Preparing For The Future With Lessons From The Past

Like many of you, the events of the last week caused me to pause and mourn with my brothers on the other side of the country. A tear came to my eye as I read about the incident that tore three brave members of the Coos Bay, Oregon Fire Department from our midst.

As is my way, I reviewed the comments for clues as to what might have occurred. Many of the usual comments were there about how suddenly it all happened, and how danger was present. However, I saw one comment in particular that caught my attention.

As I have often stated, it is not my way to do any form of Monday morning quarter backing, but sometimes people say things that give me pause to stop and ponder. Bear in mind that I work the educational side of the street. I want to learn what went wrong so that it can be shared with those of us who stand ready to respond in our own communities.

Having said all of this, I had to wonder why a couple of the department members would choose to utter the words attributed to them in a article. They were both quoted as stating almost the exact same phrase, "I never thought it would happen here." At first blush, it seems like the right thing to say. However, would you really want to say that you could not envision any situation where a member of your department would die in a fire in your community? I have buried friends, so I know that it can happen.

It seems to me that far too many amongst us labor under the mistaken impression that we are all immune from the grip of death. We operate with an ongoing sense of na?vet?. Just as most citizens will tell you that fire happens to the other person, firefighters will tell you that death and serious injuries happen to others, but not to them. While we may not dwell on the topic, we should acknowledge that the potential always exists.

A similar thought seems to be running through the world of fire training. It seems to me that there are those in the world of training who perceive that they and their sidekicks are immune from the laws of physics and chemistry. During the past year or so, two firefighters were killed in a live fire-training incident in a southern state; subsequently the incident was duly investigated by that state.

After a summary of the investigation report was posted on the Internet, my phone began to ring off of the hook. A number of people quickly called me to tell me that one sentence jumped out at them during their review of the summary. It involved the unanticipated consequences of tossing a foam rubber mattress in the burn equation. I believe someone actually stated in that summary that they did not foresee the negative impact of introducing foam rubber into a burn environment, or words to that effect.

This is not acceptable. Certain facts have been known for many years now. One of these facts involves the prohibition on the use of foam rubber in training fires. Expecting no impact from adding foam rubber to a fire would be somewhat akin to me going into my favorite fast-food restaurant on a daily basis, gorging myself on their tastiest treats, and then wondering why my pants were getting tight. Sorry gang, but I have to set the record straight here. There are certain actions that will always produce predictable reactions.

There is this seeming lack of reality when it comes to thinking about death and serious injuries. Death is something that happens to others, is it not? People get killed in New York, Boston, and Chicago. That stuff just doesn?t happen here in my town. It is one thing to act bravely; it is another to be foolhardy. We all hope that we will have the courage to act when the time comes. However, far too many people venture out to the end of the tree limb on a daily basis, and then begin sawing off the branches while they are sitting on them.

It just so happens that I was talking about this theory of invincibility with a member of the Freehold Township, New Jersey Police Department during my biweekly visit to Joe?s Barbershop in beautiful downtown Freehold. Jerry Ostrander and I were discussing how is it that some people can actually say for certain that something will never happen in their town. They seem to express shock when the outside world invades their safe little haven.

As a member of an extremely active suburban police agency, Jerry has seen a great deal. In order to deal with the nuances of the police officer?s job, he has developed a theory during his more than two decades of police service that explains how strange things happen in Freehold Township. Simply stated, Jerry believes that, " ? all roads lead to my town." Translated into fire talk, if it can happen anywhere, it can happen in your town.

To those who think that bad things cannot happen in their town, I would say quite simply you are very naive. Did the folks in Keokuk ever believe in their worst nightmare that three of their buddies would die in a fire? Ask the old-timers in Hackensack, New Jersey if any of them imagined that five of their buddies would succumb to the ravages of a fire in a car dealership. Think again my friends; who could ever forget the six brothers who died in Worcester?

