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.