There’s Humor in The Serious Business of Fire Fighting
A Fire Commissioner Recalls Incidents — Some Funny, Some Embarrassing — From His Big Collection
THE following tales have no particular time sequence. Most of the incidents happened in Detroit, but a few took place in other cities. Of course, the operation of any Fire Department, large or small, is serious business because we are an emergency service to which the public look for efficient protection at all times. No two fires are alike, conditions vary widely, but a Fire Department is not supposed to make mistakes; therefore, let us assume every Fire Department seriously attempts to do a good job.
However, in the daily activities of any Department every so often odd and unusual things occur. Most of them go into history unrecorded and are remembered only by those who saw them, participated in them, or heard them from others. I have related some of these yarns to others, I say yarns because, while true, they can only be classified as yarns, and have often been asked to make a permanent recording of them. Some have a humorous touch, some are just very unusual, and regretfully some of the best cannot be used as the Editor would put the pencil to them. Nevertheless, I shall lean back in my chair, look into the past, and bring back a few samples of the sunny-side happenings that have taken place over the years.
“Dolled Up” for the Occasion
This one cannot happen again; there are no more horses. And even if it could, or did, there would be at least an investigation, if not a trial, and some kind of disciplinary action. But let’s go back to the good old days of horses, hose wagons, and steam fire engines. That’s going away back. In Detroit, we completely motorized in 1922, and this incident occurred long before that.
Remember, the steamers used coal, carried only a short supply with them; and here in Detroit we had a number of fuel wagons (coal wagons, if you will) located here and there, one horse affairs usually drawn by an old horse and driven by an old fireman, who together would clip-clop to the alarm. Coal was carried in canvas bushel bags. The old driver and the old horse are long since gone, of course, and we will use fictitious names, but which aptly apply.
We will use “Old Mike” for the fireman and “Old Charley” for the horse. They were stationed near “downtown” and were assigned on all “main stem” boxes. In those days the boys had a sense of humor, were a little more playful—or were they? But they wanted to play a joke on Old Mike. He was known to retire early and did, and especially on this nice warm, quiet summer night. Can you remember the straw hats with the ear holes in the rims they used to put on work horses in summer? Well, after Old Mike had retired they took one of these straw hats and put it on Old Charley (the horse), with a blue ribbon under his chin, and put a pair of blue overalls on his front legs, with supporters slung around his neck, and then they waited.
It happened about 3:00 A. M. Out went the engine, and out went Old Mike and Old Charley, right to a working fire on “Main Street,” with no time to undress Old Charlie!!! To this day, when firemen get together in Detroit, this tale sooner or later comes into the conversation. Of course, no witnesses, no confessions, no trial, and no punishment. Those were the good old days!
A Warm Welcome
This one took place some years later, possibly in the 30s. Again in the summer and before midnight. Fire involved an old three-story terrace converted into a rooming house. It took off fast, and even by the time the first motor apparatus arrived, the two upper floors were well involved, with plenty of smoke and flames. Operations started out dead seriously: occupants were rescued down ladders, but one lone woman was trapped on the second floor window, flames licking around her. It was a life net job. Serious? I’ll say it was and, as it developed, the lady turned out to be a modest 180 pounds. The boys whipped out the life net, shouted instructions to jump feet first, and then waited. She jumped promptly, but came down in a perfect swan dive landing spread eagle on her stomach and face. Oh yes, she lived, but broke an arm, bashed in her nose, and had other lacerations and bruises, aside from momentarily knocking the wind out of herself. She made the comedy. She got her wind back as the boys picked her out of the net, and then she let go with what was a gem—I cannot repeat her remarks, but her choice of words and the use of English, it is told, was both pointed and humorous. I’ll let you fill in the gaps to suit yourself. I got this one from one of the boys who helped hold the net.
Nothing Stumps the Rescue Squad
Next, talk about firemen being good midwives! Here is one for the book. One evening not too long ago this one happened to the men in one of our fire stations housing an engine and ladder company. They were sitting around quietly, shortly after dinner, when a car with a man and woman screeched to a stop in front of the house and the man rushed in shouting, “I’m taking my wife to the hospital to have a baby, but I’m not going to make it.” Then things started, showing how efficiently firemen meet unexpected situations. One man opened the ladder company door, the driver ran the ladder truck out, another man drove the car with the man’s wife into the house; they put her on a ping-pong table at the rear while the Commanding Officer called the Dispatcher to send over one of our rescue companies, and all hands went to work—sheets, hot water, and all that goes with it. We’ll omit the details, but by the time the squad arrived, the Mother had had her baby, everything was taken care of, and off went the mother, father, and baby, to the hospital in the squad car. Then things settled back to routine again. The hospital later reported that it was a perfect delivery and mother and baby were doing fine, thank you! Oh yes, father is back to normal also — but he sure wouldn’t have made it in time without the help of the fire fighters.
