What It Is Like to Be a Big-City Firefighter
As told to an “Awake!” staff writer
PERSONS have said to me, “It must be exciting to be a fireman.” They consider climbing ladders, rescuing people and battling flames to be glamorous work. So they are surprised when. I give them quite a different impression.
In my eighteen years as a New York city firefighter I have raced to thousands of fires. I have jumped from the engine and rushed into hundreds of burning buildings. However, inside, in a smoke-filled room or hallway—unseen to others—there is no glamour or excitement. Here the fireman struggles for his life and perhaps the lives of others.
Hard, Hazardous Work
The smoke is often so thick nothing can be seen—a bright light a few feet away may be barely visible. Everything must be done by the sense of touch. It is a helpless feeling—blindly groping inside an unfamiliar building.
Quickly the firefighter reaches for a wall and crawls along it. He feels for bodies and searches for a window that he can break to let out poisonous smoke. Coughing and choking, he struggles for air. At times he must hold his face within inches of the floor to breathe. With each painful breath he sucks in more irritating smoke laden with deadly carbon monoxide and other toxic gases. His eyes burn. His body temperature rises as stifling heat saps his strength.
At times firefighters are overcome by smoke and heat. Then they must be pulled or carried to safety. But some are not so fortunate—about eight New York city firemen die each year in the line of duty. The rest face the prospects of a shortened life-span due to the toxic products of combustion they inhale week in and week out. Since even regular city air pollution is hazardous to health, you can imagine the damage done to firefighters who repeatedly enter buildings so filled with smoke that even vision is obscured!
But besides personal hazards, there is the sick, helpless feeling when one is too late to help. I have had victims burned so badly they practically fell apart in my arms. There is no glamour in death, or in watching sobbing, hysterical mothers clutch at the remains of their children. Nor is the sadness in the faces of those who have lost everything they owned exciting. I have seen these things time and again, and it is despairing.
What Fire Can Do
Firemen, I believe, have an entirely different view of fire and its hazards than other citizens. We know what fire can do—how unpredictable it can be. I have seen fires that had smoldered for hours suddenly burst into flames and engulf a room. I have been to fires that within minutes from being set had involved a multistory building. I have seen how the, fumes of a smoldering mattress can kill. Even people many floors above the actual fire have died from smoke inhalation!
I would like to convey to you what fire can do—not with the intent to scare or shock you—but so that you will take measures to protect yourself and your loved ones. Think: Fires claim 12,000 victims a year in the United States alone! Think, too, of the tens of thousands of persons who survive but who are painfully burned, some maimed for life.
Statistics are cold and lifeless. But when one is personally involved, an indelible impression is made. I have many memories that give a more vivid picture of what fire can do than can any statistic.
It Can Break Your Heart
A few years back I responded to a call, arriving at an apartment in Brooklyn where everything seemed under control. The fire was out. About the only sign of it was a partially burned curtain. The little girl of about seven, however, was hurt. She had set fire to the curtain, and apparently in trying to put it out pulled the curtain down and ignited her dress. Her parents beat out the flames.
They did not seem to think their little girl was seriously hurt. But when I looked at her closely, my heart sank. The entire inside of her legs was badly burned, also part of her back. She was in shock, and so felt no adverse effects. In fact, she appeared normal. She was sitting up, and at her request her favorite TV program was turned on. I felt so helpless waiting for the ambulance to come, so awkward and useless. The next morning I called the hospital. The girl had died during the night.
It does not take much fire—a moment of carelessness and in a few seconds one can be fatally injured. It happens regularly! The average person simply does not realize how dangerous fire is, how quickly it spreads.
On another occasion we were just sitting down for lunch at the firehouse when the alarm came in. A two-story house in Brooklyn was on fire. When we arrived, the fire had involved the kitchen and the whole first floor. Since it was the middle of the day, we assumed that everyone would have gotten out. But after knocking down the fire, we discovered a boy’s body in the kitchen. And moments later, behind the kitchen in the smoke-filled bathroom, I practically stumbled over another child, dead. How quickly they were overcome!
The mother had punished her boy and sent him to his bedroom. Somehow the fire started there, but she was not aware of it until the flames were visible and her son rushed out. Her first reaction was to get upstairs and help down a cripple who lived with them. By the time she got him outside, the first floor was in flames. She assumed that her boys, about eight and five years old, had also gone out. She was looking for them. But they apparently hesitated too long or panicked.
I picked up the body in the kitchen, and carried it to the hospital across the street. It was so badly burned it hardly held together. The mother was hysterical. The doctor looked at the charred remains and quickly turned his head in dismay.
About that time schoolchildren were coming home for lunch. Some were saying excitedly, “Hey, there was a fire up there!” And as they got closer, “It’s on my block!” Then I could hear one say in an entirely different, anxious tone, “Oh, it’s my house.” This really hit me. For a youth was about to learn that his younger brothers had just died horribly. I will never forget the despair I felt.
What hurts when I see these tragedies is that they do not have to happen. They could be avoided. Sometimes it is simply a foolish act, or carelessness. An example comes to mind, one that is actually rather common.
