Remembering Frank Brannigan, "Champion for Every Firefighter"

Feb. 1, 2006

Francis L. Brannigan, who died last month at the age of 87, was the champion for every firefighter who ever entered a burning building. He was a conscience for the fire-rescue service and, as a teacher, navy officer, fire chief, writer and lecturer, his life was devoted to one great cause: saving the lives of firefighters and the citizens they protect.

There never was anything ambivalent, uncertain or soft-spoken about Frank Brannigan. He was a man of strong opinions who never hesitated to let you know exactly what he was thinking. And, most of the time, he was right - which is why the fire service was so eager to read and listen to the words of the "Old Professor." That's how he described himself, but it was deceiving. Other than his age, there was nothing "old" about Frank. His knowledge came from years of experience, but the ideas he expressed often were original and far ahead of the conventional wisdom.

He saved lives through his books, most notably Building Construction for the Fire Service, which taught firefighters the dangers they face in a burning building. Frank also reached out through his articles in Firehouse and other magazines and on the website. He taught at seminars and conferences across the country and when his formal presentation was over, he would be surrounded by young firefighters who were asking questions and seeking to join the ranks of his disciples.

Frank was a powerful influence on many of us in the fire media. You didn't just meet him; it was an encounter like a head-on collision in which he sprayed ideas - and I do mean sprayed - at 100 gallons per minute. He encouraged us to spread the gospel of firefighter safety and to pull no punches when it came to confronting the special interests who would sacrifice safety to save money. Why was it so important to understand building construction? Because, as Frank warned: "A building is a fireman's enemy; know your enemy."

He was a pioneer in many of the concepts that we accept today - such as pre-fire planning for high-risk buildings, learning safety lessons from "near misses" and keeping firefighters out of dangerous situations when lives are not at stake. He was heartbroken and angry when firefighters died in the line of duty and he wrote: "Why were those firefighters where they were? What was the potential benefit from the risks undertaken?" He insisted that the fire service's "macho attitude" must be changed.

In a way, he was the first safety officer and a one-man rapid intervention team. He pointed out that "withdrawing in good order" might be OK for the military, because their enemy can be bluffed or deceived. "But a fire can't be deceived or bluffed," Frank declared. "When the time comes to get out, speed is of the essence." In true Brannigan fashion, he added: "Panic will save your life, provided you are the first to panic - and headed in the right direction."

A veteran of the U.S. Navy in World War II, he helped develop the tactics of shipboard firefighting. He reasoned that if sailors could practice abandoning ship, "why shouldn't firemen drill on how fast they can get out of a dangerous building?" He was furious that fire departments didn't practice that evolution. Another Brannigan-ism worth remembering: "If you're fighting a fire for 20 minutes and you're not winning, you must be losing."

Frank's life-long work helped inspire the "Everyone Goes Home" campaign sponsored by the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. It is fitting that our partner in the first pilot program should be the Montgomery County, MD, Fire & Rescue Service. The greatest tribute we can pay to his memory is to be successful in reducing the tragic number of line-of-duty deaths.

A battalion chief who years ago was a student in the Brannigan fire science course told me that he still thinks of the "Old Professor's" words when he arrives at a working fire and starts his size-up. Every few minutes, somewhere in America, fire companies are raising ladders and laying out their lines as they enter a burning building. We hope that their officers are looking for hidden void spaces, the signs of a truss roof, the potential for a backdraft or a flashover; we hope they always remember Frank's warning that the building is their enemy.

We will miss him more than the world outside the firehouse can ever understand, but we are grateful for all the years he was our champion. Now, we must carry on by continuing the crusade to save firefighters' lives. That is a pledge we all should make as we join his family and friends in celebrating the wonderful life of Frank Brannigan.

Hal Bruno, a Firehouse 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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