The Vanishing Load
Here is one that did not happen in Detroit, but because it easily could have been ourselves back in the days when it occurred. I’m including the incident because it’s most unusual. Furthermore, I have never heard of such an occurrence before nor since. Location, quite a large city in Ohio, and about fifteen years ago. I won’t name the city, because their faces must have been very red. Actually, nothing too much to be ashamed about; just one of those things. An alarm came in after dark, and off went the companies. The apparatus, an open type pumper, Commanding Officer and Driver up in front, three men on the tail board getting into their fire clothes.
Enroute, as it was told to me, the shut off nozzle on the end of the hose line apparently started slipping down a little at a time, unnoticed by the men in the dark. Just as the engine made a street intersection with a switch in the car track, the nozzle dropped, hitting the pavement at a defective frog in the track, with the pointed end of the frog sticking up just enough to catch the shut off handle of the nozzle. Up front nothing was seen nor felt, but out went the hose, all 1000 feet of it, bowling the three men off the rear end in the process.
It had its serious angle because all three men were more or less bruised and cut (no serious injuries), but can you picture the Commanding Officer pulling up to the box with an empty hose bed and nobody on the rear end? They found the hose stretched down the street for 1,000 feet. The men, of course, eventually got to the hospital for treatment. Oh yes, it was a false alarm!
The Gallantry of the Service
I’ll call this one the gallant firemen. and it’s an eye witness account, for I was there. Again a hot sultry night in summer. A fire involved a four-story apartment house in a residential neighborhood at about 3:00 A.M. The fire evidently started in the basement locker room and worked its way up to the second floor inside the walls. Although it required a second alarm, the fire itself was soon under control, but not until the halls, stairwells, and several apartments, had been charged with heavy black smoke and heat. There were ladder rescues and people led out by firemen equipped with smoke masks. A number of occupants stayed in their apartments unharmed, but smoke bound. The firemen located all of them and led them out with wet towels over their faces.
As the electric wiring in the basement had burned through in the early stages of the fire, the building was in darkness except for the flashlights carried by the firemen, which is the way, and how, it all happened—coupled with the fear and panic of a certain not-too-old woman. I was standing at a rear door entrance on the ground floor as this lady was led out bv two firemen in helmets, rubber coats, and boots, and she with a wet towel over her face. As I mentioned, it was a hot sultry summer night, the lady had on the jacket of her P.J’s, a very short one at that, and no trousers (if that is what you call the bottom half). The firemen were unaware of the situation in the dark, and the lady failed to remember.
There they were on the sidewalk, two firemen and almost one Lady Godiva, right in the light of the street light, which momentarily should not have been there at all; or it could have been sporting and gone out, but it didn’t. The firemen sized up the situation in a flash. One stood in front and the other like the gallant knight of old removed his rubber coat, quickly got her into it, clamped the buckles, and led her to a residence next door while the other returned to her apartment and got her some additional wearing apparel. It all happened much faster than it takes to tell. There was absolutely no lost motion, or time. I never did find out who the two firemen were, but in my book they should have received citations for gallantry, or something. One really has to be present at fires to find out what really goes on.
Often when my better half is out of the city, I keep out of trouble by spending the evenings at our Central Office. There’s where you get some honeys— I mean odd ones—and those that, as I have said, cannot be told.
An Emergency Call
This one pertains to a phone call received by the Dispatcher about 9:00 P.M. not too long ago. I shall have to dress it up a little but you of the fire service will read between the lines and understand. Every Dispatching Office, of course, has a certain routine in order to pin point the location quickly on a phone report. So we will follow the actual procedure:
Dispatcher: “Detroit Fire Department”.
Lady’s voice: “I’s got a fire.”
Dispatcher: “What is your address?”
Lady’s voice: (Giving a perfectly good house number on a well known street.)
Now I think all of you ask the next question, to pin point it quickly:
Dispatcher: “Between what two streets?”
Lady’s voice: (Stating perfectly two prominent adjoining streets)
Then the final question:
Dispatcher: “Whats burning lady?”
And then the bomb burst—as the lady said, “Why, I’s on fire and I want a flock of big strong firemen quick”—and down went the receiver.
We have had a number of similar ones, all on the same theme, with variations; some are “phonies” but some actually for fires. And the funny part of it is that these people do not realize that their phone calls are recorded and kept on file for years.