A mother living in a city project building went to the store and locked her two preschool youngsters in the apartment. She no doubt had done it many times before. But this time a fire started; probably one of the young ones was playing with matches. When we arrived, only a little smoke was seeping out. We ran up the stairs to the apartment, but the locked fireproof door delayed us in getting in.
Inside, the smoke was thick. We could not see a thing. So it was a matter of getting down and crawling, feeling our way. Most of the time a fireman finds someone by tripping over him, or by feeling him. We found the two boys, and quickly got them out.
One was dead, killed by the smoke. The other seemed to have some life. So I immediately began mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Then they brought the resuscitator from the engine. We worked until the ambulance came, but this child died too.
About that time the mother came back. You can imagine how she felt, especially knowing that she was partly responsible, since she had left her children alone. When a fireman sees these things, he can only wish that people would use better judgment. There is simply no reason why fire should take 12,000 American lives a year.
Giving It Forethought
I have given many talks to student and other groups on fire protection. I would try to level with them, saying pointedly: “The reason I am here is to try to save you—to help you to know what to do in case of fire. A little forethought, having a plan to follow, can mean the difference between living and dying.”
Anytime I go into a building, I automatically think, “How would I get out of here in case of fire?” Especially should one think about this in connection with his own home. Do you know every way of exit from your home? How about exits in other buildings you use? In an emergency people almost invariably try to leave the way they came in, resulting in a jam-up. In Chicago’s Iroquois Theater disaster many years ago, of ten available exits, only three were used—575 died!
Forethought is vital, for fire usually comes at night when people, upon suddenly being awakened, may be somewhat disoriented. If they are undecided, not knowing exactly what to do, they may panic. They may remain motionless, crawl under a bed, run into a closet, or do some other foolish thing. This often happens, and costs many lives. It is interesting, however, that in fire raids on cities during World War II there was almost no sign of panic, for everyone knew what to do.
To encourage planning, I would ask groups: “What would you do tonight if you had a fire? How would you get out? Where would you go? Suppose your bedroom door was closed and you went over and felt the doorknob and it was hot. Would you go out that door?”
That would be the worst thing to do. Opening the door would feed oxygen to the fire and probably cause it to rush into the room before you could escape. So never open a hot door.
It is also generally dangerous to go out to a stairway. This is because heat and flames rise, and will swiftly ascend a stairway. Realizing this fact would have saved a father and son I took from a fire a few years ago.
The fire was in a three-story multi-family house. It started on the first floor. When smoke began filling their apartment, the mother took one child and climbed to safety out the bathroom window. But the father grabbed his son and ran out the door. With flames cutting off the front entrance, he rushed upstairs toward the roof. When I came through the roof moments later, I found the man and his son near the top of the stairway, both dead. The heat and fumes overcame them before they could reach safety.
Home Fire Drills
In an emergency one needs to know what to do automatically, otherwise a wrong, possibly fatal, move is likely. So I have recommended to student groups to have fire drills at home. They have fire drills at school, so why not have them at home where far more persons are hurt and lose their lives in fires?
A window is often the best escape route, especially when awakened at night. But practice is needed, for in a smoke-filled room vision is gone, sense of direction is gone—everything is by touch. You can hardly appreciate what it is like unless you have experienced it. Usually it is best to find a wall and follow it to a window. I would encourage students: “When you get to your room tonight, close your eyes or put on a blindfold and try to find your way over to the window. Then see if you can open it.”
It is surprising how difficult this can be, especially if there are storm windows or screens. But knowing how to get them open quickly can save your life. I also would suggest getting a rope drop ladder, having children practice using it, and keeping it where it can be located quickly in case an emergency should arise.
Thousands of victims would be alive today if they had drilled in such procedures. Just recently in Jamaica Estates, a New York city suburb, a fire broke out on the first floor after the family had gone to bed on the second floor. The father, a lawyer, ran to the children’s bedroom to try to save them—as a result they all died. If each one would have gone out his own window, they would have lived. Even from the second floor one can hang by his hands from the windowsill, and drop. Possible bruises from the fall are better than almost certain death!
It is also vital that families have a meeting point outside, after escaping from the house. Often we go on fires, and parents cry, “My child is in there. Get him out! Get him out!” Frequently the child has already gotten out, but we rush in looking for him. We have lost men doing this. Just this spring Fire Captain John Dunne battled his way through flames to a third-floor Brooklyn apartment. He was told that four children were in there, when actually they had escaped earlier. Dunne was trapped by the flames and died.
Another thing I often emphasize is not to go back into a burning building to get belongings. This has cost so many lives. I recall a business building where all the workers got out. Then, when the flames did not seem so bad, they ran back to get some things, and were killed.
What most people in such circumstances do not understand is the danger of smoke; it is extremely poisonous. The fire itself seldom kills them, the smoke does. And its effects are cumulative, shortening the life expectancy of the firefighter who is repeatedly exposed to it.
