Flashbacks and Other Interesting Events: Fire – Then and Now

What an interesting week we have just witnessed in the world of fire in America. First we saw the impact of fire on the City of Detroit, Michigan. A serious windstorm struck that ailing industrial city. The wind downed a large number of wires and fires...


Let me stress from the onset that my experience has its limits. The largest fire I ever personally attended only involved 14 buildings, although there was a close second with the Metropolitan Furniture Company fire in 1975 when fire covered a number of city blocks. When you consider some of the other fires my associates on other shifts fought, my experience pales in comparison.
 
There was the time when a four-alarm fire destroyed a neighborhood of 16 buildings in the fourth battalion area. Then there was the day when a series of wind-blown fires destroyed more than 20 buildings over a several-block area in the third battalion district. None of us who worked in the city can ever forget the time in 1980 when the department battled a series of 15 major fires in a 24-hour period. This included four major multiple alarm fires with a concurrent use of mutual aid. Another wind-drive blaze destroyed 40 buildings.
 
Of course in any city, it is not strictly about structural fires. In a completely different vein, the largest brush fire my buddies and I were ever called to battle was really only about 30 acres out by Port Newark.  This would be considered nothing by our associates around America who battle wild-fires that are measured in scores of square miles. 
 
As I sat mulling the fires which we battled in the old days, and the fires being battled today, I tried to find a message to share with you. Perhaps the most important thing to mention is that we went to work back in those days fully expecting to go to a fire of some kind. More often than not our expectations were met. While we drilled according to the department drill schedule, a great deal of what we came to place in our operational toolkits came about through the old-line mechanism of rote learning.
 
We were taught how to do things. We drilled on doing those things correctly. We then did them over and over again in the real-world laboratory of the streets of Newark. Since it was not unusual to go to a fire and since we were adept at fighting these fires, we really did not lose our cool. We knew what we had to do, we responded, and then we did our job. 
 
Let me remind the younger troops amongst us that these were the days before there was an incident command system. This was a time before command posts, strike teams, and task forces. I do not want you to think we were a hooligan outfit which operated without rhyme nor reason. We had set command procedures and set operational procedures and since we used them so often, we got real good at using them.
 
Now let me share a critical difference with you. Back in the busy, high fire days of the 1970's and early 1980's, our fire department had a fairly consistent staffing level. Most companies had five people assigned per shift and we normally ran with a crew of at least four. Before I came on the job in 1973, there times when staffing ran as high as five to seven members on some of the two piece engine companies. Two-piece company you say; what is that? These were engine-company units which responded with a pumper and a wagon. The pumper took the hydrant and the wagon laid the supply hose in to the fire. Talk about a bit of ancient history. There were a total of ten two-piece companies in Newark when I joined the department.
 
Sometimes we went from fire to fire. We would leave hose at one fire and go to another fire with the hose we had left. At the end of the day (or evening) the special service supply company returned your hose to you are gave you more from the supply stock. Talk about a busy time. I was tough, but we got the job done, and oddly enough, we managed to have a good time doing it. 
 
When I was promoted to Captain in 1977, one of the old-school chiefs gave me a simple piece of advice. Here it is:
 
·                     One building – One alarm
·                     Two buildings – Two alarms
·                     Three buildings – Three alarms. 
 
That worked quite well until we started with the staffing cuts in the 1990's. It was at this point that adjustments had to be made to cover the folks you no longer had riding the apparatus.