Saturday, December 28, 2013

Fire Companies and the Founders—An Introduction

It is difficult for those of us in this era to understand the unbridled fear that a cry of “fire” could rouse in the citizens of Revolutionary times.  It was both a friend, necessary for cooking, heating and life itself and at the same time, a destructive force which could lay waste to an entire city in a day if uncontrolled.  Benjamin Franklin is commonly considered the “father” of the volunteer fire company, which he organized in Philadelphia, but many of the ideas he used there were drawn from existing companies in his original home town of Boston.   

Church bells were the original station siren or pager of the day.  Such an alarm did not only bring out the engine men, but the community as a whole with their buckets.  Early truck work was aggressive and took the form of sometimes tearing down neighboring homes or buildings with their hooks to contain the fire and limit spread, the trench cut of the 1700s. 

In Boston, Revolutionary leaders such as Sam Adams and John Hancock were firewards (equivalent to a modern day Captain) and helped organize their companies as part of the resistance to the British.  Other firewards were participants in and gave aid in Paul Revere’s ride.  In some cities, fire companies adopted resolutions stating they would not fight a fire, should one occur, in the hated Tax Stamp office unless other property was endangered.  The Sons of Liberty, a Revolutionary era political organization with an anti-British focus drew a significant percentage of its membership from the ranks of the firemen in many cities.  That is not to say that firemen universally supported the Revolution any more than all firefighters today subscribe to a particular ideology.  Firemen then supervised actual political fires including effigy burnings and those of Tax Stamps.  Historians argue that fire companies provided a model and much manpower for Revolutionary ideals and organizations.  Many fought as part of the Continental Army and cities had difficulty maintaining their companies and engines.  As the towns and cities sprung up, so did the need for fire companies.   

Franklin wrote about the reasons men volunteered in their communities.  They did it “not for the sake of reward money or fame.  There is no provision of either made for them.  But they have a reward in themselves, and they love one another.”  Altruistic reasons aside, some things haven’t changed as the fire companies of the Revolutionary era enjoyed “a vibrant social life.”   

While it may seem simplistic, the development of American cities with the density of housing and other buildings as well as vertical expansion with taller buildings simply could not have happened without fire departments.  Today, fire departments are viewed by many as simply another public agency for which municipal budgets and taxes struggle to support.  In the era of the Revolution, they were truly part of the foundation without which the country could not have survived. 


Thursday, December 26, 2013

A Throwback Thursday Video

The pallet plant fire. 
Chapter 16 in Fire Men:  Stories From Three Generations of a Firefighting Family

Pallet plant fire

Saturday, December 21, 2013

From the Archives.....

It was the Friday night before Christmas, a crisp  starlit evening.  We were cruising the township roadways with Santa Claus on the rescue.  It was an annual event, much enjoyed by many of the smaller members of the community and, truth be told, by many of the bigger ones as well.   

The lights were flashing, the siren screaming, the air horn blasting and regular sounds of “Ho Ho Ho” were echoing in the night air from behind me.  I rode the officer’s seat in the cab, just enjoying the atmosphere and the smiling children we encountered on our slow tour.  My fun was broken by a radio call. 

 Comm Center to Chief 36,” the radio query came.  After I responded, the dispatcher asked, “You wouldn’t happen to be out with Santa Claus by chance, would you, Chief?” 

 “Affirmative,” I answered. 

“Can you call in by phone?” the dispatcher asked. 

I didn’t have a good feeling as I reached for the cell phone mounted on the dash.  Was some scrooge upset by the siren noise, I wondered.  When I got the dispatcher on the line, it was nothing like that. 

“Hey, Chief, we just had a call from a grandma on Greenfield Road.  She was upset ‘cause she had been out when you went by and her grandchildren just missed Santa.”

"Please tell me she didn’t call in on 911?” I asked the dispatcher, almost dreading his response.  The 911 emergency line is certainly not the proper method to obtain a visit by Santa Claus. 

  “Oh yeah, she did,” he said with a laugh. 

  “Sorry about that, we’ll take another run down that road.”  We have to take care of a grandma like that, I thought to myself. 

 “Thanks, Chief, and Merry Christmas,” the dispatcher answered, as we both disconnected the line. 


Saturday, December 7, 2013

A New Way of Training: Changing How We Think

Just about two weeks ago, I had the great opportunity to discuss fire service training on the Fire Engineering radio show hosted by Chief Dennis Rubin along with Chiefs P.J. Norwood, Jonathan Riffe, and Lieutenant Frank Ricci.  The questions and discussions were thought provoking.  For myself, I tried to concentrate my comments beyond the day to day tactical training areas which, while critically important, were covered exceptionally well by my fellow participants.  Instead, I tried to focus on an area I see as under discussed—advanced education.   

