Extra-Curricular Demands on the Fire Service are Increasing
“Call the Fire Department!” Appears to be the Universal Procedure in Handling Every Kind of Emergency
Editor’s Note: The files of Fire Engineering contain countless examples of the many and varied tasks which the nation’s fire fighters are called upon to undertake, and which may be said to lie outside their professional orbit of fire extinguishment and fire prevention.
Some of these jobs are tragic in nature. Some have their comical side. All spell work and possible hazard for busy blueshirts. And a few write finis to some promising careers.
It has long been a moot question just where the fireman’s responsibility to his community and the public begins and ends; in short, just which of the many and varied “side-line” tasks he is asked to perform as a “public servant” should be accepted and undertaken, and which should be refused.
In the past, Fire Engineering has questioned representative cross sections of the official fire service on certain aspects of this problem but until now no attempt has been made to correlate these findings.
It is not the purpose of this message to attempt to reach a settlement of this much-debated question, even if such effort could hope to accomplish anything constructive. Rather, the author’s objective is to bring together as many of these different viewpoints, on as many different extra-curricular tasks as possible, for their possible reference value by a fire service that is daily apparently becoming more embroiled with such requests—and demands.
SINCE the advent of the professional fire service of this nation, there has always existed and there still exists, widespread misconceptions and misunderstandings concerning the place of the fire department, as a public service, in the local government. Ask John Q. Citizen, what is a fire department and doubtless he’ll say, “why that’s an organization to put out fires.” But let John Q. Citizen be faced with almost any trouble or emergency, short of breach of the law; some dilemma, for example that may be as foreign to fire extinguishment as totalitarian government is foreign to our democratic way of life, and the first yelp for help goes to the fire department.
This misinterpretation of the functions and limitations of the fire department is not peculiar to John Q. Citizen alone; it is found generally throughout local government, and even among members of the fire service itself.
It is this misapplied understanding of the meaning of the term “fire department” and of its objectives and capabilities, that at one time or another has brought headaches not only to those who administer this branch of the local government, but to those whose taxes support it.
Just what it is that impels so many persons to call the fire department when faced with what to them is an emergency, yet is apart from fire extinguishment, is difficult to understand. But the fact remains that they do turn to the fire department upon the slightest excuse, as every present day fire fighter knows and, as a result, firemen are called upon to perform many and vayied jobs quite distant and apart from their normal business of fire fighting and fire prevention.
A study of the day-by-day “business” of the average fire department will show that these extra-curricular, or side-line activities sometimes occupy more of the firemen’s working time than the business of extinguishing fires. Such a study, also, will indicate that instead of diminishing with the years, these unscheduled and unorthodox demands are on the increase, not only in number, but in variety and novelty. They continue to plague the service, regardless of the trend in fires and fire losses.
A partial idea of the variety and complexity of these extra-curricular requests may be found in the annual statements of municipal fire departments. True, these recount only those services performed, not those side-line jobs which were declined, for whatever reason.
Who Performs Extra-Curricular Work?
The annual statements indicate that, for the most part, special extra-curricular operations are generally handled by members of the rescue, or emergency, squads. Where there are no such units, the tasks are more often handled by the ladder companies, or special details.
This does not mean, however, that all firemen do not get into the act, or may not be called upon to go outside their regular calling for such duties. Any fireman, especially if in uniform, on or off duty, may be signalled out for some special, and often what may seem to him, silly job. On the other hand, as has happened frequently, he may be called upon to go to the assistance of a member of some other branch of the municipal service at considerable risk. There have been numerous instances where fire fighters went to the aid of their bluecoatcd brothers, the police, in apprehending robbers, hold-up men and other criminals. Several members of the fire service have won well-earned decoration and citations in this regard. In none of these cases was any question raised by municipal or other authorities of the propriety or wisdom of the action taken by the fireman.
A reason advanced by a seasoned old fire captain, as to why people pick on the fire department for all sorts and conditions of assistance is that the average municipal fire department has among its personnel men skilled in nearly all the crafts and occupants. Not only this, but the department is equipped with nearly all the mechanical facilities essential to meet almost any kind of emergency, from cutting rings off fingers to cutting off the roof of a steel passenger car.
The modern firemen, of necessity, must be somewhat of a “jack of all trades.” Dealing daily, as he does, with emergencies and real or threatened disasters in all forms, he must gain more than a superficial knowledge of what to do in almost any kind of emergency. If he lacks the specific knowledge to meet any special and peculiar problem he doesn’t have far to go within his own field to locate someone who does.
