HAL BRUNO Hal Bruno, a FirehouseÂ® contributing editor, retired as political director for ABC News in Washington and served almost 40 years as a volunteer firefighter. He is a director of the Chevy Chase, MD, Fire Department and chairman of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation...
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Smith: The most significant fire that I responded to was the Gulf Oil Fire on Aug. 17, 1975. At the time, I was the captain of Engine 49. In fact, it was my first night at Engine 49. I was changing platoons with the transfer, so I was only scheduled to work the last night. The fire itself started around 6 A.M. in a storage tank containing over 3 million gallons of crude oil. The ensuing explosion involved a large area and quickly went to six alarms. During the course of the day, the fire was fought with little change. Around 4 P.M., there was concern of overhead electric wires falling and electrifying ground areas. At this time, Gulf employees shut down the electric to the wires. This act also shut down ground pumps that had been pumping runoff water from the firefighting operations that was accumulating due to it being in a depressed location. What occurred was a buildup of ground water. Since foam was being applied, there was a layer of foam covering the ground water which eventually reached around three feet.
Unbeknownst to anyone, the initial explosion had cracked intake piping on the original tank, which allowed crude to seep from the tank and float on the surface of the water beneath the layer of foam. As the water rose, it came into contact with the muffler of one of the foam pumpers. The heat of the muffler broke down the foam and ignited the crude oil. At the rear of the foam unit firefighters were refilling foam from five-gallon containers and their movements broke down the foam layer. This allowed the now-ignited crude oil to grow in size and envelope the firefighters. As the firefighters moved from the area, it enlarged the break in the foam, enlarging the fire. These conditions required the requesting of an additional five alarms, bringing the total to 11 alarms.
I arrived on the scene around 6:15 P.M., and the area of the fire and the number of tanks involved along with an administration building was tremendous. In the aftermath, eight firefighters died and two were critically injured; other firefighters received injuries of lesser degrees. One of the firefighters who died and another who was critically injured were from Engine 49. This fire changed many of our future tactics when confronted with flammable liquids and especially refinery fires.
Firehouse: What are some of the most significant advances in the fire service in the past 30 years?
Smith: The smoke detector has by far caused the most significant change in the fire service. It has allowed early detection and occupant notification. This has been reflected in the number and size of fires that fire departments respond to today. Unfortunately, many fire deaths that occur are in structures without a fully operational smoke detector.
Personal protective equipment (PPE) has advanced leaps and bounds from 30 years ago, from wearing coats that did little more than shed or in too many cases absorb water, to protective gear that protects. Self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) that weighs less and is positive pressure.
Apparatus changes including todayâ€™s use of tower ladders, snorkels, quints and squrts. Pumpers that have rated capacities of 1,500 gpm or greater and water tanks with a minimum of 500 gallons and routinely much larger quantities are a far cry from the rated capacity of 750 gpm and much smaller water tanks of 30 years ago. Large-diameter hoseline has permitted the routine movement of large water supplies.
Thermal imaging permits faster and more thorough searches, discovering hidden fire and better overall operations.
The advent of the U.S. Fire Administration, National Fire Academy and Emergency Management Institute has given the fire service a voice at the national level. It has benefited every firefighter, whether they realize it or not. Certainly, those who have utilized the training sessions or fire prevention information from these institutions have received a greater benefit, but their research and involvement has been far reaching. The drawback has been that these fine institutions have had to fight every year for every penny. Hopefully, full funding will come in the future.
Operationally, the advent and use of incident management systems and the current involvement of the Department of Homeland Security in requiring the implementation of the National Incident Management System (NIMS) by all responders has improved fireground operations and especially safety.
Firehouse: What have you been a proponent of during your career?
Smith: Like all progressive chief officers, safety is always the key. Stressing the importance of safety in all elements of an operation must take precedence. This can be a difficult point to sell under the stress of an incident scene if it has not been standard procedure during all training evolutions. Too often, the drive and desire to complete an assignment as quickly as possible and to protect the public causes firefighters to overlook their own personal safety, and that is not be acceptable. Of course, there will always be risks involved and injuries can occur due to these risks, but if all PPE is in place and risk versus gain has been considered, then injuries will be minimized. Good firefighters find ways to operate in a safe manner.