Know Your Enemy #36

Really Dumb Things I Have Done

When a person writes in our profession, he or she assumes an air of infallibility and wisdom. T'aint necessarily so. I cannot speak for others, but I must confess to several really dumb actions that I hope none of you will emulate.

To Begin.

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) to the weather deck where others pushed it over the side. Some of the drums exploded mildly and the Coast Guard had fun sinking them with machine gun fire.

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


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. I jumped for the back step of the hose wagon. The chauffeur 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 if I had let go.


In Panama, I commanded The Navy Firefighting School whose staff was also the Seagoing Mobile Firefighting Unit. We received orders to secure (make safe) a Navy Liberty Ship converted to a sort of a tanker that was leaking like a sieve.

Navy Lt. Jim Allen (Lt. of Truck 6, FDNY, later in DC) was the District Ship Inspector and came along for the ride with the understanding that it was my operation. I was putting on 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 blanket the pool. (The early liquid foam dissipated too fast to be an effective blanket). I had my crew dump a half-bucket at a time, into the hopper to economically blanket the pool with just two cans.

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


The Bureau of Standards (now NIST) was doing tests for the Veterans Administration to develop mattresses, which would not ignite from a cigarette. I was visiting. They had a mattress on a short cart, too big to fit into the hood. It was smoldering and smoking up the lab. They decided to roll the cart into the elevator and take it down to the first floor to get it outside. I helped push the cart. It might have blazed up in the elevator and killed us "dedicated Scientists".

The Bus That Wouldn't Back Up.

In the following case I was embarrassed but there was no potential for real damage. The lesson learned, be very sure of where you are going before you start off.

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

Driving recklessly to a fire.

In the horse drawn days, drivers often were in trouble for driving recklessly and so it appears to be an established evil. Recently a girl 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. If a catastrophe occurs, plaintiff's 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 attack on the structure may well have started many, many minutes before, and you have no way of knowing. Use your thermal detector (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 as flat roof without parapet walls, and smoke hampering visibility, you crawl, not walk upright. Otherwise you might walk right off the roof.

It is dumb to assume that an alarm from a particular building is a false or accidental alarm just because there have been many such alarms. I was monitoring the local dispatch in a major city in which a fire conference was being held when I head an alarm for that hotel. The response was lackadaisical. 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 IC.

It is dumb to fail to keep your eyes open as you go around your area of coverage. A pile of lumber lay for many days alongside a six-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 of the aerial to the top floor for a fire in the storage room.