Unquestionably, this factor has contributed greatly to the belief in the mind of John Q. Citizen that the quickest and best way out of a dilemma or emergency is to “call the fire department.” And that is what makes it so difficult, sometimes, for a chief to have to say “no’ to certain of these requests for service.
Perhaps the majority of extra-curricular operations may be classified under the broad term of “Rescue.” It is not always in connection with the matter of saving life that firemen are summoned; it may be to rescue a ring that has failed down a sewer, or a hat that has blown onto a roof, a cow from a well, or to help remove a fat person too obese to negotiate a stairway, or the like.
In this category, a heavy preponderance of the rescues of youngsters and dumb animals. In the first group, of course, come the kids locked in bathrooms, or caught in something like the washing machine, picket fence or drain pipe. New York firemen and police get calls nearly every day to get little Willie or his sister out of such a predicament. They’ve developed quite a technique for removing hands and arms and legs from subway turnstiles, vending machines and other places where curiosity and precociousness inspired their owners to stick them. Other cities have done likewise.
These are generally considered legitimate services for firemen, and some fire fighters go so far as to claim they are not extra-curricular at all. Certainly there is no record where any person, youngster or grownup, was refused aid of a fire department for such rescue, even though victim’s life was not actually at stake.
In the matter of actual life saving, albeit not from fire here also there is no room for question, except where the operation may have made the department or the city liable for injuries or damages, or where to attempt the operation would jeopardize the lives of firemen unnecessarily. Yet even under these conditions, the members of many fire departments have accepted the hazards and either voluntarily, or under orders, risked their lives as operating in line of duty.
Sometimes this results tragically. The readers of this Journal may recollect the case of the hysterical “rooftop preacher” in Baltimore, Md., who caused the death of Deputy Chief Lorenz A. Dolle, 63, of the Baltimore Fire Department by kicking the chief from an aerial ladder which had been raised in an effort to remove the raving “preacher” from a roof. Then there was Fire Captain G. W. Chappelle, of Port Huron, Mich., who went into ice filled water to secure two brothers who had fallen through the ice. The brothers were removed, one dead, but the Captain went under the ice cakes and very nearly peyished.
Some of these side-line efforts make the headlines. The whole world heard and read about the frenzied efforts of volunteer firemen and others to bring ill-fated little Kathy Fiscus to the surface from the well into which she had fallen, out in California. But many of equally noteworthy deeds have gone unsung and unrewarded.
Perhaps the most common of all the extra-cur,ricular rescues which the fire fighter is asked to make of unfortunates, in the animal kingdom, is that of getting cats out of trouble, mainly trees.
Opinion appears to be about evenly divided on this “howling” question. That fire officers universally dislike the task is true. That it offers risk of injury to men is also true. But many departments accept the job for several reasons, the principal one being the good will it builds for the department. Others will undertake it only after all other means, such as the ASPCA, have failed.
The problem is not so difficult in cities where there are branches of the ASPCA as in smaller places where there is no one willing or equipped to do the job. For the most part, these communities are served by volunteer departments and in some instances they are not insured against injury to men or apparatus resulting from this extracurricular work. Even where insured, the average volunteer fire chief dislikes calling out men from their occupation perhaps in the worst kinds of weather, to get cats out of trees. Yet to refuse the request may bring down upon the vamps the ill-will of an entire neighborhood. And volunteers, be it known, frequently depend upon these same persons for financial and other support.
The attitude of one volunteer chief was expressed this way: “If there’s any other agency that can take over this job (rescuing animals) put it up to them. If there isn’t or, if for any reason, the task is beyond the ability of that agency, then let firemen take it on, and don’t wait for the irate taxpayer or voter to go to some higher-up, or bust out in the papers before you do it!”
Frequently it takes a bit of ingenuity to rescue dumb animals, but usually firemen have what it takes. There is the case of the cow that fell into the well. When local yokels with rope and home gear failed to get Bossie out of her predicament, volunteer firemen were summoned. And they had the answer. They simply put a hose line into the well, poured in the water, and Bossie floated up, and out.
There was no question raised as to whether or not firemen should take on these tasks, and many similar ones. But it has been different with other jobs.
