Saving Money Vs. Saving Lives

Whatever the politicians want to call it, our worst fears about this "recession" seem to be coming true as we hear of more jurisdictions putting pressure on their fire chiefs to save money by reducing the staffing of fire companies. The budget cutters refuse to acknowledge that lives are at risk when you operate under-staffed companies and it causes me to think back to a near disaster that occurred 67 years ago, but offers a lesson for today.

It was a cold Thanksgiving morning in 1941 and the kitchen of our apartment on Chicago's far north side was filled with the fragrant smells of a traditional turkey dinner being prepared. We lived on one of the next-to-last streets in the city, which meant that all fire companies had to come from the south to reach our area and there was a long wait for additional help after the first-due engine and truck arrived. Fortunately, they didn't have many working fires in Rogers Park back then, but I was a 13-year-old "fan" and chased after every siren I could hear. So it was normal for me to grab my coat and head out the back door when I heard Engine 102 and Truck 25 approaching our neighborhood.

I cut through the alley to Jonquil Terrace and came upon a frightening sight. At the corner of Ashland Avenue, thick black smoke was churning from the second- and third-floor windows of a three-story brick apartment-hotel, about a half-block long and a quarter-block wide. Flames and more smoke were shooting from the roof and I could see a dozen people leaning out of the windows, frantically shouting and waving their arms to attract attention.

Engine 102 (a 1922 Seagrave) took a hydrant on the corner while Truck 25 pulled up on the Jonquil Terrace side of the building. Their rig was a 1919 "Bulldog Mack" tractor pulling a 75-foot wooden aerial ladder that had been rebuilt by the CFD shops. The tillerman lifted his seat, steering wheel and windshield to the side and that old aerial ladder shot straight up like it was rocket propelled. Two firefighters cranked the turntable wheel and aimed the tip of the ladder toward a third-floor window, where a woman was clutching two fur coats as she screamed for help. Another fireman climbed the aerial as it extended to the window; he wrestled the woman onto the ladder and one of the coats fell to the street (for a horrible second I thought the woman had fallen). Two other firefighters raised a 35-foot ladder to the second floor, where an elderly man was straddling the window sill. Panic stricken, he ignored the rungs and slid to the street with his hands and knees hugging the side of the ladder.

By now a chorus of sirens grew louder as the full box alarm responded, bringing a total of four engines, two trucks and one rescue squad from distances of two to four miles. Engine 70 (a rebuilt 1923 Ahrens Fox) was second-due engine and joined the rescue effort with Truck 47 (a 1928 Seagrave), which raised its 85-foot aerial on the Ashland side of the building, where more people were trapped. On Jonquil Terrace, a crew of six firefighters raised a 50-foot Bangor ladder to reach several people in a window the aerial couldn't access. A fire box stood in front of Gale School, directly across the street from the burning hotel, and a chief's aide used a telegraph key inside the box to transmit the 2-11 (second alarm). It brought another four engines, two more ladder trucks, a second squad, a high-pressure wagon, a light unit and the Fire Insurance Patrol. These engines and trucks had four- and five-mile runs, but all of the rescues had been completed by the time the 2-11 companies arrived on the scene and they went to work fighting the fire.

The Chicago Fire Department didn't have air masks in those days and soon semi-conscious firefighters were being carried from the building after being overcome by smoke. They were given oxygen and some returned to duty while others were loaded into police paddy wagons and taken to nearby hospitals. The fire was "struck out" (under control) in about an hour after destroying the roof, the entire third floor and causing extensive damage throughout the building. But approximately 30 occupants had escaped safely and only a few suffered minor injuries or smoke inhalation. No one died because the firefighters of Chicago's 27th Battalion had the skill, the guts and the manpower to do a heroic job.

I wonder if many fire departments could make those rescues today. Back in 1941, the CFD had five or six firefighters on every engine and six or seven on the truck companies. That's how they were able to get the ladders up and get the people out. What good are our massive modern apparatus and all of our high-tech equipment if we don't have enough firefighters to do the job? According to the recent NIOSH report on the 2007 Sofa Super Store fire in Charleston, SC, that killed nine firefighters, under-staffed fire companies were a factor in what went wrong. In contrast, properly staffed companies are what went right 67 years ago at the Jonquil Hotel fire.

HAL BRUNO, a Firehouse® contributing editor, retired as political director for ABC News in Washington and served almost 40 years as a volunteer firefighter. He is a director of the Chevy Chase, MD, Fire Department and recently retired as chairman of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.