We must remember the lessons of the past. I learned many lessons when I worked with the late Commissioner and Chief of the FDNY, John O’Hagan during the 1980’s. It was one of his great beliefs that the building codes allowed new high-rise buildings to be built that were not as structurally sound as the older models built during the early to mid point part of the 20th Century.
You need only look back to the incident where a U.S. Army Air Force B-25 Bomber flew into the Empire State Building back in 1945. There were a number of deaths among the crew and the building staff. However, when last I visited New York City, I saw that the Empire Station Building was still standing majestically in mid-town NYC. I believe that we can attribute that to the fact that there are tons and tons of steel and concrete in that magnificent edifice.
Why is this? Not being an engineer, I cannot give you formulas and equations. However, as a guy who studied building construction and went to a few high-rise fires in a big city, I can tell you this. They just don’t build them like they once did.
On those occasions when I teach high-rise firefighting courses, I use a simple analogy to describe what I really believe a modern, central core high-rise building to be. I tell my students to think of the building as they might think of a cheap, artificial Christmas tree. Think of how you place the upright pole into the base. Then think of how you stick the branches into the slots in the pole. You then fluff up the branches to make it look like a tree.
That is the problem with the newer high-rise buildings. Code changes were made to allow the builders to create cheaper structures that met the new performance codes. Rather than encasing steel in concrete, let’s just spray some fireproof stuff on the steel and call it fireproof. It is like all of the floors are hanging off of the core, wrapped in a skin that keeps the water off of the workers in the offices.
I am sorry gang, but let me now state the obvious. If I anger some really important people in high places, so be it, but my butt is on the line just like yours, because I still go to fires. We in the fire service are suffering because of a couple of things:
- Too much money spent buying off politicians
- Too much money spent by the builders to buy off the code process
- Not enough money spent on research to make our firefighting tools work
- Not enough money spent of staffing our fire departments at a safe level
- A greater concern with how many people we send to fires than with how they are trained
- A lack of proper strategic planning for fire department deployment
- A willingness to fight this centuries fire wars with the tools and tactics of the last century
- A willingness on the part of our people to accept death as a mandatory job requirement
There should be enough in the last several lines to anger just about every aspect of the American fire service. However, unless we come together as a fire service and work in a concerted way to address these concerns, I suggest that we are just marking time until the next large-scale disaster.
Bravery is never enough. We need to come together as a national fire service. We need a plan. We need federal money. We have to work in a focused manner that addresses all of the technical and tactical aspects that make up this thing we call firefighting. As Walt Kelly once stated in his magnificent Earth Day Pogo cartoon strip in May of 1971, " - we have met the enemy and he is us."
Above all, Bravery Is Never Enough.
Harry R. Carter, Ph.D., MIFireE, is an internationally known municipal fire protection consultant and contributing editor to Firehouse Magazine. He recently retired as a Battalion Commander with the Newark, New Jersey Fire Department. His commentary appears regularly on Firehouse.Com. For more commentary and information, visit Carter's web site at www.harrycarter.com