It’s not sexy and certainly not as “fun” as live fire evolutions, firefighter survival, or even the bread and butter practice of advancing lines or throwing ladders.  What it is, though, is critical for the “business” of the fire service.   

The importance of lifelong learning cannot be over emphasized.  The next generation of fire service leaders will be confronted with a spectrum of problems only some of which we can imagine.  Others will reveal themselves over time.  Managing the “all hazards” response agency that fire departments have become in a continuing era of increasing demands and highly pressured financial resources will need a new problem solving paradigm.  This won’t come about by simply repeating what we’ve done in the past, as good as it may have been.  It will require a new generation of strategic multi-dimensional thinkers.  The military has understood this for decades, sending officers for advanced degrees in a multitude of disciplines at “civilian” universities.   

I’ve argued before, college level classes, particularly in the humanities, won’t teach you to handle a nozzle better, but if you let them, they will teach you to think, to examine and solve problems differently.  Problem solving, with the challenges of the future, will be a skill of paramount importance.  

A thought process which looks at problems from a historical perspective, from one of engineering and mathematics, business and statistics, and puts all these pieces together, will help bring new and innovative solutions to the forefront.  The catch phrase “thinking outside the box” is easy to say, but much harder to do.  Non fire related classes teach some of these alternative problem solving methods, how to look at issues from other directions and perspectives—essentially a new and different way to think.   

The next generation of leaders will need not only to be great firefighters and command officers; they will need to be outstanding writers, politicians, accountants, business managers, and strategic planners. 

Friday, November 22, 2013


                                                    Chief Russ Gow

An old friend passed away this week, doing what he loved most, running a pump.  While I never understood why, the story of how we met originally was one of his favorites, one which I heard him tell innumerable people.  So, here it is again….from the archives.  

Far from every funny or tragic incident from fifty years of three generations can make it into a single volume, the amount of material between the covers limited by practical considerations. This means that many interesting stories—told in fire houses for years—could not be included. 

One which has been repeated hundreds of times involves the first time I met my friend Russell. We were both assistant chiefs—he located two departments to the west. One day, a car wreck in Fleetville brought the rescues from both departments as well as the two of us. Crews from both departments went to work removing the roof and popping doors; the usual tasks, but the kid driving was still pinned. The crushing impact had brought parts of the dash and fire wall down onto his feet and lower legs.

Looking at it, Russell determined we could get a tool in next to his legs, but it would take four hands to properly position the tip and move the boy’s feet once the operator began to spread the jaws of the heavy equipment. Space in which to accomplish all this was at a premium. There appeared to be access for only one person, which left us one set of hands short, but never lacking ideas Russ proposed a solution to me, someone he had never met. 

Russ, the larger of the two of us, laid down, his head toward the spot where the tip of the jaws had to be placed. I lay on top of him, oriented in the same direction, and held the victim’s legs, prepared to move them as soon as they were free. With Russell guiding the spreader tips, they slowly opened and I could move the boy’s feet, allowing additional firefighters above us to slide him onto a back board and remove from the car. 

Being on top, I crawled out first, followed by my partner from below. He stuck his gloved hand out.

“Russ,” he said as I shook it.

“Gary,” I responded. We’ve been friends ever since.

I’ll miss him. 


Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Fire Engineering Radio Appearance

Had a great time talking with Chief Dennis Rubin the other night about training and other fire service issues as well as "Fire Men: Stories From Three Generations of a Firefighting Family."  Click the link below to listen to the show.

Fire Engineering Radio Appearance

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Upcoming Radio Show

Hosted by Chief Dennis Rubin......
"Please join me for the next "Contemporary Issues in the Fire - Rescue Service on Fire Engineering Blog Radio. We "Go Live" on Monday, November 11, 2013 at 7:30 pm (Eastern Time Zone). The topic for my November 11th Fire Engineering Blog Radio Show will be "Tips, Tricks & Pitfalls of Fire-Rescue Service Training & Education".

We have an amazing cast of presenters for the show on the 11th. Appearing live and in person will be Chief Paul Norwood (CT), Chief Jon Riffe (MD), Chief Gary Ryman (PA) & Lieutenant Frank Ricci (CT). I will be personally honored to be your host and moderator. Has my Mother always told me, I am the man with the "Face for Radio". Please call-in and let's chat about training issues.

So, please tune-in and listen to the best in the business talk about all aspects of training presentations to include textbook development, DVD programing and much more! Be there or Be Square - See you on the Radio my friends. Until next time please be safe out there!"