Despairing Work Load, Harassment
Some things make especially despairing the increased work toad the big-city fireman must carry. It is unbelievable! When I started with the department nearly twenty years ago I was with one of the ten busiest companies in the city, Ladder 17, South Bronx. We had about 1,800 runs a year. Now some companies respond to nearly 10,000 alarms a year! From just 1966 to 1968 total city alarms went up 44 percent, with essentially no increase in personnel or fire-fighting capacity.
It is true that many alarms are false—about one in three. But we never know that one is false until we answer it. So it often means running practically all the time, with hardly a moment to grab a bite to eat. For eight years I was in Brownsville, Brooklyn, but the work there was getting to be too much—it is really only for a young man. Fortunately I was able to get a transfer to a less busy area—to Ladder 143 in Queens.
Brownsville now has the staggering rate of 10,000 alarms per square mile per year! It is fire, fire, fire, day in and day out. Often a man must fight several blazes a day. I think an experience of fireman Bob Daily shows how commonplace fires have become there.
A fire had started in a tenement apartment, and Bob went next door to see if that apartment was affected too. The door was locked, and, assuming the people had gotten out, he knocked down the door to get in. There in the smoky room was an elderly lady. He apologized profusely, asking why she had not opened the door. “Oh,” she said, “we have so many fires around here, I don’t pay much attention to them anymore.”
Sometimes practically the whole area is aflame—literally! I will never forget when Martin Luther King was killed. The night of his funeral, companies from all over the city were called into Brownsville. I recall being atop a factory building pouring water onto a fire. And I could see blazes starting up all over the area, everywhere I looked.
But such a situation is no longer unique. It has occurred a number of times since. For example, it did this spring when the city cut welfare payments. The papers said that Brownsville had more than 120 fires that day! Sometimes notices are even posted that tell the day a section will burn, and it does. As a result Brownsville, South Bronx and other sections of New York resemble the bombed-out, fire-scarred cities of Europe after World War II.
It is despairing enough fighting so many fires, but now we firemen also have to defend ourselves against the arsonists. In some areas barrages of stones and bottles regularly assail firemen trying to put out blazes. Last year there were over 800 incidents in which city firefighters were attacked, and 343 were injured.
Why does this occur? Well, underprivileged people in these areas are completely frustrated. Their buildings are old and in disrepair, and they see little improvement despite promises of urban renewal. So I believe they are thrashing out in anger, burning vacant and condemned buildings in hopes of getting speedier action. And since we are preventing them from accomplishing this, they attack us. I think, too, they fight us because they identify us with the “Establishment” they hate.
Perhaps some persons dislike firemen themselves. I know a frequent complaint is that we are malicious—that we do damage unnecessarily to homes. But the reason people think this way is because they really do not understand the hazards of fire, how it can spread, or the way buildings are constructed. Let me explain.
Putting Out a Fire
When we pull up, say, to a six- or seven-story tenement building on fire, each man knows his assignment and rushes to carry it out. He realizes that the lives of his fellows may depend on fulfilling it. One man quickly gets to the roof, opening the bulkhead door, removing skylights—doing anything to ventilate the building so that toxic fumes from the interior hallways and stairwell can escape. He then descends a fire escape, opening windows for further ventilation.
In the meantime two men may grab a fire extinguisher and rush to locate the fire itself. Inside a smoke-filled room their lives and those of any others who may yet be there are at stake. So, as you can appreciate, there is no time for gently opening windows. When found, they are smashed with whatever is available, permitting a breath of life-sustaining air. Often we are able to get children out alive as well as others who may have been trapped or overcome by the poisonous smoke.
This ventilation work also permits the men that follow to drag their heavy water hose to the fire. If the smoke had nowhere to escape, when it was driven before the spray of water, it would be compressed tighter and tighter in a room or hallway. Then it could go right back up over the heads of the hose men and start a fire behind them. They would then be in serious trouble—all because the ventilation men did not quickly enough get the roof and windows open.
Yet some persons object that their ceiling. or walls are torn up when their apartment is some distance from the fire. But there is reason for this too. Firemen know the route fire can take. They realize that it can travel long distances unseen. Years ago a few sparks from a cutting tool caused a fire in a metalworking plant. The employees completely extinguished it—they thought—using the plant’s standpipe water hose. But about thirty minutes later the flames, having traveled through the hollow walls, burst from the roof. It was a catastrophe.
Firemen understand fire, and so search in adjoining rooms and apartments for it. I take my glove off and feel the wall; if it is hot, there may be fire there. So a hole has to be torn in the wall to find out. Fire especially can travel undetected horizontally. If we pull a ceiling in one apartment and there is even the least sign of fire, we do not feel safe until we have pulled the ceiling in the next apartment to be sure it did not travel any farther. Thus damage may be done to an apartment when fire has not even reached it. But it is not done maliciously, as some may assume, but rather to protect people.
Misunderstanding, harassment, the increased work load, frequent smoke inhalation, searching for trapped victims, the hopelessness in the eyes of victims who have lost everything, seeing fellow firemen and others die all this is the despair of a big-city firefighter. Ours is hard, hazardous work. Yet we enjoy a reward rarely matched by any other occupation. It is being able to assist persons in trouble, being present to do something when they cry out for help. This, to me, outweighs all the despair.