Learning the Lessons from the Past

Today is June 17th, to many of you, today is unlike so many other days. Whether it’s going on or off-shift, going to your “day” job; common rituals and activities define our day and are a part of your typical schedule or routine, activities, occupation, trade, leisure or everyday jobs. On any given day, we expect some fairly simple and basic things; Simple and basic from a firefighter’s perspective that is. Let’s clearly put this discussion into firefighter terms and context. We hope that we have a busy day, for the most part; that the alarms and incidents allow us to practice our skills and do what we do best. Deep down inside, we also hope that we have a good “job” come in that allows us to work the job, to fight the fight and put into practice all that we train and prepare to do, we the bell hits and we are called to duty.

Not that we hope or wish undue miss-fortune, distress or sorrow on anyone, but, IF a fire is going to happen, let it happen on my shift, my tour or while I’m at the firehouse and able to make the first-due. It’s a pretty fundamental hierarchy of need, and it’s what makes us tick at times. Because of who we are and what we do. Right?

But today is much more than that. June 17th marks the anniversary of two significant fire service incidents that resonate with the values, doctrine and philosophy that define the principles and tradition of the Fire Service.

Both of these incidents resulted in firefighter line-of-duty deaths at seemingly routine fires, in relatively ordinary structures and occupancies, each with unusual building construction features and conditions that would contribute to the adverse circumstances of the incident operations, and ultimately contribute to the LODD events.

Hotel Vendome Fire-1972
On June 17th, 1972, a typical routine day was unfolding for the Jakes in the Boston Fire Department. At 14:35 hours, Box 1571 was received at Boston Fire Alarm Office. It would be the first of four alarms required to extinguish an intense fire at the former Hotel Vendome on Commonwealth Avenue at Dartmouth Street, City of Boston, Massachusetts. It took nearly three hours to contain the blaze. The four alarm fire required a compliment of 16 engine companies, 5 ladder companies, 2 aerial towers and 1 heavy rescue company, with all companies operating with a full complement of personnel staffing.

Following extensive and strenuous suppression operations, the BFD commenced routine overhaul operation. Then, at 17:28 hours, without warning, all five floors of a 40 by 45 foot section southeast corner of the building collapsed, burying a ladder truck and 17 firefighters beneath a two-story pile of brick, mortar, plaster, wood and debris.

More than any other event in the three hundred year history of the Boston Fire Department, the Vendome tragedy exemplifies the risk intrinsic to the firefighting profession and the accompanying courage required in the performance of duty. Nine firefighters were killed on that day, eight more injured; eight women widowed, twenty-five children lost their fathers; a shocked city mourned before the sympathetic eyes of the entire nation.

The Hotel Vendome fire and the Nine Line-of-duty deaths, two Company Officers and seven firefighters
• Lieutenant THOMAS J. CARROLL, E-32.
• Lieutenant JOHN E. HANBURY, JR., L-13.
• Firefighter THOMAS W. BECKWITH, E-32.
• Firefighter JOSEPH E. BOUCHER, JR., E-22.
• Firefighter CHARLES E. DOLAN, L-13.
• Firefighter JOHN E. JAMESON, E-22.
• Firefighter RICHARD B. MAGEE, E-33.
• Firefighter PAUL J. MURPHY, E-32.
• Firefighter JOSEPH P. SANIUK, L-13.

Built in 1871 and massively expanded in 1881, the Hotel Vendome was a luxury hotel located in Boston’s Back Bay, just north of Copley Square. During the 1960s, the Vendome suffered four small fires. In 1971, the year of the original building’s centennial, the Vendome was purchased. The new owners opened a restaurant called Cafe Vendome on the first floor, and began renovating the remaining hotel into condominiums and a shopping mall.

Although the cause of the original fire was not known, the subsequent collapse was attributed to the failure of an overloaded seven-inch steel column whose support had been weakened when a new duct had been cut beneath it, exacerbated by the extra weight of water used to fight the fire on the upper floors.

