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MFA #10: Firefighter DNA - Our colorful history of resistance to change

Good news: any guilt we feel about our collective hesitancy to modify our tactics can instead be laid upon our ancestors!  Well, not technically, since you can’t inherit stubbornness.  Still, even if we aren’t actually related to those who preceded us in this great endeavor, like them, we continue to face new challenges and debate the best solutions.  As with many walks of life, taking a look at our history can sometimes provide insight regarding current conditions, and at times help to address what we view as “new” problems, but which are actually timeless at heart.  (You can probably see where I’m going with this, but please read on anyway.)

In colonial America, fire suppression efforts were typically meager and ineffective, often allowing small fires to spread into conflagrations that leveled entire neighborhoods, and even cities.  During that era, the earliest process for applying water to a fire involved throwing it from buckets passed between the fire and a water source by citizens - the "bucket brigade” - a method effective only for small, incipient blazes.  The first organized approaches to minimizing the potential destruction from uncontrolled fires varied from empowering fire prevention wardens to enlisting citizens to help pull down and remove valuables from buildings that were on fire, or soon to be.  It was not until the construction of devices that could throw water more effectively, and the need for dedicated personnel to maintain and transport (push, pull, or carry) those “enjines”, that anything close to what we now know as a “fire department” was created.  

Competition between the various fire companies, in virtually every early American city, was keen.  In addition to the natural desire to respond faster, pump water more vigorously, and perform more bravely for the sake of those threatened by fire (who we now refer to as "customers"), this altruistic motivation was augmented by some city governments, and later fire insurance companies, in the form of monetary rewards for the first fire suppression groups to apply water to a blaze.  The quest for prominence was not limited to fireground abilities, of course.  Even then, fire apparatus was a ready canvas for both functional enhancements and ornamentation.  Such useful items as bells and gongs for alerting the populace of approaching apparatus became the stuff of “one-upmanship" between companies through subsequent increases in the number and style of those noisemakers.  While purely decorative, painted murals and glittering metalwork were taken very seriously, providing visual proof of the loving care that company members provided to their apparatus.  

A natural - even unavoidable - component of social dynamics, competition can be a positive force, encouraging improvements in service delivery and performance.  It also has a tendency to bleed out beyond those benefits to affect other facets of an organization, spawning such ill effects as rivalry and suspicion.  Repeating the chant that your organization is the best can convince members that it represents the reality, and, by extension, since no one else is as good, no one else’s methods can be as good.  The competition can eclipse the mission.  In the case of our firefighting forebears, this was manifested in such behaviors as recklessly racing to fires, fistfights over securing water sources, and preoccupation with maintaining influence (politics).

Furthermore, working hard to perfect a particular process (that being, in the case of our fire service ancestors, the transport, positioning, and operation of a hand pumper), with its need for repetition, teamwork, and attention to the smallest details to improve efficiency, leaves the practitioners with a distorted sense of perfection.  The focus required in the quest for flawless performance can also result in tunnel vision that prevents an accurate assessment of alternate approaches.  Having intensely drilled on and practiced a complex activity, it becomes exceptionally more difficult over time to modify its sequence or components, and abandoning a standard practice outright becomes virtually unthinkable.  These forces - competition and repetition - have come into play many times in this country’s firefighting history to deride and delay the adoption of what would ultimately become accepted devices and procedures.  

For example, Boston was one of many early American cities that incentivized fire companies with monetary awards.  The greatest amount went to the first company that flowed water on the fire, with lesser sums paid to those that were second- and third-fastest performing.  In addition to conveying their hand pumper to the fire scene quickly, a company wishing to earn this bounty also needed to secure a water source in order to be able to have water to spray.  Somewhat ironically, provision of a water supply to what was then the pinnacle of firefighting technology often relied on that earliest of water supply methods - the bucket brigade - requiring time and plenty of civilian assistance to set up.  In 1819, one of the Boston fire companies came up with idea of keeping its tub filled with water at all times, creating a significant burden to its members from the added weight, but allowing it to begin water flow immediately after arrival on the fireground, instead of awaiting the establishment of a water supply system.  This innovation, a mainstay of modern fire apparatus, lead to cries of “foul” from the other fire companies who lost out on their first-water prizes, and the practice was abandoned until many decades thereafter.  

