THE BEVERLY HILLS SUPPER CLUB FIRE (1977) AND SCANNING THE DECADES FOR TIMELY TOPICS
The last two segments of our 120-year retrospective will present significant events of past decades not yet covered as well as a look at some of the aspirations, objectives, and achievements that have influenced the modern fire service.
Fire in Beverly Hills Supper Club Kills 162
A fire that swept through the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Southgate, Kentucky, on May 28, 1977, killed 162 and injured more than 100, including several firefighters. Employees discovered the fire at 8:45 p.m.
Investigators believe the fire “was started by an electrical short and apparently had burned inside a heavily plastered wall of the plush club`s Zebra Room for more than an hour before it was noticed …. The split-level building was divided into a number of large and small dining rooms, 18 private party rooms, bars, and the large Cabaret nightclub. A maze of narrow corridors interconnecting the rooms made exits difficult to locate. The building had been doubled in size after it was destroyed by fire in 1970. State codes at that time did not require sprinklers or fire detection systems–and none was installed. The club also had a 3-foot air space between the ceiling and roof, which concealed air ducts and the unprotected steel roof supports. Exterior construction was concrete block and brick.”
As Southgate Chief Richard Riesenberg arrived at the club`s main entrance, he saw gray smoke coming from the roof and eaves and “hundreds of panicky people running out of the building.” These observations led him to believe “the fire was centered in the area of the club`s main bar and [he] directed his initial attack with that thought in mind U.” Stampeding occupants prevented crews from advancing lines into the main entrance. Heavy black smoke poured from the front of the building, driving back the crews. The crews reported that they could find no fire. Handlines were abandoned to effect rescues. Additional pumpers, a rescue squad, and ambulances were special-called.
“Conditions quickly grew worse at the Cabaret Room exits. Panic set in. Occupants scrambled out of the building as heavy black smoke began to vent from the [southside] exits.” A steep hill bordering this side of the building made it difficult to place apparatus and maintain footing. People escaping from the south exit door began to collapse; they stumbled on the steps and fell down the steep hillside. “Suddenly, the flow stopped. Wearing self-contained breathing apparatus, fire fighters entered the south exit and found it blocked by bodies. The fire fighters quickly began to move these victims outside, where other fire fighters worked frantically to revive those overcome by smoke and heat. An additional 20 to 30 persons were removed before intense heat drove fire fighters out.
“Much the same conditions prevailed at the Cabaret Room`s north exit. Here, too, fire fighters found the exit blocked by fallen bodies overcome by intense heat and smoke U. In the front of the building, the aerial ladder has been raised into position to start ventilation. Fire fighters ascending the ladder found a heavy black column of smoke, flame-tinted at the base, rising 100 feet into the twilight sky. Flames were already through the center section of the roof. A ladder pipe operation was then set up.” At one point, flames were shooting 100 feet into the night air. The Campbell County disaster plan was activated. At 12:05 a.m., the north wall of the Cabaret Room caved in. At 12:25, the east wall fell outward, almost hitting several firefighters. The fire was under control at 2 a.m. Firefighters searching the building`s remains the next day found 26 bodies within the vicinity of the Cabaret Room. All victims were burned beyond recognition. Two more bodies were recovered from another area two days later. The last victim (162) died in a hospital. (John D. Peige, editor, Fire Protection Publications, International Fire Service Training Association, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, Oklahoma, Aug. 1977)
Coordinated Attack Improves Fire
The following opinions of “leading fire chiefs and fire protection engineers” U. are among the “conclusions” contained in a study on the effectiveness of water fog (particularly as applied in the initial stages of fire attack) “to the application of other kindred fire control improvements,” and “the cumulative effect of the coordinated attack on the fire cycle–e.g., the period between birth and final extinguishment of a fire.”
The article dealt with fire control only–“that of the strategy of attack from the moment the fire forces leave their quarters until the fire has been killed.” (Period of incubation, origin, and cause were purposely omitted.) The account assumed that no automatic extinguishing means, such as automatic sprinklers, carbon-dioxide systems, and so on, were present or that they were inoperative.”