References and Documents
• Boston Fire Department, HERE
• Vendome, Wikipedia, HERE
• Building Photos and the Firefighter’s Memorial, HERE
• Gendisasters, Historical Perspective, HERE
• Boston Globe, HERE
• Boston FD Ladder 15, HERE

FDNY Father’s Day Fire-2001
The relative calm of a quiet Sunday, Father’s Day, June 17th , 2001 was broken at 14:19 hours with a phone call to the FDNY Queens Central Office reporting a fire at 12-22 Astoria Blvd, in the Astoria Section of Queens, New York. For almost 80 years, the Long Island General Supply store has been a fixture in the Long Island City section of Queens serving local contractors and residents with all of their hardware needs. Unfortunately, that included propane tanks and other flammable liquids.

Two structures were involved in this incident. Both buildings were interconnected on the first floors as well as the cellars.

• Both structures were built prior to 1930 of ordinary (Type III) construction, and were two stories in height, each with a full cellar.
• Building 1 measured 2035 square feet and was triangular in shape.
• Building 2 measured 1102 square feet and was rectangular in shape.
• Building 1 and Building 2 shared a common or party wall and were interconnected on the first floor and the cellar.Building to building access in the cellar was through a fire door. The fire door was blocked open to allow free movement between the cellars which were used for storage. The hardware stored occupied the first floor and cellars of both buildings. Building 1 had two apartments on the second floor.

Building 2 had an office and storage space on the second floor. Note: A third uninvolved building was attached to the west side of Building 2. The flat roof system sheathing consisted of 5/8-inch plywood covered by felt paper and rubber roof membrane. The foundation was constructed out of stone and mortar. The support system was a combination of steel masonry posts/lolly columns and wooden support beams.

FDNY Units arrived within 5 minutes of the dispatch and gave the signal for a working fire. Fire fighters were making good progress but at 14:48 hours something went terribly wrong. Witnesses on the scene report hearing a small explosion followed by a huge blast. The shock wave from the blast blew d
own every fire fighter on the street and knocked down the exposure 1 wall onto the sidewalk, right on top of fire fighters venting the building.

As members started sifting through the rubble, the chief ordered a second alarm followed almost immediately by a fourth alarm when a radio transmission was received from FF Brian Fahey from Rescue 4. He was in the basement under tons of collapsed material.

“I’m trapped in the basement by the stairs. Come get me.” This was a battle cry to everyone on the scene. Every capable member frantically began removing debris to try and get to Brian and the others. The chief ordered more help. Numerous special calls were made.

There were 144 pieces of apparatus at the scene: 46 engines, 33 ladders, 16 battalion chiefs, 2 deputy chiefs, all 5 rescues, 7 squads, and many more. In fact, with the exception of the fire boats, the JFK hose wagon, the Decon unit, and the thawing units, every type of special unit was at the scene.

Even with the vast resources of the Department, the task took several hours. The members that were on the sidewalk were quickly recovered.
• Fire fighters Harry Ford (R4) and John Downing (L163) were removed in traumatic arrest and brought to Elmhurst Hospital were they succumbed from their injuries.
• Back at the scene members still were trying to get to Brian while others were trying to put out the smoky fire. The battle went through the afternoon and into the evening.
• The fire was being fueled by some of the flammables in the building.
• After about four hours they finally reached the basement, but again, it was too late. FDNY Firefighter Brian died in the Line-of-duty.

Subsequent investigations revealed that two local kids were in the rear yard of the building when unbeknownst to them they knocked over a can of gasoline. The gasoline ran under the rear door, into the basement eventually finding an ignition source in the form of the water heater.

When the water heater kicked in, it ignited the gasoline. As fire fighters began working in the building the fire caused the explosion of a large propane tank illegally stored in the basement. The resulting blast leveled the building and caused what will be forever known as the worst Father’s Day in FDNY’s history. (Excerpt of the event description published in www.fdnewyork.com).

