A GREAT INNOVATION IN THE FIRE SERVICE

FRANCIS L. BRANNIGAN, SFPE (Fellow)

Many good answers were given to the question posed in the May 2003 Roundtable relative to the greatest innovation in the fire service. I would submit that another important factor that needs a little recognition is that there has been a change of attitude about the loss of firefighters’ lives.

Let us go back to the middle of the 19th century. The Confederate command learned nothing from the ease with which they slaughtered the Irish Brigade and other units attacking across an open field at Mary’s Heights (Fredericksburg, Virginia) and followed the same tactic at Gettysburg, where Confederates were slaughtered. Grant was called a “butcher” for the slaughter at Cold Harbor but was elected President. Lee took responsibility for the slaughter at Gettysburg but has been all but canonized.

In the Crimean War, a British Army Light Cavalry Brigade “gallantly” charged Russian artillery with sabers. Generations of schoolchildren (including me) have recited Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” celebrating this criminally stupid action. This hokum was extended to firefighters.

Augustine Costello’s History of the New York Fire Department relates several multiple deaths from falling walls with no comment about how such deaths might have been prevented.

New York City’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s deputy mayor who said that all firefighters do is sit around waiting for a fire is in line with the attitude of the politicians who reigned during the great depression. To cut expenses, probationary firefighters were paid $1,600 per year for the first six months and then the $2,000 per year embedded in the State Constitution as the result of a referendum passed by the efforts of the union. A probie just turned fourth grade died in the line of duty. The grief-stricken city council did not send his young widow the customary gratuity of a year’s salary. She received half of the year at $1,600 and half at $2,000—a total of $1,800 instead of $2,000. Two thousand dollars was a lot of money in those days.

I was a schoolboy when I was appalled by the 1932 Ritz Tower disaster that claimed eight firefighters’ lives. No expense was spared in constructing this opulent hotel, but a flammable liquid storage room, literally a “bomb,” was permitted in the basement, without any concern voiced by hotel management, the Building Department, or the fire department. The room exploded violently when opened because smoke was pushing out around the door. One firefighter’s body was blown back up the elevator shaft to the sidewalk. The others died of burns and injuries on the scene or in the hospital. There was a fine funeral from St. Patrick’s Cathedral with the Cardinal presiding and firefighters lined up on Fifth Avenue.

The authorities learned at the cost of these deaths that the room should have been sprinklered. Ben Franklin told us, “Experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn in no other.” This disaster was easily predictable and could have been prevented at little cost.

I have told this story before in this column, but it bears repeating as the best example of the attitude at the time. At the Cherry Street stable fire in 1938, everything turned black an hour and a half into the fire. An experienced buff said, “This thing is going to blow; let’s back up.” In minutes, there was a detonation, and the sidewall came down. Lieutenant Thomas Meehan of 9 Engine was the most seriously injured. No ambulance was on the scene. The old-time chiefs derided what they called “ambulance men.” After eating carbon monoxide for hours, firefighters keeled over “because the ambulance showed up.” Meehan went to the hospital in the back of a gas company emergency truck with two firefighters and two buffs (I was one of them) holding the stretcher. He died as we placed him on the gurney at the hospital.

The investigating committee held that there was no detonation, that the wall simply fell, and that a common hazard of firefighting was to be killed by a falling wall. I knew a detonation when I heard one, having lived a block from the A subway line when engineers were blasting through tough “Manhattan schist.” I wondered why a serious situation was apparent to a buff but not to the chief.

Another example of Fire Department of New York “safety” in the 1930s involves falls from tiller seats. A two-firefighter crew was moving a spare aerial across a bridge. The tillerman fell off at the entrance to the bridge. The rig continued until the chauffer turned left at the end of the bridge. The swinging trailer hit several cars. The corporation counsel’s office (which handled the damage claims) sent a nasty letter to the fire department about the damage claims. Solution: When moving a truck, the rope from the swinging bell in the middle of the truck was brought up to the tiller seat. The tiller man was to keep ringing the bell. If the bell stopped, the chauffer would know to stop the truck because the tillerman had fallen off.

Disaster on Broadway, by my lifelong friend Lieutenant Jack Cashman of FDNY, charter member of The Honor Legion (five bravery citations required), first chief of the Levittown (NY) Volunteer Fire Department and chief of Barrington, Rhode Island, details how he was dismissed by the city manager when he refused to sign off on a statement that said a three-story old school was two stories, to avoid sprinklers when converting the structure to a residence. Disaster on Broadway is available without cost; e-mail me at Fbrannigan@comcast.net. Sign a name, not an Internet alias. It poses the question of what junior officers should do when the incident commander orders unnecessary dangerous tactics.

After the 1972 Vendome Hotel Collapse (see Building Construction for the Fire Service, Third Edition, 70-71) in which nine Boston firefighters died, the National Fire Protection Association sponsored several safety programs. A mid-New York State chief told me bluntly, “I don’t want my guys hearing you. I want them to do what I tell them, period.”

I recommend that fire departments publish the following statement as policy for all officers: “The overriding chief duty of a fire officer is to bring the crew out safely. We did not start the fire. We did not set up the conditions that made it a deathtrap. We did not delay the alarm.

“Do not say, ‘We lost the building.’ Some people made a number of mistakes and made it impossible for us to save the building.”

Remember FDNY Retired Deputy Chief Vincent Dunn’s quote: “No building is worth a firefighter’s life.”

When I was asked to teach building construction in the then new fire science program at Montgomery College in Maryland, a code course was expected. I decided to concentrate on firefighter safety. Gradually, the idea caught on. But, I can cite two items that demonstrated the fact that some clung to the belief that deaths were inevitable. Three firefighters died in Chicago while ventilating a roof overloaded with ice. The commissioner said that the chief had told him, “I learned nothing at this fire; I would do the same thing again.”

Three firefighters died in a roof collapse in Texas. The chief made the same statement. When I criticized the statement in one of my Ol’ Professor columns, Fire Engineering received a very critical letter from a Texas chief. Despite such incidents, there has been a perceptible shift away from “The Charge of the Light Brigade” mentality over the years. I am grateful for the opportunity to have been part of the efforts to help bring about this shift.

FRANCIS L. BRANNIGAN, SFPE (Fellow), the recipient of Fire Engineering’s first Lifetime Achievement Award, has devoted more than half of his 60-year career to the safety of firefighters in building fires. He is well known as the author of Building Construction for the Fire Service, Third Edition (National Fire Protection Association, 1992) and for his lectures and videotapes. Brannigan is an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering.

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