Suicide Prevention Not Relished
One of the most distasteful tasks which firemen are sometimes called upon to do is to prevent suicides, particularly those who want to jump from high places. There is no opportunity to pass the buck in such emergencies; firemen are the only ones ready with the tall ladders, nets and other equipment to meet such emergencies. Here, too, there is danger in this extra-curricular work. Persons obsessed with such suicidal phobias are liable to do anything to anybody. It takes psychology, patience and other qualifications beyond physical bravery, in many cases, to thwart people so obsessed.
There was the case of the Pittsburgh fireman who was called upon to mount an aerial ladder to the top of a 70-ft. bridge structure, to stop a boy from leaping to death in the Allegheny river. The boy, disheartened over a quarrel with his wife, and wanting to end it all, was brought safely down by the fireman. And more recently, firemen, police and others in New York City worked 500 feet above Welfare Island in the East river to make a similar “rescue” of a mentally upset person.
The entire country remembers the ten-hour struggle to dissuade John Warde from plunging to his death off the 17th floor of the Gotham Hotel, New York, on July 26, 1938. Firemen had little to do in that tragic case, recently epitomized by a dramatic moving picture. They did, however play the leading role more recently in Miami, Fla., where for 40 minutes Frank Syno stood on an 8-inch ledge at the 19th floor of the Courthouse building, directly across from fire headquarters, threatening to jump. It was Fire Lt. John Wilkes, aided by Fireman Robert Rainey of the Fire Department Emergency Squad, who grabbed Syno and yanked him to safety.
On the less serious side, there was Mr. J. T. Hunt of Ashville, N. C., who, at 81 decided he would himself top a tree that gave him too much shade. Despite warnings of spectators and police, the aged Mr. Hunt, armed with saw and safety rope, huffed and puffed his way up the tree, and then had to be brought down by firemen and police. “It was just too much of a job (for Hunt)—but it was fun,” he quavered.
Why Firemen Grow Gray Hairs
There appears to be no limit to the demands made upon the fire department for extra curricular assistance. Take the case of the doctor out in Ventura, Calif. who found a skunk in his office. He called the fire department. It would have been easy for headquarters to turn down this appeal, but no, a fireman was sent. It was Fiye Marshal Joe Moore in person. Joe found the family of skunks had set up housekeeping under a ventilation well and were downright stinking about it. Fire Marshal Moore donned the throat specialist’s smock and poured a can of ether down the well. Soon, he lifted up three sleeping, and powerless, skunks.
In New York City, 23-year-old Frank Avezzano climbed a 175-foot pole in pursuit of a monkey. He looked down. Then he screamed, his arms locked around the pole like a vise. His cries for help brought a three-man fire department crew who went up, tied Avezzano to the pole, then bagged the monkey and lowered it, and finally lowered Avezzano down. A two-hour sideline job that was a thrilling side show for hundreds of spectators. Avezzano? He was all right except for a sore throat —from yelling.
A similar plight brought out San Francisco firemen recently where Elliott Poor said “I guess I got a little high on beer.” He did—125 feet high, where a startled passerby heard cries of “Taxi!” at 1:00 A.M. seemingly coming from heaven. Firemen, called by the police, found Poor atop a smokestack of the Southern Pacific General Hospital. Fireman Edward O’Donnell and Patrolman Richard Hubert climbed to Poor and there, finger by finger pulled poor Poor, frozen by fright, from his eery perch.
“All in the day’s work” said firemen, but many persons, as well as fellow firemen, wonder about taking these risks. Just how far does “public service” go, they ask.
Firemen don’t mind so much getting up in the early hours for jobs like cutting the toilet seat off a Los Angeles, Calif., youngster, who played king and crowmed himself with the throne; they gladly go to work on youngsters who cause more mischief than 3-alarm blazers and they will even take out their aerial ladder and shin up 50 feet to get his draft papers signed by a “Shipwreck” pole sitter, and they’ll uncomplainingly balance at the tip of a 100 foot aerial to cut loose some silly banner that prank youngsters have substituted for the stars and strips. But there are some things at which they hesitate.
Police Work Not Welcome Side Line
One of these is being used as policemen. They will come to the aid of brother bluecoats, as we’ve said, in holdups, and other crimes, but firemen vote against such things as strike duty (wetting down strikers and mobs); participating in manhunts, and breaking up political rallies. If tbe fire department has fire police, these tasks can be shoved off onto them but, if not, fire fighters may find themselves called upon to perform these jobs, unpleasant as they may be.
