BY TOM BRENNAN
Editor’s note: Tom Brennan, our revered technical editor and former editor, passed away in April 2006. Tom shared monthly here his wisdom and knowledge of the tactical aspects of our industry, but he also wrote about the social side of the fire service as only Tom could. We are very pleased that Tom wrote down some of these interesting, funny, insightful, and colorful stories. We are very proud to have the chance to continue to provide for you the “random thoughts” of our dear friend and brother. Please note Tom did not change any of the names, as he felt none of his friends mentioned in these pieces are “innocent.”
Working for Captain Nolan was like working for an historical figure named Florian1—a great firefighter, an officer, a teacher, a leader, and a saint. Everyone, it seemed to us as we worked for him and could observe people and events around him, respected him and loved him, even the battalion chief running the groups of working firefighters to which Captain Nolan and his “boys” were assigned.
The normal shift of duty—day or night—called for the battalion chief on duty to try and visit every firehouse in the district. Most made that commitment to move the mail (bag) through the department, pick up the mail moving up, and drop off the sorted mail coming to the companies from “on high.” Most of the stops made were choreographed by the chief’s driver as the chief himself sat with the auto for more important appearances.
Our chief came into the firehouse for a “mark” in the journal every time he got to the front of Ladder 105’s single-house location. The uniformed member assigned house watch duty would yell to the rear, “Chief in quarters.” The cry would bring all on-duty personnel hurrying to the front of the firehouse for some kind of lineup and roll call. It was the only time you could count on a frown from Captain Nolan. He thought he was being singled out for harassment by this chief officer (most would think he could not even stand in Nolan’s shadow), when, in reality, he probably knew that this stop was a “safe mark,” as nothing extraordinary could ever be found at Nolan’s ship.
The time was the early 1960s, and the jargon was different. Couple that with the fact that the battalion chief had the funniest, most Sgt. Bilko-type driver in the “job.”2 Alex would sit in the car on the apron in the sidewalk watching the embarrassment and ire cross and re-cross Nolan’s face as he leaned over the chief’s shoulder feigning interest in his comments as he wrote in red in the company journal. We all felt for him.
This day, Alex and his chief’s car and Nolan’s nemesis followed us back from a structure fire to make a visit; the chief was staying longer than normal, chatting in the ear of our beloved captain. Sitting at the watch desk, I had the house watch and the responsibility to record the information on the last fire before the chief could record his entry of visit chronologically on the next line after noting our return. I stood up to see Alex in the chief’s car and get the address and any other information for my entry. Chiefs’ drivers had all that information.
Trying to help the “boss,” I stepped between him and the chatting chief and yelled over his shoulder, “Alex, do you have the dope (in those days that meant only fixing model airplanes or information) on that alarm?”
As I stood there face-to-face with the chief, Alex loudly answered, “No, Tom, he is standing right there next to you!”
The firehouse was across the street from a school, an intermediate high school or, more functionally, a detention center for those who think they want to learn and for the majority there to prevent any purpose to the system whatsoever.
The street was one-way, and the station a single-bay house designed to hold one engine company when “quiet” was an option for the neighborhood. Two units were quartered there, front to back. There was no set location; whoever returned to service first was in the rear. Each unit responded an average of 9,000 times a year (one year, one of them mastered more than 11,000 runs to alarm locations). Rigs were always moving-out to alarms, out of the way of the rear unit. Our chauffeurs were virtually always on their feet. We literally responded from fire to fire and kept sanity with our sense of humor and small rewards of “job well done”-not from the city, but from other units or the people trapped in Brownsville.
The station was truly the center of activity. Every unit in all directions was on the “most busy fire truck” lists. The hook and ladder unit to the northeast was the world’s busiest, and later sometimes vied for that honor with the South Bronx. We were the hub of the response wheel, everyone said. After a while, it became: “If the whole world were sick and some medical authority prescribed an enema, this firehouse location would be where they would stick the nozzle!”
The firehouse was one of the few structures left standing on that and many other blocks, and certainly was in the minority of occupied structures on our side of the street. Directly over the door was a sign that is still there today: “All who enter here are doomed.”
The squad company was the busiest unit in the City of New York-ever. It was a dumping ground for misfits throughout the years but now was for the best of firefighters. They performed any function on the fireground short of being able to raise their own aerial (they had none). They could be an aggressive engine company, a structured truck company, or a combination of either.
Their pride and sense of humor were second to none, as they had a great and quiet leader in their captain. I had some visitors from another company in quarters one day in the kitchen to the rear of the apparatus bay-down one step next to the toilet with the floor that drained to the back wall.
The squad was finishing up a simple mattress fire in a nearby location. The whole bay was empty, and they backed in against the opening of the kitchen area and came in to sit with my guests.
The smell of a mattress fire is unmistakable, and it permeated the kitchen area where we all were. We assumed that it was the clothing and hair and whatever of each of the firefighters and the captain, who sat there with an unusual smug expression on his face.
Smoke seemed to roll across the ceiling of the kitchen and across the neon light fixtures. It got thicker and began to bank down as it became trapped by the four walls and peeling ceiling of the eating area. No one would question it for sure. As it got so low that we were bending down toward the table, one of the guest officers said, “What is all this smoke from?”
To which the captain answered, “They took so darn long putting this mattress out even after they got it to the sidewalk. So I told them we are going back to quarters. If you can’t put that darn thing out, we will take it back with us. Some joke to the jokers.”
Looking out the door through the lower layer of smoke strata, I could see the flaming mattress sitting on top of the hosebed awaiting attention.
1. Saint Florian is the patron saint of the fire service. Some background information on him is at http://www.publicsafety.net/st_florian.htm.
2. Sergeant Bilko was played by Phil Silvers in a half-hour comedy series on CBS television from September 1955 to September 1959. Bilko was a fast-talking master sergeant at the mythical U.S. Army station of Fort Baxter in Roseville, Kansas. His platoon members, who shared Bilko’s disdain for military discipline, aided their brilliant sergeant in his efforts to buck the system by employing flattery, false naïveté, or whatever it took to manipulate those he had to win over. Adapted from The Museum of Broadcast Communications, http://www.museum.tv/archives/etv/P/htmIP/philsilvers/philsilvers.htm/, accessed June 29, 2006.
TOM BRENNAN had more than 35 years of fire service experience. His career spanned more than 20 years with the Fire Department of New York as well as five years as chief of the Waterbury (CT) Fire Department. He was the editor of Fire Engineering for eight years and was a technical editor. He was co-editor of The Fire Chief’s Handbook, Fifth Edition (Fire Engineering Books, 1995). He was the recipient of the 1998 Fire Engineering Lifetime Achievement Award. Brennan was featured in the video Brennan and Bruno Unplugged (Fire Engineering/FDIC, 1999). He was a regular contributor to Firenuggets.com.