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Memorial Weekend

A brick with the names of the three generations will be placed in the Memorial Walk of the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial. Giving "Generation 1" the certificate

Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Original Denis Leary

Today we think of Johnny and Roy as an ancient historical portrayal of firefighters; their all-American wholesomeness overtaken by more complex characters and stories in Backdraft, Ladder 49, Rescue Me, and now Chicago Fire.  All of these, and the original “Emergency” are but Johnny-come-lately’s (pun intended) to the original and main theatrical firefighter of American History. 

Fireman Mose Humphreys was played by actor Frank Chanfrau in thousands of performances on stages throughout the country in the 1840s and 1850s.  Although nine scripts were written, only one survives.  He became an urban folk hero; the personification of New York firemen and to some degree, all volunteers of the day. 

Mose was a cigar smoking, heavy drinking, hard fighting, baby rescuing, rowdy fireman who stood for good against con-men, crooks, and politicians.  Think Denis Leary before there was Denis Leary.  The working class of the day related to the character and stories as he protected the community, rescued “damsels,” and fought the politicians.  The middle class viewed him differently as a symbol of societal unrest. 

The performances in the 1800s resulted in something more than just entertainment.  They provided fuel for debates on fire department reform, particularly in cities which experienced firefighter violence.  While many historians today agree that the early stories of firemen fighting each other on scenes were overblown and not as widespread as legend has it, the instances which did occur were likely magnified by the fictional portrayal.  Mose became a caricature, and as he grew in popularity, so did the inaccurate perceptions that all firefighters were involved in violent behavior. 

In today’s world with the pervasive presence of social media, you tube, and myriad other forms of entertainment, this past history is interesting in showing that public perception being shaped by art is not new.  There was no actual Mose, but his character was based—with obvious fictional liberties—on the characteristics observed in firemen of the day.  That a fictional character influenced public debate and change in the fire services of the day should be instructional to us.  Who is more real; Tommy Gavin or Johnny and Roy? 

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Are We Better Off?

Not long ago, I had one of those “solve the world’s problems” conversations with a close friend of mine.  We do this from time to time and although we accomplish absolutely nothing, changing not a thing, we both feel better at the conclusion.  Part of this particular chat covered a topic not new to us and one we’ve “solved” before.  The operative question was “have the technological ‘improvements’ to fire apparatus actually resulted in being able to better extinguish fires?”   

Our short answer to this burning question was “no.”  There is no question that today’s apparatus with the enclosed cab is far safer and has gone some distance in reducing injuries and fatalities from the days of open jump seats and riding the back step (getting dressed on the back step wasn’t just crazy—it was stupid).  That, however, was not what we were talking about.  It was more fundamental concept; that of putting wet stuff on red stuff.   

My friend and I both started with engines without crosslays; back when all pre-connects came off the back (one thing from the old days that seems to slowly be regaining some favor).  The pump had two gauges.  If two lines of different lengths or sizes were in operation, the pump operator established his pressure (yes it was always a him back then—no editorial comment intended) and gated the other line down by experience and feel.  Not the most accurate method, but it worked well for generations.  What the pump panel didn’t look like was the cock pit of the space shuttle, which some of today’s bear a striking resemblance to.   

Individual gauges?  Love them.  But flow meters, electronic valves, etc. simply add more things to break.  I won’t even begin to talk about adding CAFS to the equation; a subject for another day.  Not needing a ladder to get up to the deck gun was arguably an advantage of old versus new; and reaching hose lines and ground ladders without having to climb another one. 
Pumps ran, lines and ladders were pulled, and fires went out in the old days.  Simple has some attractive benefits.  It breaks less often, is easier to maintain and, arguably, to teach.  I’m not advocating a return to the open cab ’68 of yesteryear, but ask yourself honestly if the fires are going out better, quicker, or easier with the increased complexity of modern engines and if you’re honest, the truth is obvious. 

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Book Signing, September 6th and 7th

Getting ready to sign at the Northeast Pennsylvania Volunteer Fireman's Federation Convention at the Browndale Fire Company next weekend. 

Friday, August 16, 2013

More you might be a Redneck Firefighter if….

The soda machine in the station is actually loaded with Genesee, Iron City or insert low end beer here.

Four guys get off a piece of apparatus and three of them are related (whether they know it or not).
The portables still have extendable antennas.
The “donations” from filling pools with the tanker are a major source of department income. 
The Memorial Day Chicken Barbeque at the station is the social event of the year. 
A call comes in at 7:00 AM on the first day of deer season and the only one who moves are the deer. 
One of the first line pieces still has coats, boots, and helmets hanging from a rack on the side. 
The port-a-pond doubles as the town swimming pool on hot summer days. 

