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 began to break out all around town. The media delivered picture after picture of the fire devastation which came from the wind-driven fires. I saw pictures of roaring blazes being fought by a minimal numbers of equipment.
The demands of this fire were great, possibly well beyond the capability of the Detroit Fire Department as it exists in 2010. This thought was confirmed by the fact that outside companies were called in the city for the first time in many years. In the wake of these fires, a bit of fingering pointing began. Of course this is to be expected whenever widespread destruction comes about as a result of a large-scale fire.
Accusations were made that cuts in the fire department were to blame for the fire getting out of control. Needless to say, I saw the Mayor of that city tell the world on Fox News that everything was fine and that this was quite simply a natural disaster. Well, the wind might have been natural, but this was not a natural disaster; you know, like floods, and earthquakes. This was a terrible disaster, made worse by the wind and the questionable response by the power company. But there is nothing new about that is there? And perhaps a much smaller Detroit Fire Department.
Let me ask a couple of questions here. You know me folks. I like to stir the pot in pursuit of knowledge. I ask these questions to guide the thinking within the fire service, as it pertained to the manner in which we work to fight these major fires.
1.                  Was there a written mutual aid plan to guide the deployment of specific units from outside communities?
2.                  Were there standard mutual aid response protocols?
3.                  Had the outside fire agencies ever conducted drills with the troops from Detroit?
4.                  Was there a defined Incident Command System in place to guide the control of the operation as it grew in scope and magnitude?
I do not know the answers to these questions. Given the state of fire protection forces in such aging, rust belt communities as Detroit, I can only guess at the level of fire protection versus the level of risk the fire department is being asked to protect. Heck, given the cuts being inflicted on fire departments in major cities across our nation, I can only guess at the gaps which exist between what we need and what is provided. 
The cost of doing business in our cities is one of the great conundrums of this the 21st Century. Let me say a word about another gap which you and I face each day as we scramble to provide fire protection in our communities. It is the gap between what the citizens expect you and me to provide and the amount of money they are willing to spend for us to do this. They want the moon and then give us enough money for a day trip to Newark.
Anyway, enough about now; let me speak about a time long-gone. After viewing destruction caused by this swath of wind-driven devastation in the Motor City, I rose up from my recliner and moved out to my thinking chair on the front porch.  I needed to ponder what I had just witnessed. I wanted to digest the facts within the crucible of history. 
 As the smoke from another one of my favorite cigars wafted out across my front lawn, my mind began to slowly drift back to the old days. The images from Detroit began to intermingle with the images from my days as a member of the Newark, New Jersey Fire Department. Many were the fires that my buddies and I fought in our state's biggest city. Let me lay out the parameters of my historical knowledge, as best I can recall it. 
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.
It was at this point that the parallels with Detroit started to come into my mind-s eye. Our department lost a number of people to retirements who were never replaced. Stations were shuttered and companies taken out of service. Toward the end of my career, our department had dropped to a level of around 700 officers and firefighters. Frankly gang, it just got tougher to get the job done.
My research indicates that Detroit has had to make some serious cuts in the fire department budget. Budget cuts always equal staff cuts. According to local union officials, the department is down at least 200 firefighters. As a result, from eight to ten fire companies are being shut down every day. At the height of the blazes, many local residents stated that they could not get through to the 911 call center to report fires. Other citizens indicated that they had to wait for long periods of time before even a single engine would arrive. 
What was true back in the 1970's is equally true today. It is people who provide the services in their fire departments. The equation is simple: Fewer people is equal to a lesser capability to deliver fire and emergency medical services. In their search to please the bean-counters in city hall, many modern management mavens manage to micromanage their departments into a certain mind-numbing state of submission. 
In the days since I did the initial thinking and writing about Detroit today and my experiences in the days of yesteryear, a number of other major fires occurred across our nation. The first series of incidents was a number of brush fires which occurred on Staten Island in New York City. A review of the media outlets in New York City indicates that one of these rose to a six-alarm commitment of forces, while another rose to the five-alarm level. Added by dry and windy conditions, these fires burned for many hours. 
While this situation was ongoing in New York City, our associates in Colorado were battling yet another major wildfire incident. A 6200-acre blaze destroyed 135 homes near Boulder, Colorado. A combination of ground and air resources battled this incident. It is interesting to note that I saw helicopters doing water drops on the Staten Island fires too. 
As bad as all of these incidents were, the most startling incident was the deadly explosion and fire which destroyed a neighborhood in San Bruno, California and killed four of its citizens. I spent a great deal of time following this disaster on the Internet and on the Fox News network. This was an unexpected incident which few places are prepared to handle and most never expect to occur. 
It should be noted that there were a number of serious problems which firefighters were forced to face as they arrived on location. Thanks to a release form the Secret List, I knew early on that firefighters had lost the use of their municipal water supply system in the blast area. I later read where the first0due Fire Captain indicated that he had a whole neighborhood on fire. As one who had experienced this in the past, I truly felt his pain and frustration.
While studying the media coverage on this incident, I began to uncover bits and pieces of the operation which indicated to me that there was a system in place to handle large-scale incidents and that the system worked. This should be no secret to anyone who has followed the development of the California emergency operations system through the years. 
While listening to the Lt. Governor of California describe the operations over the course of the emergency, I could see it all developing according to the tenets of a proper emergency management system. He spoke of local resources being deployed. These were then followed up by mutual aid from the region, and then a deployment of resources from the statewide system. He spoke of strike forces, water tenders and aerial tankers. As I watched TV I could see the various components of full-scale emergency response deployed around the area where the reporters were filing their stories. 
Let me also suggest that the emergency management system which supports fire operations like this also functioned well. A local declaration of emergency was made early on in the operation. This was quickly followed by a state emergency declaration. A request was made to FEMA for assistance and it was quickly granted by Craig Fugate the FEMA Administrator and his agency. Here we see a successful response to a tragedy.
With regard to this week's spate of abnormally large and devastating incidents, let me suggest that in those cases where a solid emergency response system has been the developed the potential for better outcomes is enhanced. What we did in the old days consisted of a combination of talent, dedication, and love for the fire service. I sincerely believe that our fire service still has an appreciation for those seminal values.
We cannot let the politicians, the media, and the neighborhood naysayers hold sway in our communities. Whether it was then or whether it is now, we need to know how to perform our assigned tasks. We need to provide our communities with a solid assessment of what they can expect from us. We need not set lofty, unattainable goals to please the politicians.
We need to show up and do our jobs. That is what my buddies and I did in Newark decades ago. That is what the folks in Detroit, New York, Colorado, and California did last week. That is what I hope you and your buddies will do tomorrow when the pager sounds or the bells ring. Then as now we stand between our communities and destruction, and we will endeavor to the best we can with the resources we have. It has always been that way. I hope it stays that way.