True Yarns from My Own Experiences

True Yarns from My Own Experiences

REMINISCENCES of a Fire Buff Commissioner

LET ME START this whole thing by explaining why I use the term “true yarns” for the incidents I have put together. The facts are true as far as memory over the years permits, but I shall not state them in the rigid form of the usual “report” or the technical construction that FIRE ENGINEERING generally expects.

“Yarn” is the word Editor Don O’Brien tacked on once before when I described a fifth alarm in Detroit. I thought I was reporting the fire. He said, “Pax,” or was he polite and said, “Commissioner, this is a good yarn.” He really meant “story” and published it. So let’s settle for what most editors would call “short short stories.”

Apathy of the public

This took place in New York, midtown Manhattan to be exact, about midsummer in the year 1950 or 1951. At the time I was actively associated with an international travel company with offices in Rockefeller Center. A group of the officers had been out to lunch with me and about 1:30 p.m. we were strolling up Fifth Avenue, returning to our offices. At this time of the day the avenue as usual was crowded with shoppers.

Midway between 46th and 47th Streets a group of about 20 men and women were gathered in front of a store, which turned out to be vacant, all gazing at the sidewalk grill over a basement window. Being a curious person, I added myself to the group to discover wood smoke coming up in fairly heavy concentration. No question about it, a fire in the basement. I made this remark to the group and asked, “Has anyone called the fire department?” No answer, just a lot of blank stares.

Knowing fire station locations in New York fairly well, but particularly in mid-Manhattan, I knew if an alarm had been transmitted, I surely would hear 65 Engine on 43rd Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues rolling, or even 8 Engine then on 51st Street near Lexington.

Not a siren was in evidence. I saw Box 822 at the corner of 46th Street, so ran over, and as you say in New York, hooked it. At the time it ran through my mind—all these people and it would be I, a resident of Detroit in New York on business and on the side, a fire commissioner as well!

It was then I got a shock. I had forgotten these boxes have an alarm bell like a bank burglar alarm. It let go, loud and violent, which immediately brought the traffic policeman at the intersection on the run. Casting an eagle eye on me, he demanded, “Did you hook that box?” I think he was surprised as I was when the bell let go as I candidly answered, “Yes,” and quickly added, “Basement fire four stores up. I’ll wait and direct the fire companies, you get all those people out of the way.”

He cooperated promptly as 65 Engine came rolling in, together with 8 Engine, 54 Engine, Ladders 2 and 4, and the chiefs of the 8th and 9th Battalions. Of course, being a vacant store they had to break in. It was a well-developed basement fire, and checking later. I learned it was a worker of nearly two hours duration. In another five or ten minutes it could have worked up into the other floors, might even have become a multiple alarm.

I claim to be no hero. I did what anyone even with no fire experience should have done. Here on Fifth Avenue between 46th and 47th Streets, I a vacant store, smoke coming out of a basement window, 20 or more people knowing it, hundreds of others passing and not a soul bothered to do anything—a fire alarm box within a hundred feet and plenty of telephones in stores on both sides!

In instances like this, it becomes understandable why so often small blazes at inception become fires of conflagration proportions.

A fifth and third for the same fire

Circumstances related here may have been the experiences of fire departments in other cities, but I feel sure in stating that it was and still is the only time in Detroit that two separate multiple alarms from two different boxes were tapped in by two chiefs of our department for the same fire. Yet neither chief was aware of what the other had done at the time. You may have surmised that all this took place quite a number of years ago before the advent of radio in fire department operations.

The property involved was a storage and distributing yard of one of the major oil companies and covered a large area. From one end to the other was a long way apart. Shortly after midday several tanks let go. A citizen promptly pulled a street box at the east side of the property, and upon arrival the battalion chief signaled for a second alaim. A few minutes later another citizen, way over on the west side of the installation, pulled another box. When the other battalion chief arrived with his companies he also called for a second alarm, and about then the first chief called for a third alaim on the original box. And so it went.

Frankly I am not sure how many alarms were transmitted by the two chiefs, but if memory serves me right, the original box went to a fifth, and the box at the other side went to a third. Neither knew what the other had done until later, of course, and without radio the dispatchers could only comply with the signals transmitted from each box. The fire, however, was of such magnitude that all alarms were justified and all companies responding were needed and worked. The use of two-way radio, of course, has practically eliminated the repetition of such an occurrence.

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