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Dilbert and the Fire Department

The cartoon “Dilbert” wouldn’t be so funny if it weren’t so situationally accurate which long ago led me to develop one of “Ryman’s Rules” relating to the strip. This one is not a law of physics, but a sociological paradigm which states that: Morale of any organization is inversely proportional to the number of Dilbert cartoons hanging on the walls.  With that in mind, how many of these comic strip worthy situations have you seen or experienced?

Pulling into a fire scene with an assignment to lay a supply lie and finding the hose bed empty, the line having accidentally laid during the response.  Funny how that never happened when we rode the back step; oh well.
Watching a hose bed turn into silly string when the pump operator charges the wrong line—the one not pulled.
Getting ready to drain the drop tank and finding the drain placed on the uphill side. 
Extending the “blue line” with yellow hose and handing it to a new crew who then asks for the “yellow line” to be charged. The reason I hate color coded lines.
Scanning mobile and portable radios—the important information always gets cut off. Enough said.
Pump operators who think “100 pounds is good enough for everything.”
Did you ever notice the same five guys who always have to leave for work the minute it’s time to wash the rigs and hose after a run?
The company responding for RIT that calls out with five and shows up with a driver and four juniors. 
The officer, who when in charge of a training night, waits until everyone arrives and then says “so what do you guys want to do tonight?”
Fire Police who drive like Jeff Gordon for some reason assuming it is critical they be the first on scene—in order to direct traffic. 
The citizen who on an annual basis, waits for the windiest day of the year to burn trash, resulting in a 5 acre brush fire, and then acts surprised when he gets yelled at. 
Looking at the personal vehicles parked during the inevitable call on the afternoon of the first day of buck season and marveling that there is more firepower present than that possessed by the entire local police department. Actually true most any day for rural departments.
The local cop who on an automatic fire alarm offers to shoot the lock off the door instead of waiting for the apparatus or key holder.  His offer was turned down.
The guy with more state class patches on his sleeve than a Sergeant Major has stripes—who won’t go inside. 
The guy with the two door subcompact car and a blue light bar so big it extends feet beyond the sides of the car. So big you wonder if the car will rotate when the lights are turned on.
The guy who carries three pagers and two portable radios—all on his belt at the same time. Note: The three above are often the same guy. 
The brush fire in a two acre field with only a single solitary tree located right in the center—which the brush truck driver hits while backing up.  
You know you’re really in trouble when three pieces of apparatus, all responding to the same call, reach the same intersection; and one turns left, one goes straight, and the third turns right.
Last, but certainly not least, (insert favorite personal activity here) with your significant other is invariably interrupted by the pager.


Saturday, August 3, 2013

Fire Archaeology: Still Salvaging After All These Years

The stories of most major fires concentrate on the immediate impact; the deaths and injuries which resulted.  Just over 40 years ago, a fire occurred which caused no deaths or serious injuries, the impact from which is still being felt.  Just after midnight on July 12, 1973, fire broke out on the sixth floor of the National Personnel Records Center in Overland, Missouri.   

Construction work on this building to hold military service records was completed in 1956.  When the original studies were conducted during the design phase, conflicting advice was received from archivists and personnel at other government records retention facilities.  Some strongly recommended the inclusion of automatic sprinklers and others argued against.  Not surprisingly, since we are talking about this fire forty years later, the anti-sprinkler forces won.  Storage of paper records in folders and boxes packed on metal shelves and file cabinets filled the building—a massive fire load.   

The fire response exceeded 6 alarms.  The interior attack was abandoned at 3:15 AM that morning due to deteriorating conditions, but the exterior attack continued for days.  On the 14th, firefighters re-entered the building to begin final extinguishment and overhaul on the sixth floor; a task complicated by partial structural collapse of the roof.  By the 16th of July, a single company remained on scene.  

Following fire extinguishment began a salvage operation which continues even today.  Computer tapes and microfilm records were among the early transfers to an off-site facility.  All six floors of the building experienced substantial water damage, and the recovery of water soaked records was a massive operation.  Wet records were re-boxed and the escalator railings used as a slide to move them to the ground floor for transport.  Setting up a temporary facility at the nearby Civilian Personnel Records Center, plastic milk crates, eventually 30,000 of them, were used for open shelf drying, but a better solution was on the horizon. 

A vacuum drying chamber was located at the McDonnell Douglas Aircraft plant in St. Louis.  The chamber was originally constructed for space simulation as part of the Apollo moon program.  Once archivists confirmed the technology worked, two additional chambers at the Sandusky, Ohio NASA facility were located and used as well.  Wet records were placed in the plastic milk crates, which were stacked nine high on wood pallets, and the records loaded into the chamber, which was sealed.  Air was evacuated from the chamber and the temperature lowered to freezing.  Hot dry air was then introduced until the wetted materials reach 50 degrees F.  Depending upon how wet the material was, multiple cycles could be needed to dry the records.  With a single chamber capable of holding 2,000 milk crates, nearly eight tons or 2000 gallons of water could be removed during a run.   