This one was told me by an acquaintance who lives in a large eastern city. He did so to twit me about how good his city’s fire department is and to cool me off a bit about how good my own department might be. It happened that his city’s fire department is good, fast, and efficient, but not quite as fast as he thinks. The story my friend told was that one day walking near a corner he saw a man snap the handle of a fire alarm box and just seconds later a fire engine came roaring around the corner —unbelievable but so. I tried to explain, but to this day he won’t believe me and thinks a miracle took place. Now I happen to know the city, the location of the box, and the location of the nearest fire house. They are good, but not that good; because if everything clicked, no traffic delays, etc., they could not possibly have done it in less than two minutes. Of course, you know what happened. Some one phoned, the dispatcher had them on the way and about the time the box was pulled they were there. But try to make my friend believe it. Sure, its a good department, but you don’t do a two-minute run through traffic in “seconds.”
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The Finger of Suspicion
Now I’ll tell you one on myself. This occurred about two years before my appointment to the Board of Fire Commissioners. I was plain citizen Mendelssohn, but intimately known by the personnel of the department, and particularly by the Batt. Chiefs, Officers, and men of the companies in my first alarm district. They were “my friends,” as you will discover. For years before becoming a Commissioner, I was one of those rare birds who had a tapper and register both at home and in my office. Therefore, I got the alarms the same as did the fire stations. There is a fire alarm box on the corner just below my residence and in plain view from the front windows of my home. The number is 595, easy to count and, when it is transmitted, my wife and I catch it quickly. Although in a residential neighborhood, the box is pulled three or four times a year, sometimes for fires and once in a while as a false alarm, for there are lots of teen-agers around. Well, on a certain summer afternoon around 4:00 o’clock, a Saturday when I was at home, in came old 595. Without giving it a thought this particular Saturday afternoon, I walked the short half of the block and easily got to the box before the first due company arrived. It’s a three-pumper assignment: one ladder, a squad, and Batt. Chief. You’ve guessed it—a false alarm—midafternoon, bright sunshine, and no one but me at the box! ! ! The Batt. Chief and all the Commanding Officers, yes and many of the boys, saw me and knew me, but utterly ignored my presence. The top brass gathered about ten feet from me and began discussing the matter loud enough for me to hear, to wit: “It’s a false alarm all right, and no one here but Mr. Mendelssohn. You don’t suppose he did it, do you?” And after a few additional remarks they all broke into broad grins, came over and enjoyed the joke on me. Of course, never try to wiggle out of it or explain; one only gets in deeper, and to this day I don’t know just what they really thought. Moral—don’t be the only one at the box before the companies arrive if there is no apparent fire. Old 595 has been used quite often since then, but I discreetly remain out of sight at home until the companies arrive, unless I can actually see a fire, particularly since now I am a Commissioner. You’ll admit that otherwise it is “bad coffee.” One lives and learns!
Having told “one” on myself I might as well throw in another. This has taken place very recently, year 1955. I heard the other day a very apt description of a fellow like me, namely, I have been termed a “working commissioner” meaning one who attends multiple alarms, explosions of a serious nature even if only a first alarm, traffic accident if personnel is injured, etc. It is not unusual, for my three colleagues often follow suit. New York City had its Archer and now has its Edward Cavanagh; Boston had its Codman, and Detroit had its Hayward Murphy, just to mention a few, although there are many “working commissioners” around the country. Why do we do these things? Well, its probably because we are interested in our work, our men, and want to know what goes on. Commissioner Cavanagh. of New York, recently at a news conference summed it up very aptly in words to this effect—one cannot find out what a fireman has to do sitting at a desk. He is so right and I agree thoroughly. But now comes the pinch. Here in Detroit a most unusual situation came along. While we do not have as many multiple alarms as the city of New York or a few others, we do average several each month. That is, we did until 1955. The unheard of has happened. We had a second alarm in February and then went practically five months, to be exact until July 2nd, without anything more than an “all hands” working fire. No, our Chiefs were not trying to be heroes and hang on to them; there just were no extensive or serious fires all that time. It has never happened before in the history of our paid department and that goes back a long time. That’s where I come into the picture. After about three months of “nothing doing” it occurred to me that I had not operated either the red flasher or the siren on my personal car during all that time. Now this may sound silly—it is—but every weekend at home in my garage I made a weekly test turning on the flasher and giving the siren a few short growls just to make sure they were still working. That’s pretty bad when one gets to such an extreme! ! ! It’s all over now tho, we had five multiples in July. The flasher and siren work all right too.
I could continue such incidents for some time but why try your patience, these yarns are all true and only go to prove that while operating a fire department is dead serious business there are nevertheless many things occurring that can be put over on the Sunny Side.