How To Run a Fire Department in the Dark . . .
When the Blackout hit New York, chief O’Hagan solved this problem by splitting his department into five separate commands, recalling his men and putting reserve apparatus in service
The massive power failure that hit the Northeast, struck New York City at 5:27 P.M., November 9—at the height of the evening rush hour. All forms of transportation relying on electric power slowed, then stopped. The city’s buildings and streets were plunged into darkness, and a monumental traffic jam ensued as traffic lights blinked out.
Within minutes, the fire department was deluged with calls for help. Hundreds of thousands of commuters were trapped in the darkness of the subway tunnels; still other thousands in elevators in high office buildings, and the hospitals that lacked emergency generators frantically telephoned for lights.
Chief John T. O’Hagan was in his 11th floor office in the Municipal Building when the lights went out. Just by looking out his window he could see that the city was in for no ordinary emergency, and he acted accordingly. Using telephone tie-lines and a portable transmitter he went to work assembling and directing his forces.
On-dufy shift held
One of his first acts was to set up borough commands, operating independently, at the communication headquarters of each borough. Next he ordered that the off-going platoon be held on duty—an effective recall since it was close to the six o’clock change of tours. His third order reduced the response on first alarms to a Battalion Chief, one engine and one truck.
Assistant and Deputy Assistant Chiefs, both onand off-duty, responded to these command posts automatically, according to previously established plans. Although some communications difficulties were encountered, they were successful in establishing contact with other command posts and all units within their own commands.
Available apparatus was placed in service as manpower from the in-coming platoon became available. Companies having two pieces of apparatus were split into separate units, and spare apparatus and Civil Defense pumpers were manned and equipped.
Firemen were sent on street patrols to check those occupancies that represented special problems: hospitals, homes for the aged, etc. They also reported on street conditions and checked that hydrants were not being blocked. Their presence also had a calming effect on the citizenry.
As the power failed, subways throughout the city rolled to a stop, many of them between stations and some in tunnels under the city’s rivers. Passengers generally remained calm and in good humor, confident that help would soon be on the way.
Subway evacuations were conducted under over-all command of the fire department. At each location a fireman was assigned to first make sure that there was no power in the third rail and that power was not restored while operations were in progress. Such men remained at their posts by the power switches in contact with their units by telephone lines which were constantly kept open.
Firemen, assisted by subway personnel and police, proceeded down the tracks to the trains and led passengers to station platforms and subway emergency exists. (Each fire company is responsible for regular inspection and proper operation of all emergency exits within their districts.) Similar evacuation procedures were conducted on elevated trains and those stalled on bridges.
Amazingly enough, evacuation of passengers was conducted without serious incidents or injuries, even though hundreds of thousands of people were involved during operations lasting over four hours.
Many of the thousands of passenger and cargo elevators in the high-rise buildings of New York were stopped between floors. Some passengers panicked, particularly those that were caught in express elevators which had been stuck in blind sections of the shaft where there were no doors to floors.
Firemen checked switches to elevator motors to be sure they were in the off position and made sure that the cars were securely braked.
Whenever possible, firemen forced elevator doors and assisted passengers to the nearest floor. Roof ropes and ladders were used to take others out the trap door in the roofs of car, and in some instances walls were breached in blind shafts.
Hospitals come first
The Fire Department gave highest priority to the needs of hospitals, and the services performed by the firemen were many and varied. Receiving wards, corridors and stairwells were illuminated. Portable generators provided illumination and power for delivery, operating and recovery rooms. Iron lungs, incubators, and blood bank refrigerators went back into operation. And as water tanks on hospital roofs were emptied, they were refilled by pumping engines of the department working off hydrants. Battalion Chiefs, companies and individual firemen inspected homes for the aged; and nonambulatory patients were helped to their rooms, where elevators were not working.
Official New York City Fire Dept, photos
In an outstanding example of cooperation between fire departments, help was given by four New Jersey fire departments across the Hudson River. Portable generators and lighting equipment was dispatched to New York hospitals by the departments of Jersey City, Bayonne, Union City and Elizabeth.
Jersey City even sent a rescue squad to help out.
Water supply problems
Practically all water mains in New York are under adequate head pressure provided from a single elevated source. However, the Jamaica section of the borough of Queens draws its water from wells into a storage reservoir and then pumps it into mains. The power failure stopped the pumps and Jamaica was left without water for domestic or fire fighting purposes.
The situation was serious enough to warrant establishment of a command post in charge of a deputy assistant chief. The “superpumper” (see FIRE ENGINEERING, October, 1965), a civil defense pumper and two water tank trucks were dispatched from Manhattan and Richmond to help out. Initial plans called for the “superpumper” to draft water from the reservoir tank and pump into the Jamaica main system. The tankers were to be used to supply pumping engines at possible fires. An effective solution was provided, however, when 4 1/2 -inch hose of the superpumper system was stretched from hydrants on New York main supply hydrants.
The emergency generators of the New York Telephone Company stepped into the breach as the power failed, and telephone service was never interrupted. Oftentimes the telephone system was swamped by people trying to call home, but the fire department made wide use of the network to relieve its other means of communication. Whenever contact was established by telephone, the line was kept open, as a tie-line provided reliable communication.
Some radio stations stayed on the air by using emergency generators. They helped provide information on the general situation and a means of issuing orders to the population if this proved necessary. Naturally, the only ones who could receive these stations were those who used car radios or transistors. Teenagers, with their transistor radios, showed themselves to be useful citizens by passing information along to friends and neighbors.
The communications centers of Manhattan, the Bronx and Brooklyn experienced difficulties for short periods of time with the operation of their radio systems. Centers in the boroughs of Richmond and Queens, however, were able to take over until, a short time later, normal service was restored. Alarms were transmitted by radio as information was passed along by telephone. Radio transmissions to and from units in the field were never interrupted, although traffic was heavy. Street alarm boxes were not affected by the power failure at all. Batteries in alarm headquarters took over when the power failed and operators switched on the emergency generators (gas or diesel) minutes later.
Fire fighting operations
During the period of the emergency, 663 alarms were transmitted, a higher figure than normal. This cannot be considered to be a true figure, since many units remained in service for hours on end, proceeding from one emergency to another. Ten serious fires occurred: two second alarms and eight fires requiring a full alarm box response.
Planning for the future
Chief O’Hagan expressed great satisfaction with the performance of the men of his department and in the manner in which units and bureaus carried out their tasks. He was particularly impressed with the operations of the command posts in each of the boroughs and the way they cooperated with each other.
Emergencies of this nature can happen again. It behooves all members of the fire services to consider the problems they may be called on to face and to prepare accordingly. They must look not only to their own ability to perform, but to the general preparedness of the community. They should be ready and willing to advise at all community levels on the steps that should be taken to assure preparedness, even to the smallest detail. (Are your hospitals ready, can you draw gasoline from your electric pumps, etc.?—The list is long, but the rewards can be great.)