The supreme sacrifice was made that day by;
• FDNY Firefighter Harry S. Ford, Rescue Co.4
• FDNY Firefighter Brain D. Fahey, Rescue Co. 4
• FDNY Firefighter John Downing, Ladder Co. 163

Take the time to read the NIOSH Report, and learn the lessons from that event

References
NIOSH Report F2001-23, HERE
FDNEWYORK, HERE
Steve Spak, Photos, HERE
The Late, FDNY Firefighter Andy Fredrick’s Account, HERE
Online Service Accounts and Coverage, HERE
Buffalo, NY FD North Division Street Explosion, HERE, HERE and HERE

Note: The Buffalo, NY, Fire Department experienced a similar event on December 27, 1983 in North Division Street Fire and Explosion that resulted in five firefighter line-of-duty deaths.

As BFD firefighters arrived at the scene of a reported propane leak in a three-story radiator warehouse (Type III ordinary construction), a massive explosion occurred, killing five firefighters instantly and injuring nine others, three of them critically. The force of the blast blew BFD Ladder 5’s tiller aerial 35 feet across the street into the front yard of a dwelling. BFD Engine 1’s pumper was also blown across the street with the captain and driver pinned in the cab with burning debris all around them. Engine 32’s engine was blown up against a warehouse across a side street and covered with rubble.

Two civilians were also killed and another 60 to 70 were injured. While operating at the rescue effort, another 19 firefighters were injured. The blast and ensuing fire ignited 14 residences and damaged as many as 130 buildings over a four block area. The explosion occurred when an employee was moving an illegal 500-lb. propane tank with a forklift truck and dropped it, breaking off a valve. The gas leaked out, found an ignition source, and the explosion occurred. Killed in the line of duty were all assigned to Buffalo FD Ladder Company 5; F/F Michael Austin, F/F Michael Catanzaro, F/F Matthew Colpoys, F/F James Lickfield and F/F Anthony Waszkielewicz.

Taking it to the Streets
The adage that the fire service has more recently adopted states; “There are no “routine calls”; referring to the safety consciousness that all responding companies should endeavor to consider when responding to an incident, that all too often appears; upon our arrival to be routine in every sense of the word. Whether it’s an alarm system activation, a report of food on the stove, a report of a smoke detector alarming or a report of a gas odor or leak, we have a tendency to treat a lot of things as equal and very routine based upon the periodicity and frequency of the alarm type and the typical, inconsequential nature of the incident outcome or the commonality of the fire and suppression efforts that routinely are employed by our operating companies.

We seem to do a lot of things at times out of common practice and repetition, you know; “We’ve always done it that way…” syndrome. There’s a resonating theme that is making its way around the fire service dealing with an apparent “culture of extinguishment” and the suggested and inaccurately described “diametrically opposing” fire service safety culture promoted by those on the “Dark Side”

The daily experience, expectations, our comfort zone;
• We’re pretty good at what we do-Regularly….
• We develop profound habits and methods…
• We treat a lot of things as equal in many respects…
• We’ve grown accustomed to certain operational modes..
• We don’t really think anything is going to happen to us, certainly nothing so adverse that I don’t go home after the call.

Nothing is going to happen to YOU; it happens to someone else….
BUT to everyone else-YOU are the other Guy!

On any give day, at any give alarm, the dynamics around us at times may be in or out of our direct control. We may not be able to see what the cards have in store for us, BUT we must ensure we use every fragment of training, fortitude, knowledge, skills, courage, bravery, insights, luck and sometimes (other divine) intervention to get us through.

Take the time today or this evening to visit and download selective reports from the NIOSH Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program. The lessons learned from these reports and the important recommendations that are written as a direct result of the supreme sacrifices made by our brother and sister firefighters that died in the line of duty speaks volumes. In reality, the words written in these reports are the words from our fallen, they convey the messages to correct deficiencies, close gaps and increase and enhance our operations, training, education, administration, management, supervision, resources, equipment, protocols, preparedness, perspectives, culture and values.

When you look over these events over the years, it doesn’t take long to identify that many LODD events share similarities, and that specific incident events, deficiencies, outcomes and recommendations are identical in every way, except for the fire department name and geographical location. In other words, we have History Repeating Events (HRE). Events that resonate with common issues, apparent and contributing causes and operational factors that share legacy issues that the fire service fails to identify, relate to and implement. In other words, we fail a times to learn from the past, or we make a deliberate chose to ignore those lessons due to other internal or external influences, pressures, authority, beliefs, values or viewpoints. We make choices and we determine our direction, path and destiny.