Who indeed? If history is any guide to this question, we must all understand that people forget just about everything, and they will usually do it very quickly. If this were not the case, why then do we see the same type of fire deaths occurring each year in such a repetitive manner? More to the point, if people really remembered the horror of 9-11-2001, would they stand for any cuts in local fire and police protection? However, people are indulging in the great American propensity to become complacent. No one has attacked us lately therefore all of the problems with fire and EMS delivery must have been solved. In the face of all of this, we must persevere. There is a job to be done and it is up to us to do it.

How can I state with any certainty that people forget things? Personal experience my friends. I have been writing about fire service issues for more than 25 years now. A review of my own writing tells me that I am somewhat cyclic in my coverage of certain events. In September of this year, Firehouse Magazine was kind enough to publish a major article of mine on the issue of live-fire training. This is certainly current and topical, given the Florida and New York State examples of the past year or so. However, as I was doing some research for a paper on organizational development, I came across a couple of interesting articles that I crafted a number of years ago, both of which bear directly on this concept.

In 1994, I wrote an article entitled, "Live Fire Burn Exercises: Avoiding The Mistakes of the Past." Guess what? My review tells me that I covered the same basic theories in each article and they were separated by a period of eight years and eight months. The glowering mistakes that were outlined in 1994 were revisited and amplified in 2002. So what happened folks? Are you all out there growing mushrooms and tending to your flower gardens?

Why do you think that folks like Bill Goldfeder from Ohio and I pour our hearts and souls into our work as educators? Quite simply people like Bill and I have a mission in life. We both want to spread the word that firefighting, while a dangerous undertaking, can be made safer. We both believe that no mandate exists which makes it obligatory for us to periodically sacrifice our people upon the altar of the fire gods. We believe that the key to success in the area of safety involves learning from life, as well as the experiences of others. We also believe that facts learned are facts that must be shared. You cannot hide within a protective shell and express horror and shock when the Fire Daemon of Death pays a visit to your community.

Through the mechanism of his Secret List Bill shares his knowledge and tells it like it really is. When he finds an error out there in the world of firefighting, he tells you about it as soon and as directly as he can. His little secret is now helping nearly 20,000 folks like me to get better at what we do. In my case, I use my website, and the good offices of my friends at and Firehouse Magazine to share some critical insights with you. I may seem bold, and occasionally abrasive, but I have seen death and I do not want to see it again, if at all possible.

In the course of my research, I also uncovered another moldy oldie from the world of written wisdom. In the October 1989 edition of Firehouse Magazine, I wrote a major article entitled, "A Cycle of Disaster," I would urge you to root around in your garage, your attic or your basement to find that copy.

In that article, I listed the same theme that I have been hammering home for quite some time now. "DO WE LEARN FROM PAST FIRE TRAGEDIES?" My answer at that time was quite simple. No, we do not learn! That must be the case, for how else can we explain the loss of 602 lives at Chicago?s Iroquois Theater fire in 1903, or the 492 lost lives at Boston?s Coconut Grove fire in 1942, as well as the 165 lives lost in the Southgate, Kentucky fire known as the Beverly Hills Supper Club tragedy in 1977?

Every one of those fires had problems that stemmed from inadequate exits. I know the fire service has been working hard on the code enforcement front. I guess you could say that things are getting better, because the loss of life has been cut from 602 (1903) to 165 (1977) in the space of 74 years. Now let?s be honest. How many of you under the age of 50 could identify any of the fires I just mentioned? Moreover, if you could, were you able to identify the magnitude of the incident and the problem with exits. I think not.

Let me be more direct. How many of you were even in the fire service in 1978, or 1988? Can you tell me what happened at the supermarket fire in New York City, where six firefighters died? Are you able to identify the fire in a New Jersey city where five firefighters died in a car dealership? It is tough for me to forget. When I go walking in a local development, there is a park bench with a memorial plaque on it honoring one of those five brave men.

If you are young and can identify these issues, you are the product of an excellent training network. If you cannot tell me what happened, you have some serious gaps in your knowledge base that can be fatal. As retired New York City Deputy Fire Chief Vincent Dunn has stated in his excellent text Safety and Survival on The Fireground, " ? There are no new causes of firefighter death and injury; the only new factors are the firefighters."