The charred and burned materials recoverable from the sixth floor created another challenge.  Luckily, this material was not disposed of following the fire, but stored as “B” files, as improvements in technology have made the information from some of these materials usable again.  Today a team of thirty uses the latest restoration techniques to recover information from these documents. Working in latex gloves, this group represents an archival CSI for documents; cleaning mold and debris and utilizing digital technology, scanners, and specialized software, some information from burned sections can be revealed and recovered.  

This information remains important.  Requests are received from veteran’s families for information needed to obtain various programmatic government benefits along with on-going work by genealogists and historians.  The meticulous work the recovery team does, like archaeologists unearthing an ancient village filled with information, is critical in helping these servicemen.   

Sprinkler protection became an important component for all such government facilities following this fire; a lesson learned like many others, through disaster.  While we will likely never know how many records were lost in the fire, the cause of which remains undetermined, that recovery and restoration continues forty years later is nothing short of miraculous. 


Saturday, July 27, 2013

Farm Spayer to Fire Truck

If you stay around long enough, you’ll see that many things in the fire service are cyclical.  In the late 1930s, an orchard owner noticed his neighbor’s house burning, and dragged his sprayer, manufactured by a guy named Bean, over to fight and ultimately extinguish the fire.  From this developed the high pressure fog system for fire apparatus.   It was not unlike many pieces of equipment which had their start in other applications—think high lift jacks and positive pressure ventilation fans—so did high pressure, adapted from agricultural use.   In the 1940s and 1950s, the use of high pressure fog was a common tactic and its face was the ubiquitous John Bean, at least one of which was seemingly owned by every rural or suburban department. 

The pumps operated at 650-800 psi at low flow through gun type nozzles.  Useful on indirect attack situations, there were weaknesses in other applications.  Overtaken by volume pumps and larger lines, they slowly faded from use on structure fires.  The parent company, FMC Fire Apparatus, ultimately ceased operations in 1990 following a failed expansion into ladder trucks. 
Today, the technology is rearing its head again in the form of ultra-high pressure.   Pumps for low flow 18-22 gpm handlines delivering water at 1100-1400 psi are now being manufactured by HMA Fire.   As with many “new” technologies, it is being suggested for a variety of applications from ARFF to woodland, and yes, even structural fires.  Where it will go is unclear, but the fire service trip around the circle is virtually complete.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

James Bond—Nope, More Like Maxwell Smart: The Jet Axe

The side compartment of the vehicle was opened and the rectangular package removed and carried to the ladder located in front of the smoking building.  The action hero briskly climbed to the roof and brought his burden to near the ridge line, carefully laying it with the long axis perpendicular to the peak.   

He punched a hole in the cover, pulling a hidden control box connected to the package by a wire harness from the interior.  Retreating to the safety of the ladder, he climbed below the eave to shield himself, tempted to yell out “fire in the hole.”   Pushing the button on the control in his hand was thrilling.  The noise from the explosion caught the attention of all those nearby.  Smoke poured from the opening in the roof, a perfectly cut rectangle in the shape of the package, not from the explosion, but from the fire below.

Ventilation without a saw; what a concept.  This isn’t Bond, Schwarzenegger, Stallone, or Bruce Willis, nor is it a USFA development project for 2017.  This is technology from the middle of the last century; the Jet Axe.  

The Jet-Axe wasn’t just for ventilation; it could be used for forcible entry as well.  Developed using military style explosives, and designed to focus the blast in a narrow area, it came into use primarily in the late 1960s, and out shortly thereafter.  The manufacturer apparently did not account for the explosive contents becoming unstable over time and bouncing about in ladder truck compartments. 

Legend has it that the problem first reared its head in San Francisco when an unsuspecting truck company had a new hole where a compartment door previously resided--a Jet-Axe “operated” while the ladder truck was underway.  Word spread quickly, and most were removed from service promptly.   

For those of an inventive nature, research shows that the trade-mark on the name expired in 2001 (making it available again) and was last owned by Explosive Technology, Inc. in Fairfield, California.  Lots of things in the fire service are cyclical in nature; maybe this will be another... 


Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Firefighter Trampoline

Jumping from a burning building has long been, and remains, the last resort of a desperate victim, usually with less than optimum results.   But on November 10, 1904, two girls jumped from an overcrowded fire escape platform, and this time things were different.  They were caught by New York City firefighters using an unusual circular fabric device, a safety net.  Now more recognized in comedic videos and seen in museums, the Browder Safety Net was at one time a common piece of equipment for ladder companies.  Developed by a Civil War veteran by the name of Thomas F. Browder in 1887; he continued to evolve and improve the design, adding additional patents in 1900. 