Coordinated, swift attacks. “Defensive tactics of fire control will not do in this chemical and atomic age. The entire science of fire control and extinguishment calls for more coordinated and swifter attack on fire in its earliest stages following discovery. In the words of the modern firefighter: `We`ve got to get on top of the fire, knock it out, with least loss of time and effort, and least punishment to personnel.` ” All of the latest weapons must be used–modern masks and respiratory breathing equipment; small hoselines and improved portable fire extinguishers; water carriers, including booster tanks and pumps; water-fog, foam, and fog foam with suitable appliances; wetting agents or treated water; and portable utility light and power equipment.
The fire cycle: “The action-cycle of a fire from birth to death follows a certain pattern U. The fire itself may vary in proportion from insignificance to conflagration, but regardless of its proportions, origin, propagation or rate of progression, the cycle or pattern of controlling it includes these phases: 1. the period between discovery and the transmittal of the alarm or alerting of the fire forces; 2. the period between receipt of alarm by the fire service and arrival of firemen at the scene of the fire; and, finally, 3. the period between arrival on the fire ground and final extinguishment of the fire itself U.
“Each of these phases of the cycle is one of positive action, of attack and, to more or less degree, of timing. Without attempting to weigh the importance of one stage against another, it may safely be said that any improvement in subduing and killing an existing fire falls within one or more of these phases of the cycle.
“…. once fire has incubated, its length of life and its destructiveness are largely measured by what happens between the time it is first noticed and duly reported to the fire control forces. What they do following notification of the fire, and how they do it writes the history-cycle of that fire ….”
Locate-confine-extinguish U. “The more quickly the fire fighter knows what is burning, where it is burning, and how to get to it, the more quickly and efficiently he can control and extinguish the fire, granted he has the necessary facilities of tools and the knowledge of how to use them. Most experienced firemen will agree that a common source of delay in getting to work on a fire, particularly where there is a heavy smoke condition, has been the difficulty in locating the heart of the fire U. the smoke may be a considerable distance removed from the seat of the fire which causes it …. Know before hand as much as possible about the premises involved in the fire–buildings and contents.
“…. those chiefs who arm their men with the most up-to-date respiratory protection and require its use in attack as well as rescue operations U. will agree that it is one of the most vital steps to be taken by a fire department in combating today`s increasing number of chemical and other complex and hazardous fires, which are products of this particular era …. As long as respiratory equipment continues to be located only on rescue or other mobile units which may be far removed from the fire and which must be `special called` in order to make them available where they are needed, there definitely will be room for improvement in this segment of fire control operations.”
Small lines speed attack. “…. precious seconds have been lost because of the restrictions imposed by the need of using the heavy 212-inch hose in the early attack stages of fire fighting.
“Not withstanding the fact that some fire departments do employ 112-inch hose, their method of stowing it, and of stretching-in and using it in conjunction with larger hose employing special fittings and connections precludes their saving all the time they might, were more efficient loads and combinations used.” A number of good hose loads designed for fast operations are available. The decision of which hose load to use must be left to the local department. However, conduct experiments before adopting any one procedure; try all known approved loads and lays. It is surprising to note how many progressive fire departments have made no serious effort to take fullest advantage of the greater maneuverability and quicker striking power afforded by the fullest possible use of small hose.
“U. the propagation period of a fire, when it is getting under way, represents the critical period in the fire cycle. It is here that efforts must be centered to save precious seconds. It is here, therefore, that lighter, more maneuverable hose may be most advantageously employed in conjunction with proper respiratory equipment.
“The combination of breathing aids and light hose enables the fewest possible men to bring the greatest possible fire killing power into action with the least physical exertion, and with greatest saving in time. The attack phase may be further shortened when fog and wet water are included in this offensive combination …. However, regardless of whether any fire is showing, or whether there is or is not evidence of any fire, the smaller hose should always be backed up by the larger.
“To the advocates of large hose only who refuse to use the lighter, handier, more mobile types, we suggest that they make a few simple comparisons themselves, using their own apparatus, fittings and nozzles.
“Stage identical simulated fires, not simultaneous incidents, but at different intervals, using the same crews in each case. In one incident respond to, stretch, and attack the simulated fire just as has always been done, using the heavier hose, nozzles and fittings and old hose load. In the other, try out the lighter hose, using any one of the several approved hose loads.
