The Fire Service needs more people like Chief Bresnan and less than you know who...
Don't Throw Out Your Skinny Ties
By Bobby Halton
Being firefighters, most of us wore one uniform or another for our entire lives; consequently, most of us have a very limited fashion sense. Many of us rely on our family and friends to dress us so that we don't go out with white socks and blue Dockers or wear white after Labor Day. We would all admit to having gone out in public in outfits that have made golfers blush after we dressed ourselves or when our wives were away. Anyway, the one piece of fashion advice that is useful for firefighters came to me from my dad when he told me, "Son, don't throw out your skinny ties."
What that little fashion tidbit relates to is the fact that a man's tie can do one of two things: get wider or get skinnier and that, from time to time, those who run the fashion world decide that skinny ties are in or that fat ties are in and that as long as you don't throw out either one, you can always be in fashion. From a tactical perspective, we should never throw out tactics or equipment related to those tactics just because someone has found a new tool or a "better," "faster," more effective tool--case in point, the cellar nozzle.
The fire service has been intimately aware of the changing fuel loads in our fires since the 1950s. These changing fuel loads have had a dramatic effect on how we fight fire. We are acutely aware of the dangerous dynamic nature of today's fires these elevated heat release rates have created. We have been intensely examining our approaches to different situations with regard to fire behavior, the effects of ventilation, and hose streams in various settings to include row houses, high-rises, old-law and new-law tenements, and residential structures, but in no area have we reassessed our tactics as dramatically as in the way we approach basement fires.
As our approach to tactics has been affected by our current fuel loads and building styles, it has also been affected by our advances in personal protective clothing, self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), and communication capabilities. Recent studies on basement fires are demonstrating that cellar nozzles and "Bresnan distributors" can be extremely valuable tools for addressing below-grade basement fires.
The Bresnan distributor was an inspiration from another generation where the issue was not increased heat release rates but toxic gases' replacing normal atmospheres in below-grade fires; firefighters were lost when they descended into these subterrain fires. Prior to the 1980s, when SCBA use became widespread, firefighters for centuries had faced working in environments where they routinely inhaled contaminated air and deadly gases. Recognizing the danger a cellar fire posed for firefighters and property, a Fire Department of New York (FDNY) battalion chief and inventor created the Bresnan distributor.
Battalion Chief John J. Bresnan served in the FDNY in the 1800s. He was born in Ireland and immigrated to the United States as a child. During the Civil War, he was a drummer with the 69th Regiment; before the war, he was a volunteer firefighter with Fulton Engine Company No. 21. He was appointed a member of the FDNY on October 20, 1865. He was an inventor, and among his many inventions were the Bresnan distributor; the hose roller; and a harness for the horses referred to as the "swinging harness," designed to facilitate faster response times in those days.
Chief Bresnan was the head of the Sixth Battalion when he was killed in the collapse of a roof-mounted water tank while fighting a fire on West 23rd Street. He had just returned from another fire on 11th Street when he responded to this one, still in all his gear and unwashed. On arrival, he struck a second alarm, and after the axmen had cut their way into the building, in true fire service tradition, he led the troops up the stairs into heavy smoke-charged conditions. He was directing hosemen when the fourth-floor supports failed and the water tank fell in. Killed with the chief was Assistant Foreman John L. Rooney, a recipient of the FDNY's James Gordon Bennett Medal for distinguished bravery, who saved the life of a young girl he had coaxed into jumping into his arms to save her from a fire as he stood atop a ladder.
According to the accounts of their deaths, neither man died instantly; both died from suffocation caused by the debris that had fallen on them. It was said of Chief Bresnan, "No braver, abler, or more conscientious man than John J. Bresnan ever drew a paycheck in the service of the city of New York." It was noted that Chief Bresnan's entire career record was "unsullied" by any official complaint of any character. The chief left behind three young children; his wife had passed away nine years earlier. He also began a legacy of FDNY heroes that included his son, grandsons, and three great grandsons.
Chief Bresnan was passionate about making improvements to the fire service and enhancing safety for the citizens. He was able to recognize hazards and devise tactical options and tools to address those hazards. Sadly, many have put their Bresnan distributors on shelves or in display cases. Where is your Detroit door opener, an excellent forcible entry tool? Take a look at the old Macks from the 1950s; they were built to flow water with mounted hard-piped water guns on all four corners. Where are your piercing nozzles, cellar pipes? We may not have a lot of use for the swinging harness, but the Bresnan distributor developed six score and 12 years ago is still a valuable and an effective tool.