A few years later, also in Boston, another innovation was dismissed.  Leather fire hose, riveted along its seams, had been invented many years previously, and was typically utilized for relay pumping or, when stiffened by paint and metal rings, for suction from a water source.  Hand pumpers had a nozzle mounted atop from which water was played in the fire, much like our current deck guns or monitors.  These appliances were initially immobile, and required that the entire pumper be turned to change direction of the stream, but later were fitted with “gooseneck” pipes that could be pointed in different directions without having to move the apparatus.  Still, pumpers often had to be repositioned in order to continue chasing the flames or, for that matter, if the flames were chasing the apparatus.  This was more than a notion, as some of these early firefighting contraptions had no wheels, and needed to be carried, or had wheels on fixed axles that required they be lifted up in order to be turned.  Many a hand pumper was destroyed by blazes that moved faster than its company could carry it away, including that of my current department in an 1860 conflagration that ultimately consumed our city's entire business district.   

In New York City in the 1820s, firefighters had begun utilizing hoselines for water application, allowing hose streams to be stretched through alleys too narrow to allow a pumper to pass, and even into buildings.  Hearing of this and other innovations, a Boston firefighter was dispatched to New York to investigate, and returned with a glowing report about the benefits of such a tactic.  The response from his fellow members was less than supportive.  Their comments at the time included: “The nearer the fire, the higher the post of honor.  The struggle is who should get to it first, and who keep the nearest.  It would be more difficult to keep a Boston engine back, in order to play into its neighbor (meaning, to merely supply water to another engine), than it would be to put out the fire.” (from Morris J., Fires and Firefighters, Little, Brown and Company, 1953).  Perceived valor trumped demonstrated efficiency.  It would be many years later, and only after a complete reorganization of the fire department, that attack hoselines would finally be utilized in Boston.

Not that any one department had a monopoly on stubbornness.  As cities and their structures grew in size, required fire flows began to exceed the capabilities of hand pumpers, which needed dozens of members for their operation, yet were limited to a water flow of about 150 g.p.m. each, and for only as long as the available manpower could continue to operate the handles, or “brakes”.  Steam-powered fire engines, on the other hand, required only two persons for their operation (a driver/stoker and an engineer), flowed more water (the first, built in England in 1829, produced 250 g.p.m.), and could pump indefinitely.  Despite numerous conflagrations that decimated almost every city in America in the 1800s, volunteer fire departments fought hard against the introduction of steam-powered pumpers, which they predicted (correctly) would lead to the need for paid firefighters.  Comments from firefighters of the day regarding steam fire engines included: “It is an affront to our manhood”;“Sparks blasting from its stack could set more fires than it could put out”; and, my favorite,“It is downright un-American because it does not even look our gooseneck fire engines” (from Ditzel P., Fire Engines Firefighters, The Men, Equipment, and Machines, from Colonial Days to the Present. Crown Publishers, Inc. NY).  In 1841, Pearl Hose Company No. 28 in New York City was persuaded by to use an American-made steam pumper that had been built at the bidding of the fire insurance industry, but the other fire companies would not supply it with water, and it was eventually sold for use as a stationary engine in a box making factory.  It would not be until 1853, in Cincinnati, Ohio, that steam engines would be adopted by a major city, with the rest following suit soon thereafter. 

To be fair, not every proposed “improvement” lived up to its promise.  One invention that was rejected by firefighters in the early 1700’s consisted of a large barrel of water within which was placed a thin metal container packed with gunpowder.  It was intended to be rolled into a burning building, where the heat from the fire would ignite the explosive charge, causing water to spray throughout the building and extinguish the fire.  Skeptics asked what would happen if the water leaked out prior to the explosion, to which the inventor had no ready answer, and the idea was abandoned.  So, our inherent skepticism is not without benefit; it just requires a delicate balance, and can be as harmful as it is helpful.  (Note, too, that there are now several commercially available dry chemical extinguishers that are designed to be tossed into a fire and then self-deploy, so even this “outlandish idea” merely required technologic advances to make it feasible, as well as less dangerous.)

Viewing current and potential firefighting innovations in the context of our long history can help us to appreciate the repetitive nature of change and its challenges.

MJC 

The author can be reached at markjcotter@comcast.net, and promises not to share the name of those providing comments, compliments, criticisms, or corrections unless so authorized.

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