authority or legal obligation to enact a fire tax. The fire companies will still be responsible for generating a portion of their revenue for operational purposes. Funding for any social functions or any non-operational activities should be the sole responsibility of the fire company. While comparing operational expenses to a suggested tax rate, the rate of 0.25 mil appears to provide a reasonable level of funding for the fire companies while not providing an overwhelming burden on the taxpayer.
The 0.25 mil tax rate is a tax of $0.25 per $1,000 of assessed property value. A property assessed at $100,000 would pay an annual fire tax of $25.00, or $0.48 per week. The distribution of the fire tax revenue to the fire companies is challenging. Several options were evaluated regarding the distribution of revenue generated by a fire tax, a. including overage area (Primary Response), b. first-due calls, c. population, d. assessed value.
What this is really about is getting something for nothing and it is not just volunteer fire departments, it is also police protection in townships and rural areas of Pennsylvania.
The Center for Rural Pennsylvania says 67% of Pennsylvania's more than 2,500 municipalities are protected full or part time by the Pennsylvania State Police. Only 21% of the state's population lives in those municipalities.
Democratic State Representative Mike Sturla of Lancaster County says that means 79% of the state's people pay twice, taxes for both local and state police coverage, leaving the residents of municipalities covered by the state police with an unfair advantage of not having to pay or maintain a local police department. (I cannot prove this because I have not done the research, but I'd venture to say that these same rural townships also do not pay for fire protection, if they can help it.)
As a result, Sturla is proposing legislation to take a portion of liquid fuel tax revenues away from those municipalities that rely on state police coverage and use that money for road and bridge repairs statewide. Rep. Sturla recently discussed this on Harrisburg's public radio station WITF's Radio Smart Talk where he explained a proposal he has been trying to enact for more than a decade. The program also featured Elam Herr, the Assistant Executive Director of the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors, an organization with an interest in the status quo.
These are interesting questions with obvious and not so obvious political underpinning, but the simple fact is that you cannot have a free ride forever, somebody has to pay for these services or face losing the coverage and protection they afford.
Updated map as of August 25, 2013. This map is posted to ArcGIS Online of the western US fires, based on situation reports issued on Monday, August 26, 2013. The GIS data used for this map was compiled from incident information made available from various sites including the US Forest Service and the US Geological Survey.