There were other successes, including one in 1901 in New York City in which twenty people reportedly leaped to safety.  Failures, though, were common as well.  In Newark in 1910, four women jumped simultaneously from an upper floor of a factory and tore through the net.  Although two deployed nets saved a few, a similar situation occurred at the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire and many more jumpers were missed. Additional stories on other fires abound of individual victims who jumped, but missed the net or hit the edge, sometimes injuring firefighters. 

Ladder trucks carried the net folded and typically mounted vertically on the side of the apparatus.  It could be deployed in seconds, but required at least ten or more firefighters holding it at shoulder height, in the right place and time.  With the fabric center and springs connecting it to the circular frame, it was a portable man held version of the circus trampoline, but with less bounce.

The ideal way in which to jump was with the legs straight out in a seated-like position, and arms crossed in front of the torso with the objective being to land on the small of the back or buttocks.  While a firefighter could easily be taught this during a routine training session, a victim at a fourth floor window with smoke pouring from around them or flames nipping at their heels would not be a receptive student.  The firefighters on the ground would catch them, or try to, in any orientation in which they jumped. 

As time passed and the length of aerial ladders increased, the need for the Browder net decreased.  Concerns over its safety and effectiveness grew and in the 1950s departments began to phase out their use.  These nets are now little more than a curiosity, displayed in museums, fire stations, and at least one firefighter’s home bar.  If keeping a fire scene from being a “circus” is a good thing, no longer bringing our own trampoline probably helps.    

Friday, July 5, 2013

From Triumph to Tragedy: The Legendary Phelim O’Toole

An otherwise ordinary evening was followed by tragedy and heroism in the early morning hours of April 11, 1877.  The elegant Italianate style six story Southern Hotel, almost a football field in length faced Walnut St. in downtown St. Louis.  At about twenty minutes after one in the morning, a fire was discovered in the basement.  Notification of the fire department was delayed by upwards of ten minutes due to a lost key to the fire alarm box, allowing the fire to spread to the upper floors via vertical shafts. 

The first alarm brought six engine and two truck companies for the fire which ultimately would go to three alarms and requirel the response of every piece of apparatus in the city.  The first arriving ladder company, a “Skinner Escape Truck,” was led by Foreman Phelim O’Toole.  O’Toole was an Irish immigrant who was hired by the St. Louis Fire Department at the age of 18, about ten years before that night. 

Upon arrival, O’Toole noted fire on the upper floors and almost a dozen occupants yelling from windows.  Positioning the truck was difficult due to obstructions, but when in the best position possible, they extended the ladder and O’Toole began to climb.  Fully extended, Phelim found himself five feet short of the 6th floor window sill. 

Accounts vary some, but by most, O’Toole had the occupants tie bed sheets together as a rope, securing their end to a bedframe, and then lower the other end from the window.  He swung out on a rope from the ladder tip to the dangling bed sheets, and climbed to the upper window sill, and began to lower the victims to firefighters on the waiting ladder.  Moving from window to window, he is credited with saving over a dozen people.  Conditions continued to deteriorate, but the last reachable victim was removed just before the building collapsed, taking twenty one remaining occupants with it. 
It was following the Southern Hotel fire that the Pompier Corps of the St. Louis Fire Department was developed. Pompier Corps
O’Toole received a $500 award from the city, which he donated to assist orphans. This was a sizable sum when compared to his monthly salary of $75.00. 

The Southern Hotel was not O’Toole’s last experience at the end of a rope.  A serious fire erupted in the dome of the County Courthouse.  Phelim climbed the dome with an axe, rope, and hoseline.  After chopping through the roof, he tied off the rope and entered through the hole.  Dangling from the rope, he attacked the fire with the handline. 
Shortly after, on July 6, 1880, O’Toole died in the line of duty.  It was not another dramatic scene, but a “routine” cellar fire in a vacant house.  He entered the building with a hand held extinguisher, and when he began to operate it, the casing exploded, pieces tearing into his chest, fatally injuring him at 32 years of age.
His funeral service was as big as his reputation with an estimated 20,000 people attending.  Gone but not forgotten, the St. Louis Fire Department continues to honor his memory, christening the marine unit fire boat the “Phelim O’Toole” in 1994. 

Friday, June 28, 2013

Not Sexy but Necessary: Overhaul

There are few jobs on the fire ground less sexy than overhaul.  That said, it is right up there with laddering the building, ventilation, and the like in terms of importance.  Long before I was old enough to wear bunker fear for more than cute pictures, I heard my father, “generation one,” repeat one of his main firefighting philosophical tenets on the subject multiple times:  “There is no such thing as a rekindle.” 

