History – Why Can't We Learn From It

For much of the past decade, I have written about the fact that we cannot seem to learn anything from the past. My usual subjects are in the world of the fire service. I think it is time that we looked outward to see how the rest of the world is doing when it comes to learning from history.

Has the human race learned anything about war? My grandfather fought in World War I, the war to end all wars. My father fought in World War II, the war against fascism and aggression. I served in the military during the Vietnam War, the war against communist aggression. It seems like every couple of years, someone has to start or finish a war against someone. I guess that shows how much the human race has learned about peace.

Let us move to our world, the world of the fire and emergency services. How long has the fire service been preaching and teaching the principles necessary to prevent losses from wildfires? To my way of thinking, this is not a new problem. I can recall watching the movies about the serious brush fires in Southern California during my time as a rookie firefighter in the mid 1960's.

Those films spoke to the danger of living in areas that could not be properly protected. They also spoke to the serious issues involving wooden structures, with wooden roofs. Clear away the brush, and create a wide separation between the homes and the combustibles.

All of these things seemed right then, and they still seem right today. However, we are human beings living in a free society, and we somehow think that no one has the right to tell us what to do. Therefore, we have these periodic reminders of the frailty of us puny human beings who think that we can actually control the forces of nature.

I saw another example this week of the impact that forgetting the past can have upon current operations. Carl Wendt, a Newark Fire Department buddy of long standing sent me an email suggesting that I take a look at a fire story on Firehouse.com. This story involved a fire in a haunted house in Texas. Fires in haunted houses mean a great deal to me.

My review of the website led to the story which described a fire that the Midlothian, Texas Fire Department faced back on October 4. Midlothian fire crews were sent to investigate a report of smoke in a structure. The story spoke of an abandoned building being used as a haunted house. For heavens sake, what type of a moron allowed people to go into an abandoned building fitted out as a haunted house?

How could this be? Did we not make our case for prohibiting such rickety structures back in the middle 1980's? Has everyone forgotten about the New Jersey haunted house fire back in 1984? What sort of life safety and protective measures could possibly have been in place in an abandoned building? A review of the photos in that article showed evidence of a structure that appeared to be well past its prime. How could any thinking fire department, building, or code enforcement official, or politician allow such a thing to occur?

My personal reaction was immediate. I suffered an instantaneous historical flashback. The years disappeared quickly as my mind raced back to a certain day in May of 1984. That was the Friday evening when eight young people died in the Haunted House Fire Tragedy at the Great Adventure Amusement Park in Jackson Township, New Jersey.

That fire has a strong personal significance for me. I am the only living member of the Adelphia Fire Company that attended that incident. I rode as a member of the crew for a mutual aid tanker response to that tragic incident. There were only two of us on that rig, and the driver, Harold Patterson, passed away a number of years ago.

I can still recall the ripples of shock that passed through the response teams that night as word of the fatalities reached us. First there was the thought that maybe one person had died, and then it began to grow worse. As the night wore on the number kept rising. How could this happen? Many in the crowd spoke of how they themselves had only just recently passed through the haunted house.

This incident was a watershed event for the fire service. A review of my files indicates that New Jersey passed their fire prevention code in the wake of this tragedy. This fire prevention code dovetailed neatly with our state's Uniform Construction Code that was created in 1977.

There were a great many incidences of communities uncovering and closing illegal, haunted-house occupancies. This was a nationwide phenomenon. We will never know how many lives were saved by these concerted efforts. However it would appear that time has not been kind to the concept of fire prevention and life safety efforts in these sorts of jury-rigged occupancies.

Now here we are in the year 2003. We are living in the midst of a new century. Yet what do we see in the archives of Firehouse.com? We see a fire of the type that should have been abolished almost 20 years ago. In May of next year, we will mark the 20th anniversary of that long forgotten tragedy in Jackson Township, New Jersey. Pay attention to these lessons.

Turning to the story that was written and illustrated by Firefighter/Paramedic Todd Jamison, we read that,