History repeating itself is nothing new to society, it is apparent and self revealing in much of written history and recorded legacies, and as defined by a popular quote states; “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

An interesting series of quotes from noted historian Gerda Lerner states the following;
“What we do about history matters. The often repeated saying that those who forget the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them has a lot of truth in it. But what are ‘the lessons of history’? The very attempt at definition furnishes ground for new conflicts. History is not a recipe book; past events are never replicated in the present in quite the same way. Historical events are infinitely variable and their interpretations are a constantly shifting process. There are no certainties to be found in the past.”

She goes on to state; “We can learn from history how past generations thought and acted, how they responded to the demands of their time and how they solved their problems. We can learn by analogy, not by example, for our circumstances will always be different than theirs were. The main thing history can teach us is that human actions have consequences and that certain choices, once made, cannot be undone. They foreclose the possibility of making other choices and thus they determine future events.”

We must learn for the part, so that we limit or eradicate the opportunity for History Repeating events aligning themselves again and providing emergency incident circumstances to lead to another line-of-duty death, injuries or large loss incident.

History Repeating Events share may common and familiar themes. Research exemplifies the following shared commonality causes related to History Repeating Events;
• A lack of pre-incident planning
• Ineffective or lack of risk management
• No Incident action plan• Free-lancing
• Inadequate Training/Skills• Faulted Strategies and/or Tactics
• Deficient Resources/staffing
• Lack of Accountability• Insufficient Fire Suppression versus Fire Loading affect• Ineffective or non-existent Supervisory oversight
• No effective span of control / management
• Not understanding Building Construction
• Not understanding Structural Assemblies and Systems
• Not understanding Construction & Occupancy factors• Not understanding Engineered Building Systems and relationship to Tactics
• Lacking understanding of Fire Behavior and Fire Dynamics
• Ineffective Company level supervision
• Lack of Situational Awareness• Command Dysfunction
• Failure to implement periodic in-situ reassessments

Think about your actions, think about what you can do to make a difference or to alter or change the course of a situation. We sometimes have a greater hand in destiny and how the cards are dealt than we think. Take a look and discuss the HRE causal factors listed above, share these with you officers, with you company level personnel or the department as a whole. Pose the question, “What do these mean to you?” See what the different feedback might illustrate and how they may be viewed from a different set of perspectives, generations or rank and assignments.

Safety Considerations for Operations involving Ordinary or Heavy Timber Type Construction.
In support of the two (2) incident events discussed in this article related to the Hotel Vendome and the Astoria Queens Hardware Store Explosion. Both of these structures were Type III, Ordinary Construction. This is a good opportunity for you to introduce yourself to or refresh yourself on the Safety Considerations for Operations involving Ordinary or Heavy Ti…

A comprehensive power point program is available for download from the Near Miss Reporting System web site, HERE

An accompanying narrative report and its alignment with a Near Miss Report related to a type III occupancy and incident response and close call support the power point presentation, HERE

Don’t forget, the Near Miss Reporting System, HERE, has exemplary resources, case studies, close calls and lessons to be learned and institutionalized. The same is true about the resources at the NFFF Everyone Goes Home Program, HERE and the IAFC Fire/EMS Safety week web site HERE.

Take the time to learn something about Ordinary or Heavy Timber Type Construction. As I continue to advocate;  Building Knowledge = Firefighter Safety. No more History Repeating Events!
Here’s a closing quote from the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy;“Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.”

Be safe, have a great tour or stay at the firehouse today or this evening.

Orginally published during  2009 Safety Health and Survival Week.

1 Comment

  • Mick Mayers says:

    Between the Vendome and the Father’s Day Fire, you’d think we’d have learned SOMETHING. Then along comes Charleston. Not a good weekend in the collective history of the fire service. I guess if anything can be learned from this all is that history continues to repeat itself, despite the warnings of the crazies like us.

    Great article, as usual.

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Chris Naum

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