Where’s the Fire, Lady?

Where’s the Fire, Lady?



A fire commissioner telling the public that his department has made errors at a fatal fire is unusual. When the department is New York City’s, it’s unbelievable. But that’s exactly what happened on July 27. Fire Commissioner Joseph Spinnato convened a news conference to release an investigation report on a high-rise residence fire that extended from a routine compactor fire into an upper-floor holocaust, claiming the lives of seven civilians. His statement laid blame mostly on building construction faults. But he also criticized inspection procedures and communications within department operations.

While it’s obvious that the initial on-scene size-up legitimately indicated this fire was routine, the incident was surrounded by an unbelievable number of building failures veiled by a lack of communication. (See Dispatches, page 17).

The commander, in evaluating the conditions he could see and those reported to him, was led to only one conclusion: The fire was in a basement rubbish collection site and was being controlled by maintenance personnel. And he probably thought of the secondary problem that always accompanies compactor fires: mushrooming smoke conditions in upper-floor hallways. What he didn’t know was that heat, smoke, and flames had worked their way through faulty construction and into apartments on the 33rd and 34th floors, trapping seven civilians.

He didn’t know—but who did?

Between the battalion chief’s arrival at 8 a.m. and his report of control of a nuisance fire seven minutes later, New York City’s fire department communications center received 21 more phone calls from occupants and witnesses reporting heavy smoke conditions in hallways and apartments on many upper floors. This vital information was never a factor in the chief’s size-up because it was never relayed to the scene. The messages were evaluated as relating to a routine compactor fire’s aftermath.

The same problem surfaced, nationally unnoticed, a few months ago in Chicago. Our point here is not to lay blame or support a witch hunt, but to explore a lesson. I believe it’s impossible for a receiver of phone calls to make any sort of reasonable evaluation of fireground conditions without some actual fire experience. Some of the greatest fire dispatchers have been just that because they’ve spent time watching the real world of firefighting in the streets.

That should be a mandatory part of a dispatcher’s training. Without it, the role played by an efficient and understanding dispatcher is relegated to the mundane function of telephone answerer.

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