Chief Concerns: Ordinary Heroes

When a person chooses firefighting as a career or raises a hand to volunteer as a firefighter, he or she leaves the ranks of ordinary people.


It was early December, not winter yet, but a crisp chill was in the air. The night shift for the “B” platoon at Engine 51, Ladder 29 and Battalion 2 had started at 6 P.M. There was equipment to check on the truck and a menu to plan for the evening meal. That night would bring numerous calls, but...


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With the victim removed, there was now a new problem. Hutchison couldn’t get out the way he had gotten into the building. With his personal protective equipment and self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) on, he couldn’t fit through the window without diving headfirst onto the ladder. Instead, Hutchison remained in the kitchen, through the heavy smoke and extreme heat of the fire. As Engine 51 moved their hoseline through the first floor, Hutchison tucked his large frame into a corner of the kitchen, hoping that the engine crew would win the race between water and fire. They did, moving quickly to knock down the flames in the enclosed porch and living room. As they moved into the dining room, Hutchison exited past them to the front of the dwelling.

For their actions, Engine 51, Ladder 29 and Battalion 2 were presented with unit citations honoring their teamwork and actions at the department’s annual Awards Day Ceremony in the spring of 1999. Firefighter William Hutchison was further honored with a Merit Award, the department’s second-highest decoration for bravery, for his rescue efforts at the job.

During Fire Prevention Week 1999, Hutchison was named the “1999 Firefighter of the Year” by the Philadelphia Fire Department Historical Corporation in its annual tribute to firefighters. It was a lovely ceremony with lots of media coverage and a surprise reunion – the elderly woman saved by Bill Hutchison was invited to the ceremony to meet and thank her rescuer. The meeting was heartwarming.

Yet, the Awards Day ceremony in the spring and the “Firefighter of the Year” ceremony in the fall were both tinged by sadness. One of the rescuers was missing. Firefighter Eric Casiano, who was at the top of the ladder to grasp the victim from Hutchison, was killed in the line of duty just six months after the Conlyn Street job. He fell through a floor at another house fire and sustained fatal injuries, a grim reminder of the uncharted dangers of this job.

Someone once said firefighters are ordinary people called to do extraordinary things. I disagree. When a person chooses firefighting as a career or raises a hand to volunteer as a firefighter, he or she leaves the ranks of ordinary people. Firefighters, all firefighters, are extraordinary people who very often do extraordinary things. Be safe.


Bernard D. Dyer, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a deputy chief of the Philadelphia Fire Department in charge of the Fire Prevention Division. He is also the department’s public information officer. Dyer holds a master’s degree in public safety from St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy and has completed the Program for Senior Executives in State and Local Government at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.