A Reflection: Worcester Firefighters - All Firefighters

Dennis Smith, Firehouse® Magazine’s founding editor, reflects on the sacrifices made by the world’s bravest.All six firefighters have now been dug out of the tragic building collapse in Worcester, MA, and, amid the trumpets of tribute from firefighters all over the world, they have been buried. Lyons, Jackson and McGuirk, Brotherton, Spencer and Lucey – their names have been inscribed in the annals of heroism, and will live forever in the large history of firefighters who have given more than anyone had a right to ask them to give.

I have always thought that being a firefighter is a special sort of blessing. In the thousands of alarms I have responded to and the many hundreds of fires I have fought, I have believed that because I was one of a particular group of people who did something so dramatic, so exciting and so necessary, no other endeavor in life could have given me such happiness and satisfaction. Where would the world be if there were no firefighters, I would ask myself, for no one knows like those who battle on the periphery of the flames just how fast and deadly a fire can be. But, it is like asking where would we be without the police force or the military or even the government, for the world needs brave people to protect us if the human family is to survive.

It is for good reason, though, that firefighters sense that firefighting is the most crucial job of all. A fire can double in size every 60 seconds, and, if it is not challenged and fought by trained men and women, it can travel house by house without end. And, because the best way to fight a fire is the age-old way of getting close to it and cooling it with water, it is a dangerous job.

How dangerous? About 100 firefighters die in the line of duty, many of them needlessly, each year. Since I began firefighting in 1963, more than 3,500 firefighters have been killed in the line of duty. Many of these losses occur in multiple-death incidents. I helped search for 12 firefighters who died in a floor collapse on 23rd Street in New York in 1966, and I helped too in 1978 at the Waldbaum’s fire in Brooklyn where six were lost. In 1972, in Boston, nine firefighters were killed in the Vendome Building fire. I traveled to Massachusetts for the funerals. I also attended the funerals of six firefighters who were killed in a bowling alley fire in Cliffside Park, NJ, in 1967. I remember being at the funeral for the five who ran out of air in a car dealership fire in Hackensack, NJ, in 1988. Twenty-one firefighters died in 1910 at the Chicago stockyards fire, and, as recently as 1994, 14 were killed by a racing firestorm on Storm King Mountain in Colorado. And now this.

The Worcester fire was very much out of control when the firefighters arrived. Two firefighters from Worcester’s Rescue Company 1, Lucey and Brotherton, made an initial search and became lost in the mammoth emptiness of the abandoned building. They called “Mayday” over their radios, and in desperate voices pleaded for help.

A crew of firefighters was sent in, evenly distributed throughout the floors of the warehouse, to search for the two men. The fire service is well trained in this procedure of rapid intervention. Soon, Firefighters Spencer and Jackson of Ladder Company 2 were lost as well, unresponsive to the operational roll call of firefighters in the building. The chief continued the search, now as critical as it was despairing, until he found they were also unable to locate firefighters Lyons and McGuirk of Engine Company 3.

In the meantime, the fire conditions were continuing to worsen, and the flames began to blow through the roof. The conditions for the building collapse were clear, and the chief in charge had no choice but to order his firefighters to evacuate the building.

President Clinton went to the memorial service along with thousands of men and women who fight fires in various parts of the world. “It was the most beautiful, awesome service I have ever seen,” one firefighter said to me, “and I hope I never see another one.”

However, as long as the primary responsibility of the rescue remains primary, the inherent dangers of firefighting will not change, though it is possible to mitigate upon the shocking number of annual firefighter deaths. After all the editorials and homilies praising our firefighters, after the coffins are saluted and buried, even after the flood of tears, the firefighters are left in the companies and departments that are largely inadequately protected.

Lost and downed firefighters should be found immediately, and they would be if all departments had a global positioning system where a satellite can connect within three feet of a firefighter wearing an identifying chip in his helmet. It is a very expensive system.

Firefighters should have a secondary air resource for those emergencies when their air canisters run out of air or malfunction. Manufacturers want to make these small filter-type masks, but NIOSH has failed to issue standards to enable them to come to market.

All firefighters should wear a “personal alerting safety system” (PASS), which emits a 100-decibel yelp when a firefighter becomes trapped or immobile, or when he sets it off. The New York Fire Foundation bought one of these for each of our firefighters in the city, but how many of the remaining 35,000 fire departments and 1.5 million American firefighters can afford them?

Every fire company should have a thermal imaging camera that can see through the blinding darkness of smoke. The hand-held camera costs $15,000. The State of New Jersey recently passed legislation to purchase one for every one of its departments, but that is just one state out of 50.

The firefighter usually carries 30 pounds of equipment on his person, including his mask system, a PASS device, spanner, pliers, gloves, goggles, boots, a protective helmet and an ax, a hook, a water extinguisher, a crow bar, a halligan tool or heavy steel nozzles at the end of a hose. With a newly developed carbon air tank the masks are down from 30 pounds to 15, but there is no reason the total weight carried by a firefighter should not be halved again.

Research and development for discoveries like lighter material and more effective protective gear is costly, and while manufacturers are willing to develop new ideas, they need fire departments to assist in testing applications. But, it is the rare fire department that doesn’t believe its expenditures for R&D are pathetically insufficient.

However, there are safety supports that can be purchased or developed today, and these firefighting innovations have been either invented or talked about for 10 years. Enough talk. Enough saluting. Let’s spend the money and protect our firefighters now.