That Seventies Show

Barry Furey looks back at the firefighting fads, foibles and firsts from the decade that spawned Firehouse Magazine.


It has been said that if you remember the Sixties, you weren’t really there. But, if you remember the Seventies, and are still putting “the wet stuff on the red stuff,†you’ve earned your right to put down your light beer and pick up a cold Harvey Wallbanger while we...


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It has been said that if you remember the Sixties, you weren’t really there. But, if you remember the Seventies, and are still putting “the wet stuff on the red stuff,†you’ve earned your right to put down your light beer and pick up a cold Harvey Wallbanger while we reminisce about the way we were. So, set aside your Atari video game, turn on the lava lamp, set your mood ring on your pet rock and wander back to that golden age.

During the Seventies, we saw a President resign, disco come and go, the Vietnam War end, and man walk on the moon for the last time. Ads for cigarettes disappeared from TV, and the NFL and AFL merged into a single football league. Americans were held hostage in Iran by terrorists, and in Pennsylvania, by Three Mile Island. For the fire service, it was also a decade of innovation, challenges and change.

When summoned to respond to a “disco inferno,†the well-dressed firefighter exchanged his leisure suit for a turnout coat made of Nomex, one of the first fire-retardant fabrics to replace the old standby, cotton duck. Should his department buy its helmets from Cairns, he began the decade with a traditional leather New Yorker atop his head, then potentially migrated to headgear formed from manmade materials, and named after other cities such as Philadelphia and Phoenix. If he were a volunteer, chances are he donned his firefighting attire while atop the hosebed of a moving apparatus, attempting to pick out items that fit from coat and boot rails mounted high on the sides.

Early in the decade, the hose was probably double-jacketed cotton with brass fittings. By the decade’s end, some of it increased in diameter, lost a jacket and had foreign-looking couplings because, well, they were foreign. And, in a few cases, the hosebed was no longer a bed, but a hydraulic or electrically powered reel. Reels were not just for booster lines anymore. If he belonged to a suburban or larger department after 1970, the rig might be quipped with a TeleSqurt, which was introduced that year.

Our volunteer friend was probably notified of all calls by his home alerting receiver, which was often produced by Plectron – a company no longer in business. This was a decided step up from the former methods of firehouse siren or telephone fan-out system, as the location and type of alarm was now immediately known. Unfortunately, unless you had a very long extension cord, as the name suggests, this device proved beneficial only if you were home and the power was on. This was solved by the time 1980 came around by the increasing utilization of tone and voice pagers.

In addition to knowing his own tones, between 1972 and 1977 the firefighter was also familiar with those of Station 51 from the TV show “Emergency!†While the program is no longer produced, the dispatch audio lives on in the form of a “WAV†file that can still be heard on many fire-related websites. The initial call may have been made through the new 911 emergency number, which began to flourish since its meager beginnings in 1968, or occasionally through one of an increasing number of automatic alarms that were beginning to be required by code in high-hazard locations. Overall, our friend and his counterparts responded to more than 3 million incidents per year nationwide.

In 1972, the firefighter and his family could get an inside view of how the Bronx was burning through Dennis Smith’s best-seller, Report from Engine Co. 82, and in 1973 read the sobering information presented by the National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control, through its report entitled America Burning. In 1974, they watched the potential impact of high-rise fires on the big screen courtesy of “The Towering Inferno.†While some comparisons to this movie arose after 9/11, some notable fires of that decade included the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Kentucky, the Social Security Building in Kansas City and high-rise incidents in Sao Paolo, Brazil.

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