Overhaul can be hard, dirty, nasty work.  It’s a time when many tired firefighters get injured.  On heavily damaged structures it can be highly challenging.  One bad habit some departments get into is substituting the use of Class A foam for good overhaul practices.  “Just soak the hell out of it.  The foam will take care of it,” is something I’ve heard more than once.  Sorry, but there is no substitute for good overhaul—period. This is not a “how to” piece, just a suggestion to refocus on an important ingredient in the recipe. 
It can present a great learning opportunity for inexperienced firefighters.  They can learn about fire behavior, travel, construction types, cause and origin, and myriad other topics.  Nothing says that the officer supervising them has to remain silent.  He or she can talk about all these things while the crew works, using things they find as examples.  We have great tools today, unavailable years ago, such as thermal imaging cameras, but even this can be a crutch for proper overhaul if you let it. 
The building is in the basement and not safe or accessible?  Don’t just go home and wait for the neighbors to call in the “rekindle.”  Leave a single company or make arrangements to send one out at a set time to take care of the anticipated flare-ups.  You may need to do either or both for days, depending upon the building. 
Whatever the fire situation, don’t just call it out and go home because everybody is tired.  There’s no such thing as a rekindle—only the fire that didn’t get put out the first time. 

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Top Hats to Tupperware: Fire Helmet History

At the tender age of three, most youngsters can identify a firefighter.  Even with the myriad colors, shapes, and styles today, the helmet, going back almost 200 years is synonymous with the job.  The first fire helmets, hats really, would hardly be identified as such today.  They resembled top hats, Lincolnesque in style, but with a band or painting to identify the company the individual belonged to more so than to provide protection. 

Jacob or Jacobus Turck is generally credited with this design from around 1740.  This lasted around 100 years until Henry T. Gratacap designed a new helmet constructed of hardened leather sections for protection and a large rear tail to help shed water.  Although changes and improvements have been made, the shape of this original design from around 1836 (dates differ) is the one even children could recognize today. 

Gratacap’s operation continued to grow and in 1869, he sold it to two brothers; Jasper and Henry Cairns, who possessed a last name which is arguably the most well known in the helmet business today.  Cairns brothers continued to evolve the designs and materials, but the leather helmet remained a core component of their business.  In 1937, Cairns introduced an aluminum helmet.  A generation later, in 1962, their vacuum formed polycarbonate helmet line began; and in the “modern” era, Philadelphians, Phoenix, and Metro helmets were among the new style that some saw as a radical change from the classic shape.  But it was radical only at first glance as even these helmets retained the short front brim and longer rear tail.  Helmet types and styles have developed fans and detectors over the years.  Leather helmet devotees sometimes disparage the plastic models as “Tupperware.”
Aluminum Helmet
Cairns Metro Helmet

Although safety standards have dramatically changed the interior, the exterior of a leather helmet manufactured today, as well as the classically shaped plastic versions, would no doubt be recognizable by Henry Gratacap or the original Cairns brothers.  In a world where change seems to be the only constant, that the basic design of the fire helmet could remain intact for 177 years is nothing short of amazing. 

Monday, May 27, 2013

Gifford Pinchot and Forest Fires: The Early Battles

Most of the focus on fighting forest fires; the tools, techniques, and tactics, have long been on the West.  The beginnings, though, came from one of our own; a Pennsylvanian.  Gifford Pinchot, who served two terms as Governor, headed the Forest Service in the early 1900s, starting under President McKinley, and through the administration of his friend and supporter, Theodore Roosevelt.  In the early days, Pinchot was a Forester with no forest, as control of the actual Federal land was in the General Land Office.  Finally, in 1905, Roosevelt was able to out maneuver the land barons' both in and outside of Congress, and transfer control of the forests to Pinchot’s agency, the newly named United States Forest Service. 

The danger of fire was one of the ways in which Pinchot convinced a reluctant Congress to fund his corps of green shirted rangers.  The danger was not illusory.  In 1871, the Pestigo fire in Wisconsin burned over a million acres and killed 1,182 people.  In Minnesota in 1894, another tragic fire struck which killed 413 people.  Pinchot knew that fire was necessary and in some cases beneficial to forests and understood that nature could never be completely controlled.  His fire control efforts started a debate which continues to this day as to where to draw that line. 
The rangers on the front lines were highly motivated by poorly paid; a miserable salary even for the day of $900 per year.  Pinchot’s directions to them on fighting fires were simple.  As he told the New York Times, “the one secret to fighting fires is to discover your fire as soon as possible and fight it as hard as you can and refuse to leave it until the last ember is dead.”  The Forest Service had some successes in their first two summers as only one tenth of one percent (0.1%) of Forest Service land burned each year.  There were bad years as well, however. 
One of the assistant rangers hired in the Bitterroot area was Ed Pulaski.   He was older than most of the Yale Forestry program graduates initially hired by Pinchot, but a skilled outdoorsman.  The man himself, who died in 1931, is little known, but his name lives on as the inventor of the tool still in use today—the Pulaski tool. 

