Know Your Enemy #38

When a person writes in our field, he or she assumes an air of infallibility and wisdom," this aint necessarily so." I cannot speak for others but I must confess to several really dumb actions which I hope none of you will emulate. Below is a compilation of

The Burning Barrels

As commander of the Seagoing Mobile Unit of the Norfolk Navy Base FD in 1946 I was running a fire in a freighter which the Coast Guard had escorted into the harbor and anchored. Then it was ours.

Among other things there were many drums of calcium carbide broken open and the wet carbide was generating acetylene gas which was burning.

Fire Lt "Fuzzy Fulgham and I exchanged looks and said "lets go" We picked up the first burning drum ,put it on a greased plank and pushed it up from the 'tween decks"( a half deck immediately below the weather deck) the weather deck where others pushed it over the side.

Some of the drums exploded mildly and the Coast Guard had fun sinking then with machine gun fire.

I had not the vaguest idea of what would happen when we moved that drum

Home On Leave

While still a Naval Officer, I was home on leave from Panama in NYC visiting at 65 Engine in midtown Manhattan. After I left the house and went to the corner, the gong sounded which notified the traffic cop that the company was rolling.

I ran back to the house as the pumper was crossing the sidewalk and I jumped for the back step of the hose wagon. The chauffer did not know I was running down the street hanging on.

Fortunately there was a firefighter on the back step who helped me up or I would have been seriously injured if not killed when I let go

Peer Pressure

In Panama, I commanded The Navy Firefighting School, whose staff was also the Seagoing Mobile Firefighting Unit. We received orders to secure or "make safe" a Navy Liberty Ship converted to a sort of a tanker, which was leaking gasoline like a sieve. Navy Lt Jim Allen (Lt of Truck 6 FDNY, later a DC) was the District Ship Inspector and came along for the ride with the understanding that though he was senior, it was my operation.

I was putting on a SCBA to go down into the pump room when Jim with the typical FDNY bravado of the time, said, "What do you need THAT for?!"

Foolishly I dropped it and we went into the pump room where gasoline was dripping from the overhead into a pool below the floor grates. I had our entire stock of powder foam (20 cans) to blanker the pool, I had my crew dump a half bucket at a time into the hopper to economically blanket the pool with just 2 cans.

We could have died heroically down there but the Good Lord is said to look after drunks and idiots.

The Flaming Mattress

I had the unique opportunity to visit The Bureau of Standards (now NIST) when they were doing tests for the Veterans Administration to develop a new mattress which would not ignite from a cigarette.

They had a mattress on a short cart, too big to fit into the hood, it was smoldering and smoking up the lab. It was decided to roll the cart into the elevator, take it down to the first floor and get it outside.

Being the typical action orientated fireman, I helped with the relocation. It could have blazed up in the elevator and killed us "dedicated Scientists"

The Bus That Wouldn't Back Up

The Norfolk Firefighting School was called to assist on a serious fire in the Norfolk Naval Shipyard, which is actually located in Portsmouth Va. (This clever stratagem fooled the enemy completely, as evidenced by the fact that the shipyard was never bombed) I was an Officer Instructor. The CO, Commander Ed Gaughan(later Deputy Chief of the Boston FD) put me in charge of a group of firefighters "responding" in our antique bus which could not reverse. We got to the Elizabeth River ferry. The deckhand demanded tickets. After an argument he reluctantly let us on.

The great column of smoke from the fire was clearly visible, but no matter, we waited for the scheduled departure. I heard sirens and saw the rest of the firefighters going the other way, to the Berkeley Bridge. We were "running wrong"; the fire was in the Berkeley annex. of the Naval Shipyard I had to ask the same deckhand to get the cars behind us off the ferry. The tide was low so we had to push the bus UP the ramp, to the jeers of the bystanders. Despite this we made a good stop on our assigned section of the fire.

Here are some dumb things I want you to avoid

In the horse drawn days, drivers often were in trouble for driving recklessly so it appears to be an established evil. Unfortunately it was not acceptable then and shouldn't be tolerated today. Recently a female cadet firefighter died when a tanker overturned. The driver is charged with DWI.

What a terrible indictment of that department. I know the situation is not unique. Nobody is more arrogant than the drunk who insists on driving because he "can handle it"

If the officers of your department condone drinking and responding, much less driving, see if there are other members who agree with you and organize to impress the management with the seriousness of the situation If this fails, get out.

When a catastrophe occurs, plaintiffs lawyers will seek to sue everybody they can possibly name. You and your family's financial security is in jeopardy. "Imagine answering this question in court "You said you tried to change the situation but nothing happened. 'What further steps did you take?"

Time Limits

It is an error to accept any fixed time estimate as to how long you can stay in a building on fire. I have seen 20 minutes quoted, apparently meaning 20 minutes since you arrived. The fire attack on the structure may have started many minutes before and you have no way of knowing. Use your thermal imager(The Firefighters Radar) If a wood truss structure shows fire in the truss, no entry You cannot rely on any experience or test to KNOW when the structure will fail.

"Good Experience" is simply good luck."

Flat Roofs

Do not ignore a tip from Tom Brennan, If on a flat roof without parapet walls, and smoke kills your visibility, you crawl. Do not walk upright, otherwise you might walk right off the roof.

Bells and Smells

It is dumb to assume that an alarm from a particular building is a false or accidental alarm because there have been many such alarms. I was monitoring the local fire department that was dispatched to a hotel in a major city in which a fire conference was being held. When I heard an alarm for the hotel, the response was lackadaisical, to say the least. They were surprised to find that two rooms were off on an upper floor. Button up, mask not slung over your shoulder, but in place, PASS alarm activated, communication checked with the incident commander. Every alarm is the real thing till you determine otherwise.

Building Alterations

It is dumb to fail to keep your eyes open as you get around your area. A pile of lumber laying for many days alongside a 6 story fire resistive motel building illegally.

A supply room was built in the space at the top of the stairway. The support for the floor was a ledger beam on all four sides wedged into place. There was a fire in the supply room. The sole desk clerk on duty refused to call the fire department when notified because he had been the victim of a prank a few days earlier. The fire was reported from outside the building.'

The attack was made up the stairway. Fortunately the fire was suppressed before the wedged beams burned enough to fail. If the firefighters had asked the logical question, "What is a pile of lumber doing at a fire resistive building? " the illegal dangerous construction would have bee discovered and ordered removed. In the meantime tactics could have been adjusted to provide for a line up the aerial to the top floor for a fire in the storage room.

THE BUILDING IS YOUR ENEMY Know your enemy

In October Firehouse p 30 read Chief Bill Goldfeder's "Close Calls' column, not because he says nice things about me and urges his readers to read BCFS3, but it sets forth a hazard I had never thought of. The overhead garage door mechanism fell during a fire, barely missing the firefighters.

Some place too much confidence in the helmet. If a sufficient load hits the helmet the front piece will become your belt buckle. Incidentally do not fail to strap your helmet. I have seen a number of accounts of building material dislodging the helmet and further loads of stuff hitting the unprotected skull.

The following items are available without cost by reply email by request to Fbrannigan@comcast.net

  • Disaster on Broadway What do you do when the IC issues incredible orders?
  • Bells the story of the very efficient FDNY bell code
  • The Organization of the Fire Bell Club of NY of which I am the last Founding Member
  • The unrecognized stories of two major loss of life fires

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