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.”
“I can’t believe how easy it was to get to this roof,” my mind meandered as I “popped” out of the scuttle to the roof adjoining the fire building.
It was a hot afternoon, and the streets were busy with all sorts of “stuff” for us to be called to. They called us for everything-I guess because they thought that no one else would come. They were right, of course. The ambulances working in the City of New York in the 1960s were relatively unsupervised, and the estimated time of arrival to an emergency, at least when called by us, was always anywhere from 40 minutes to never. The police were always busy, and you actually had to know what level of response you had to make to the phone operator to spark a move to the top of the dispatcher’s list. Calling the fire department, however, always put you on the “top of someone’s list,” and your call was minutes away from being transmitted to the firehouses at worst.
But now, we had a “worker,” a fire not only well into a multistory structure but, according to progress reports on our radios, growing more serious. They called us special to a fire in the direction we liked to go, because most of the units there were hard workers and the truck companies were world class. We liked the numbers of 102 and 108, and we liked the members on their teams. If they needed help, you knew that it was going to be quality work.
The fire was near the top floor of a row of “Old Law” tenements-those built in accordance with a New York building code in effect before the 1938 code. Dumb stuff like this you had to know, I thought-mistakenly, because I was too new to know.
Assignment 1. I was assigned that tour of duty to get to the top of a structure on fire any way I could, except using the building that was on fire. It was always a problem. The aerial was a sure thing, but that could be used for other more important things like removing screaming people from horizontal openings in which they believed they were trapped. An adjoining building was also a method of choice, but forcing open a lobby door to a building that was not on fire to get to the roof and cross over to the roof of the building on fire ….
See, the object here for readers who don’t work in “the job” is to treat the building with the fire in it like your fireplace at home. To keep that fire from spreading out of the hearth and into the other areas of the floor holding the fireplace, a flue is installed in the chimney above the fire box; when it is opened, the fire behaves nicely-that is, it stays in a tight column as it rises, smoke free, up the chimney. So, too, will the chimney of the fire building send the fire and by-products it makes in the form of heat and smoke and explosive gases back into itself as it reduces horizontal spread up through the openings I was assigned to make at the top of the building. Things would improve down below in the enclosure of the habitat for both the victims and those of us in there looking for them. My assignment was a thankless job most of the time, but when it was needed, it worked; without it, nothing worked.
The expensive lobby door to the building abutting the one on fire was opened. Only the questioning expressions of those who lived there would cause me to smile and put on a facial expression that said, “I have to do this!” Smile, but keep going was my practice so that I wouldn’t have to pause more than one-half second as I raced to the opening at the top floor.
So now I am on the roof of the building on fire, ensuring that any openings made available by the builder are no longer covered. This includes the hatch that is in the roof at the top of metal ladders and the scuttle cover installed to let building owners do repairs on the roof. More than that, over the years they had become openings in which tenants who became poorer with each generation illegally stretched clotheslines to hang their laundry. These openings also were used as access to ramshackle structures of old wood and chicken wire and rusted hinges that housed $4 and $5 birds called pigeons. The world got to know this way of life for New York’s inner-city youths as a result of actor Marlon Brando’s role in On the Waterfront.
These openings were next used as a “gate” to “Tar Beach.” It was the best place to get a chance to sit in the sun for a couple of hours with some peace and quiet from the teaming streets below.
Finally, they served as entry points for mostly illegal activities. Burglary, drug pickups and deliveries, arson, and worse reasons caused America’s residents to thoroughly seal these to the ladder that served them with chains and locks-in some cases, tarring them shut. What was once simple for us to open now became a nightmare of hard bull work with tools for prying and cutting.
Assignment 2. Now to the second assignment I was trained to accomplish: “Roof first, kid, then down the fire escape and search the apartments above the fire from the balconies from the top floor to the fire floor.” Easier said than done.
The top balcony of the fire escape system, by law, had to have a vertical ladder from it to the roof of the building it served. Because of the curve at the top as it turned itself to get mounted to the roof boards, it was known as a “gooseneck” ladder. Age had made it flimsy, loose, and precarious, but it was all you had if you didn’t want to incur Lieutenant Bush’s wrath.
There were tricks to climbing up or down these doubtful arteries: put as little stress on the bolts at the roof and no vector of force outward as if you were to climb it like textbooks. Actually, an experienced firefighter assigned this position got to learn the “Flying Wallenda’s” rope ladder climb from Ringling Brothers Circus in short order.
Getting to the balcony, I turned to get my metal hook-six feet of steel that would be any truckie’s friend in a structure fire and could do a hundred things from probing to pulling, and more. Stepping to the opening that would lead me down the metal staircase connecting one balcony to the lower one, there was a muffled pushing noise and then a ton of heat. The fire had pushed out of the two windows on the fire escape below and now was coming up the opening I had to use to get down; it completely enveloped the ladder I had just descended like a ballet star. I had no place to go! The windows to the apartment on my level now had extending flame in front of them. You can’t step into fire, folks, no matter what the new firefighter on your block tells you about work!
I could only hang over the side against the bricks, thinking is it better to burn to death from my butt up and across to the front, or should I just turn and “get it done”? Jumping was out of the question.
“Oh man, the voice of God has a Brooklyn accent,” I thought.
“Hey Tom!” again hit my confused psyche. Through the smoke, I could see a blackened figure on the fire escape on the building I had just come through. It was separated by a brick wall and for all intents and purposes was fireproof and an escape. The voice now belonged to someone I knew.
Arnie was a great firefighter from Bedford Avenue, a truck company we all respected and, in this case, loved to see. Arnie collected fire helmets from all over the world and was known for it. My fatalistic sense of humor kicked in as I thought, “He is waiting for me to fall over so he can snatch my helmet for his collection.” I was still smiling at him as he began his instructions to me.
“Tom, I can save you,” he called. “Reach across to the balcony over my head and place your hook on its railing. Hop over your railing and swing down like a pendulum to me, and I will catch you!”
Arrrrggggghhhh! Now I envisioned in slow motion sliding hands, crashing hooks, steel railings, and gravity overtaking me as I missed Arnie and continued to the cement and garbage 40 feet below.
I could hear the engine company noise. No one here screamed, but I could hear the extinguishment sounds, and some flame and smoke were turning white-probably they (my angels with a hoseline) were getting to the rooms pushing the last bits of fire in my direction.
“C’mon #$*-%,” screamed Arnie, now overly concerned for my continued life on earth.
“Er, Arnie,” I quipped as cool as I could dare, “I’m takin’ my chances with the engine.”
I would try to wait there until the inside team with the water “knocked” down this condition in front of me and I could step in a window or get to the staircase to the next lower fire escape balcony below. Now, I was feeling less scared, and it was time to quip, “I’m walking out of the building that trapped me. I ain’t quitting.”
You always had to know when to make those legendary remarks-usually when the whole team was accounting for you and things would get better fast. You could hear it and feel it.
The engine put out the last room, and I walked off the balcony. Arnie tells this story to this day.
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.