Even where there are fire police the latter may have a good excuse for not engaging in police work, outside their own community. The story was never told, but firemen and fire police were embroiled in the communist rallies and riots near Peekskill, N. Y., two years ago. Knowing the possibilities of rioting, the State Police requested the then fire coordinator of Westchester County to furnish fire police, to help maintain law and order. This was refused, on the proper grounds that fire police had no jurisdiction outside their own bailiwicks. The officer was made to have fire police take over in their own localities, replacing temporarily the regular police, if the latter were drafted to go to Peekskill. But this suggestion was refused. Firemen came into the picture when requested to furnish pumpers and tank pumpers and lighting outfits with men, ready to extinguish any fire that might start in the tall grass and amid the load of old wooden furniture and benches gathered in the field where the meeting was held. They—the firemen—were present only on the understanding they would be protected by the police.
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In the west, fire departments as well as fire police, have been alerted to stand by when riots were threatened. In other areas, firemen have been called upon, and served, to aid police in subduing prison riots (much against the will of some of the firemen who said they didn’t mind risking their life in fires, but they hated to be shot to death!).
In an effort to secure the opinion of fi,remen concerning participation in industrial strikes, Fire Engineering conducted a Round Table, participated in by many of the leading chiefs in the nation. It was generally agreed that such type of work is not favored by officers of departments. It was pointed out that apart from the hazard to the men and equipment, and the disinclination of firemen to take sides in any such issue against workers who may be their friends, such extra curricular activities deprive the city of proper fire protection during the operation. Where fire departments do participate in maintaining law and order, it is generally agreed that it should be done only as a last resoyt.
The Dewatering Problem
One of the most exasperating problems that comes within the category of extra-curricular activities is that of dewatering cellars and basements. Heavy rainstorms or floods, broken water mains and sewers account for many calls upon the time, equipment, and patience of fire departments as residents of areas so affected look to some municipal service for assistance.
Although fire chiefs are usually willing to cooperate in such an emergency, they in many instances do it only under protest. A number of fire officers, paid as well as volunteer, have ruled that under no circumstances will they use regular fire apparatus for this purpose because of possible damage to units so operated. As one chief put it “I don’t mind using old civil defense pumps, or discarded fire apparatus for this purpose, but I will positively not jeopardize my regular equipment by detailing it for such duties.” This officer, like many others, refers all requests for dewatering to the local sewer or street and highway departments which are equipped with suitable equipment.
In an investigation made into this practice by Fire Engineering some years ago, fire chiefs generally considered the practice as an expensive hazard. There is great danger of pumps being injured, due to grit and sand or other foreign matter lodging in gauges, tubes, valves and screens as this water is always dirty. Equipment must be overhauled after being subject to such use.
Where departments are limited to the number of pumpers available for fire fighting, as in many small communities, there is an added danger of the equipment being out of the station and out of service on this sort of work at the time of the breakout of a fire. It is true that the addition of modern radio communications in the fire service has somewhat lessened the hazard of this operation, inasmuch as a pumper can be operating on this extra-curricular work, and still be “in service” to all intents and purposes. The fact remains, however, that fire departments are organized to protect life and property against fire and they should always be on hand and ready to answer fire calls.
Surveys made by this Journal indicate that the majoyity of those chiefs questioned on the matter, constituting a representative cross section, said that flooded conditions are relieved by some branch of the department of public works, such as street, water or sewer division. It is disclosed further that unless the trouble has been due to a break in the water or sewey lines, or as the result of neglect on the’part of some city department, a charge is made to the person receiving assistance.
In many municipalities where relief is not obtainable from any other department than the fire force, it is contended some charge should be made to reimburse the fiye department for the wear and tear on apparatus when so used. Owing to the number of calls received some cities have found it advisable to equip the fire departments with dewatering siphons to be operated either with city pressure or by pressure from the pumpers. A number of cities use the old O.C.D. trailer, skid mount and front mount pumps for this purpose, while others employ lift pumps, or portable pumps attached to light vehicles, such as chiefs’ cars.
Many fire departments appear to consider the dewatering of basements after a fire to be part of their salvage operations.They proceed to open catch basins and drains as soon as possible in order to permit water to recede. Under these conditions, or where there is a special hazard following a fire (as in flooding the subways), pumpers are sometimes used to remove the water.
Rugged lift and other portable pumps, capable of undertaking this work, yepresent a good investment for the fire service, as an adjunct to the regular apparatus, and as a way out of this bothersome extra-curricular task.