We agree on this. History is fixed, but people are variable. I doubt that anyone who was at the Waldbaum?s fire in New York back in 1978 ever forgot the lessons about working on a truss roof. However, given the situations that have occurred over the past couple of years in various parts of the United States, there are one hell of a lot of people that still want to dance with death by going up onto the roof of a structure with a truss roof, or a light-weight roof of the pan decking variety.

Both of these are actions that you must never condone. However, I am willing to wager the ranch that a great many people out there across America reading these words right now have no idea what I am talking about. Somewhere, somehow, someone has failed to pass on the lessons of the past. Heaven knows that I am trying, but I am only one person. Many people must step forward and share the lessons of the past with the new people amongst us.

Keeping in line with this, one of the term assignments in my college course on Firefighting Strategy and Tactics is designed to deal with history. Each student is required to review the magazines in our college?s fire library and select a fire that is more than twenty years old. They are required to prepare a written report that discusses the lessons learned from the incident and, if possible, show how they would handle that fire using today?s knowledge and technology.

More of you need to do this. More of us must keep history?s lessons alive, so that our personnel have a greater chance of staying alive. Unfortunately, many among you do not have libraries that will allow you to do this. For some strange reason, there are a lot of fire departments that refuse to create libraries that can help to train their troops. If they do subscribe to the professional journals, the knowledge is kept in fire headquarters and doled out with an eyedropper.

This is pure nonsense. Every fire station should have a basic library of books to help personnel prepare themselves for the future. Sufficient copies of trade journals should be obtained so that they are available for one and all. I am most insistent about this thought, for you see, I spent 26 years in a fire department that had a locked library and kept all publications for only a few on the upper level staff. If a magazine trickled into a fire station, it was only by accident. Many of us subscribed to the trade publications ourselves.

My personal library of fire service magazines and trade journals has volumes that in some instances date back to the 1930?s. I have an almost intact set of each of the major fire magazines for 1970?s, 1980?s, 1990?s, and 2000?s. My Fire Engineering set dates back to the 1930?s and I have all five editions of the Fire Chief?s Handbook, as well as both editions of the classic text, Fire Service Hydraulics.

Please remember that my library is an extreme example of what you can do if you never throw anything away. Since I have a lot of history on my shelves, I intend to begin writing about historical incidents on a periodic basis. Issues that faced the Natchez, Mississippi Fire Department as they fought the Rhythm Club Fire back in 1940 may well have been replicated at Happyland Social Club Fire that the Fire Department City of New York faced in 1989. Nevertheless, how will any of us know if no one takes the time to look? I hope to be that person.

However, the truth regarding human memory is simple indeed. Time heals all wounds, and people forget. That is just the way things are, unless someone takes a positive action to change it. I intend to begin weaving a tapestry for the future to help us all think more about the past. I intend to periodically revisit the tragic blazes from the past. I will point out the lessons that are there to be learned. For me, the fires I will discuss are events that may have happened during my time in the field. In some cases, they will date from the days before Frank Brannigan. He and I have lived through many of the emotions that washed over the fire service when these tragedies occurred.

Various sections in my IFSTA Firefighting Strategy and Tactics text are based upon events that I personally encountered or that I studied in the media at the time when they occurred. I have worked to share my knowledge so that the readers of that work will be better prepared for the hazards they will be called upon to face. I shall now work to increase my output.

To you younger folks out there, all of these things that I intend to discuss are going to seem like truly prehistoric events, much like dinosaurs, leather hose, and World War II. Relax and enjoy the journey back in time. It will be my task over the next several months and years to periodically bring the lessons to you, my friend, the reader of my words. If I can save one life, it will be well worth the effort.

Just remember gang anything can happen to anyone, anywhere. As my pal, Jerry Ostrander is so fond of saying to his buddies on the police department, " all roads lead to Freehold, New Jersey." Those same roads lead right up to the bay doors on the front of your fire station. You had best be ready.