“Don`t attempt to break any records or stage a `contest`; be fair with yourself and your men. Gauge every detail, not merely the time element. Then relate the more modern technique to the present daily attack operations of your department.
“Perhaps the most conclusive evidence in support of the greater efficiency and effectiveness of small line attack is that no record is extant of any fire department which, once having thoroughly experi-mented with 112-inch and booster hose, has ever given them up and reverted to the exclusive use of 212-inch hose. It is further enlightening to know that within the past year, two of the largest and best fire departments in the nation have accepted 112-inch hose as `regular equipment.` Neither has discarded the 212-inch, or will they, but they have found definite improvement in their attack phase by the addition of the lighter, smaller hose, especially where it is equipped with fog nozzles. Neither contemplates reducing the size and capacity of its pumpers; on the contrary, consideration is now being given to increasing the capacity of booster tanks on these apparatus and of adding storage containers for liquid foam and proportioners for its use with water fog and possibly later on, wet water ….”
Taking Water to the Fire …. “If minutes and seconds are to be saved U in the attack phase of fire extinguishment it is in this field where the water must be taken to the fire. Factors such as weight of apparatus, amount of equipment to be carried in addition to extinguishing agents, and so on, count for much more with the small town and rural fire department, than with their big city brothers ….
“One other factor to be considered in the attack phase in connection with the use of small lines and booster tanks and water carriers is this: the beforementioned small departments make a virtue out of necessity of killing fires with extinguishing agents which they must take to the fire. This is a quite different situation from that of the large municipal department which has made a virtue out of prolific application of water simply because almost any quantity of it was on tap at all times. What has perhaps been overlooked by these firemen (but not by the insurance underwriters who reckon the losses) is that perhaps their very abundance of water supplies has, by encouraging reliance on the bigger hose, resulted in heavier water losses, which as every fireman knows are frequently greater than loss by fire.”
Water fog and fog foam further shorten the fire cycle. “High pressure or low velocity water fog has made it possible for water, with or without a wetting agent, to go further as an extinguishing medium, put out more fire per gallon, save greater water loss, and enable the fire fighter to wage his attack on the fire with less time and effort and less physical punishment to himself, than anything that has heretofore been employed by the fire service ….”
Wet water cuts the fire cycle–and losses …. “A good, reliable wetting agent intelligently used, preferably with water fog, is tantamount to multiplying the water carrying capacity of booster or other supply tank many times over. Although wet water applied to fire department use is essentially a post-war development, it has been tested in actual operations on the fire ground as well as in the laboratory and it has passed the experimental stage ….” (“Coordinated Attack Urged To Improve Fire Control Strategy,” Roi B. Woolley, Apr. 1949)
“Some Notable `Firsts` in the Fire Service: A Chronicle of the Important Developments in Equipment and Personnel of Fire Departments Over a Period of Twenty Centuries”–Selected entries
St. Louis was the first to have a pompier corps (1877) New York had the first Underwriters` Salvage Corps (1839) U. New York was the first to have a search light for service at fires (installed Jan. 1, 1899). Sliding poles were invented by Captain David B. Kenyon of the Chicago Fire Department (1878) U. The first electric fire alarm telegraph system, invented by Dr. William F. Channing, was installed in Boston. The first alarm turned in by the system was at 8:25 p.m. Thursday, April 29, 1852 U. Channing conceived the idea when S. F. B. Morse invented the telegraph in 1839 …. In 1855, Dr. Channing delivered a lecture on fire alarm telegraphy at the Smithsonian Institute, Washington, D.C. John N. Gamewell, telegraph operator and postmaster at Camden, South Carolina, attended and ultimately purchased Dr. Channing`s rights to construct the system, which became known as the Gamewell system, in cities other than Boston. In January 1871, six years after it established a full paid force of firemen, New York constructed a fire alarm system under Gamewell patents. Chicago had the first silent alarm system without tower alarm bells (April 1888). New York had the first water system for fire and domestic purposes (installed in 1830). The Croton system was completed in July 1842. Boston first used its Cochet water system in November 1848. The first school to drill firemen in their duties was established in New York (February 1883). Boston was the first to abandon the volunteer firemen system (1837), when it paid its firemen a few dollars annually for service at fires as call firemen. Boston had the first full paid chief of department who devoted his entire time to the fire department. Cincinnati had the first full paid firemen (Jan. 1, 1853), when the engineer and driver of the first steam fire engine went into service …. The other members of companies were part paid call firemen. New York had the first entirely full paid force of firemen, which went int
“Requiem for the Horses”
Value of a Fire College
to a Department
T he fire department of a large city should have a fire college for the following reasons: The results of the experience gained by the chief officers can be given to the younger officers. To be a competent officer, officers must learn about many subjects including building construction, water supply and distribution, and fire hazards of all kinds.