Successors to Pinchot such as Bill Greeley took his concerns and tactics on fire and elevated them in priority increasing the Forest Service role in prevention and suppression efforts.  The debate continues over the proper level of these, but forgotten by many is that man with who it began, Pennsylvanian Gifford Pinchot. 

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Old School Trench Rescue

Back in the late 1970s, the wonderful world of trench rescue training with its shoring work and special equipment was in its infancy.  In my area, it hadn’t even yet been conceived.  Hell, Johnny and Roy were the cutting edge of fire rescue as far as we were concerned.   

We were dispatched for a man injured in an excavation behind the local junior high school.  When we arrived in the old Chevy Suburban ambulance, we found a male laying at the bottom of about a six foot deep trench.  Part of the wall had come in on him and he complained of hip/pelvis pain. 
Not knowing any better, we jumped right in with him and started to clear some of the dirt away by hand and with some shovels that the other workers had.  We were smart enough to request fire department assistance, and the arriving engine company, no smarter than us, helped with an attic ladder for access and more hand tools.  It was like being an archeologist, as the land where they were digging was an old landfill, and we were working on a couple of layers of antique trash. 
Once we had the dirt off him, the real fun started.  We had to get him immobilized to lift from the trench.  We had nothing to work with but the basics we carried on the ambulance; no stokes basket, and certainly no modern strap system.  We had a full backboard and cravats.  For the uninitiated, i.e. younger than 45 years of age, cravats are folded triangular bandages.  Part of the EMT curriculum at the time was to be able to completely immobilize a victim to a long board so that when the board was stood up vertically, the victim did not move using nothing more than these big handkerchiefs.  It was something we practiced for hours at a time.  Now we had to do it for real. 
As you can imagine, it’s not a speedy method, but we got to work, square knot after square knot.  Finally done, it was the moment of truth.  We stood the backboard up with the ladder behind it to slide him up.  He didn’t move a bit.  With the assistance of the engine company, up the ladder he went and onto terra firma for transport. 
Luckily nothing bad had happened—to any of us.  The walls of this trench, made up of landfill material, were far from stable, but we were protected in our ignorance.   The old days were not always better…

Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Professional Voluneer

In a recent speech, President Obama paid homage to the firefighters in West, Texas who lost their lives in the explosion and fire at a fertilizer plant.  In doing so, he actually insulted a large percentage of volunteer firefighters; out of ignorance, one hopes, and not purposely.   The assignment of the term “professional” to career firefighters and departments has always struck a sore spot with me.  The President’s remarks compounded this feeling.  It is good to know I’m not the only one.  The National Volunteer Fire Council sent a letter to the President on April 30th protesting these remarks. 

A simple check of the dictionary points out the fallacy of the common usage.  One of the definitions is “a person who is expert at his or her work.”  Another references “a vocation requiring knowledge of…learning or science.”  Nowhere in these admittedly selective definitions is there a mention of financial compensation. 
Professionalism isn’t about pay, it’s about attitude.  It’s about your approach to a job.  There are volunteers who join departments for all the wrong reasons and there are career personnel for whom the job is nothing but a paycheck.  However, there are many truly professional firefighters, officers, and chiefs in the volunteer ranks which should be recognized as such. 

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Old School Rescue: A History Lesson

Back just a couple of years in firefighter time, in 1877, following a tragic fatal fire at the Southern Hotel, the St. Louis Fire Department established the first Pompier Corps.   Christopher Hoell, a German immigrant, and Zero Marx lead the unit and taught climbing and rescue skills to other departments across the country. 

They used specially developed scaling ladders, a belt with a large hook, which modern (hopefully) descendants of remain in service in many departments to this day, and ropes.  These ladders were not simple to use, but provided access to buildings blocked by wires or trees, and to elevations above that which could be reached by aerial ladders.  Multiple pompier ladders could be used, which with rope, provided a way to get hose lines to upper floors. 

The top of the ladder, with its iron catch, would be hooked over a window sill, and the firefighter would climb the narrow rungs to the window.  He would stand on the sill and pull the ladder up and raise it to the next window and repeat the process. 
This required considerable dexterity, strength, balanced, and a large dose of intestinal fortitude, to use polite terminology.  These ladders remained a presence on at least some ladder trucks for almost a century and hang in many fire houses today as a reminder of a storied past.