Know Your Enemy #40

A veteran fire officer tells a gripping story of a fatal collapse that caused compulsory retirement to be instituted in New York.

My pet story is: A lady stopped at 65 one day and asked if fireman Doe was on duty. "Madam he is not on duty but let me tell you, to the longest day he lives he will never be a FIREMAN. He is simply a member of the uniformed force."


Today the word buff is accepted as the designation of an unpaid enthusiast of a field for which others are paid. There are railroad buffs, airline buffs ski buffs, theater buffs or whatever. The word has been used in England.

At that time, the word buff was confined to aficionados of the New York Fire Department. Boston has Sparks, Chicago has Fire Fans, San Francisco has the Phoenix Society. If you said you were a fire buff you had to explain it and people shook their heads.

New York Volunteer Fire Houses had no sleeping accommodations. "Red hot" members would sleep in, on the floor, rolled up in buffalo robes. When the department went paid in 1865, those civilians who hung around were called buffs.

Gordon Mullins, a well known Bell Club member, brought around a Journal American reporter named Johnnie Weisberger who was a red hot buff and later very active in the Eastern Division of the IAFC. John had a friend; a corpulent sports reporter named Syd Livingston. Syd was not a buff, but he would watch a fire if he fell over it. He took the word buff over to the sports pages and now we have all sorts of buffs.

Could A Similar Disaster Happen Today?

Certainly not in New York, and probably not anywhere in the same way. Too many TV cameras around.

But some Neanderthals are still out there. A ladder company officer in Florida, familiar with the dangerous roof of the fire building, refused to put his people on the roof and was never thereafter assigned to command of the ladder. A former officer of a fire department that lost two firefighters in a truss roof collapse, told me that at a fire he had refused to take his men up on a dangerous roof. The chief said, "you are suspended". Seconds later the roof collapsed. "Forget about the suspension."

Many fatalities have resulted because personnel have not been adequately informed or have not understood potential failures in structures. I was told point blank by a fire chief, "I don't want my guys even hearing you speak. I want them to do what I want done, period"!

This attitude is illustrated by two almost unbelievable cases of fire officers who took state wide promotion exams. In both cases they were failed for indicating fire ground operations which took the safety of fire fighters into consideration. In my "The Building Is Your Enemy " Column on, a fire officer tells of twice telling a captain that a collapse was imminent, and "he just walked away". Shortly thereafter the collapse occurred.

Some of these attitudes will change over time and some will be changed after civil or criminal legal action is taken. The Seattle fire department was assessed a substantial fine by its State Labor Department for safety deficiencies. The retired Safety Officer won a very substantial judgment from the city for the bad treatment he received.

The Montreal Fire Department was found guilty in the death of a firefighter in an abandoned building. The warning to Chief Officers is clear. You may bury the firefighter with an impressive funeral, but your problem may not be buried.

There was no administrative system by which men who observed Assistant Chief X's erratic and dangerous conduct on the fire ground to pass this situation up to the top, and it is not clear that if this was done that there would have been any action.

With shootings by disgruntled employees even in a firehouse seemingly a regular occurrence fire departments should be more aware of the possibility that an officer might cause deaths by his incompetence.

Live Fire Training

Live firefighter training may inadvertently be delivering the wrong message. The training often emphasizes taking the punishment and putting the wet stuff on the red stuff. There is no need to be concerned about collapse or hidden fire in the training building. However, hidden fire and collapse are major hazards to fire fighters despite the fact that they are too dangerous for live training. Classroom lectures and discussions should present these hazards so forcefully that they become equally as important to the fire fighter as hitting the fire.