The firefighter will gain adequate knowledge of how hazards presented by expansion of industry can be prevented or controlled.
“Courage alone is not a sufficient qualification. A man must know how to use his head in emergencies. Some men lack initiative. Some have a limited education. They are good firemen but are content to go along thinking they are too old to learn and unable to express themselves in writing. Fire college courses can help these men prepare for examinations with a rating high enough to ensure them a position.” (Paper presented by S. H. Dodd, 1st Assistant Chief, Los Angeles, California, at the California State Firemen`s Association convention, Sept. 25, 1926)
Origin of the Maltese Cross
“T he Maltese Cross was the symbol of the Knights of Malta, one of the successors to the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, a religious order growing out of a hospital founded at Jerusalem about 1048. This order acquired great wealth and power during the Crusades. As the Moslems gained headway, the order withdrew its seat successively to Acre, Cyprus, Rhodes and finally Malta, whence it has also been known as the Knights of Rhodes and the Knights of Malta. By 1799, it was generally suppressed, although branches survived in different countries to the present time.
“This order was originally devoted to caring for the ill and otherwise endangered and incapacitated crusaders. Whether or not the order also included fire protection in its work cannot be said.
“However, the Maltese Cross has been a symbol of the fire service back as far as fire service histories go. This is about all that is known of the origin of the Maltese Cross, insofar as its relation to the fire service is concerned. (W.H.B., Letters to the Editor, July 1951)
Maintain a Rescue Squad
“It has been said that every city maintaining a paid Fire Department should maintain a rescue squad. This, I think, is entirely true. However, I think it is also true that all communities which maintain mobile fire apparatus should have some rescue equipment …. I would say that no community should be without an inhalator. This represents an investment of but $160–certainly an infinitesimal amount compared to a human life lost or saved and the investment in other equipment considered necessary for the saving of property. First aid kits and gas masks are likewise ridiculously inexpensive compared with what can be accomplished toward the saving of human lives with their intelligent use ….” (“Rescue Squads in Small Cities,” Edward T. Miles, chief of fire de-partment, Newport, Kentucky, Apr. 1932)
APPARATUS FOR FIGHTING FOREST FIres
An apparatus particularly for fighting forest fires along the Pacific coast has been patented by Earl W. Himberger of Seattle, Washington, and assigned to the Pacific Marine Supply Company of the same city. “Motor cylinders arranged in opposed pairs are mounted on a light base, at opposite sides of the centerline of the base. Each pair is suitably coupled by a continuous crankshaft or rigid coupling.” The unit weighs about 65 pounds. The device can be carried by one firefighter (who can strap it to his back); another firefighter carries the hose. It can be carried into the densest woods and over rough ground. It takes a moment to connect the hose and draft water from the nearest stream. (July 25, 1926)
Closed Body Pumper
The General Fire Truck Corporation, Detroit, Michigan, delivered a 14,000-pound, 1,000-gallon multiple-stage centrifugal pumper to Decatur, Illinois. Powered by a 230-hp motor, its road speed was about 75 miles an hour. The apparatus had an enclosed, fully streamlined body with bus-type seats for four firemen. The driver`s seat could accommodate three men. The all-steel body had an insulated roof. The apparatus had space for 1,500 feet of 212-inch hose; carried a 100-gallon booster tank with 200 feet of one-inch booster hose reel; and had lockers inside, above the window. The 212-inch hose was loaded on each side of the body. The control panel included heated gauges; indirect lighting; pump, oil, fuel and tachometer gauges; and throttle pump drain, governor, and so on. The pumper had a combination pump heater and engine cooler, allowing antifreeze to be used in the cooling system and warm water to circulate through the coil to eliminate the danger of the pump`s freezing while answering a fire alarm in zero weather. (Oct. 1936)