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By Blaize, FD Hacks

Passing on history is important because “those who do not know the past are condemned to repeat it.” This is of particular relevance to us firefighters as most of our fire codes and standards were developed in reaction to tragedy.

When I was a junior firefighter, our Chief developed an excellent program for teaching the history of major fires and their impact on today’s landscape. He wrote the names of 15 to 20 major fires on pieces of paper and put them in a bowl. We each drew the name of a fire out of the bowl and were instructed to research what, where, and when the fire occurred, as well as standards, codes, and tactics attributed to it. At the start of each subsequent drill, a few of us would be called to give a five minute presentation of our findings to everyone in attendance. Chief, a total fire history buff himself, would chime in with additional details and ask thought-provoking questions.

I was assigned the Our Lady of the Angels School Fire, which occurred in Chicago on December 1, 1958 and killed 92 children and 3 nuns. Over 13 years after conducting this educational exercise, I can easily recall this fire’s details and challenges, as well as the codes and standards born from its ashes. For example, there was only one fire escape, no sprinklers, no automatic fire alarm, no smoke or heat detectors, no alarm connected to the fire department, no fire-resistant stairwells and no fire-safe doors from the stairwells to the second floor in the school. The school building had a brick facade, but was constructed with combustible materials. Fire extinguishers were placed out of reach from most of the school occupants. A local, state, and national code framework was developed in response and over 16,000 schools in the US were brought to code within about a year of the fire. Reading this today, it seems obvious that this was a disaster waiting to happen, but that’s what makes this such an eye opening educational exercise. This stuff is only common sense to us today because of the lessons learned and codes enacted as a result. Conducting the research and listening to colleagues was critical to understanding the why behind codes and tactics.

The power of understanding basic history of major fires extends into many facets of our job, including improving community relations. When a member of your community complains to you about “government overreach” and asks why we need safety codes because this stuff is “common sense”, you can dive right into the tragic story behind the codes and policies they are referencing, like the Our Lady of the Angels School Fire or the Coconut Grove Fire. Presenting fire codes or safety recommendations in this manner is more effective in helping the public understand why we’re supposedly, “up their a**” about what many now take for granted as common sense safety practices. Through these stories, we can help show them safety codes or recommendations are actually in the best interest of their event or business; it will prevent them from becoming the next story about improper alarm placement, locked egress, flammable tents, and so on.

Use this educational exercise for all new firefighters. They have to know our history to be part of our future. To get started, write down a dozen major fires on paper and assign them to probies. If you’re unable to have firefighters present at drills or meetings, assign new firefighters 3-5 fires to research and have them report back to you. To bring this education to a broader audience, incorporate fire history into your on-boarding and training program. Review major fires at regular gatherings, such as the start of drills, shift briefings, or over morning coffee.

Here is a list of some major fires to get your program started, however you choose to incorporate fire history education:

  • Our Lady of the Angels Fire: December 1, 1958, Chicago

  • Hartford Hospital Fire: December 8, 1961, Hartford, CT

  • Hartford Circus Fire: July 6, 1944, Hartford, CT

  • Great Chicago Fire:October 8, 1871: Chicago, IL

  • Peshtigo Fire: 1871, Wisconsin

  • Cloquet Fire: 1918, Minnesota

  • Triangle Shirtwaist Fire: March 25, 1911, New York, NY

  • Great Fire of New York: December 16, 1835, New York, NY

  • Station Nightclub Fire: February 20, 2003, West Warwick, RI

  • Coconut Grove Fire: November 28, 1942, Boston, MA

  • Iroquois Theatre Fire: December 30, 1903, Chicago, IL

  • Beverly Hills Supper Club Fire: May 28, 1977, Southgate, KY

  • Ohio Penitentiary Fire: April 21, 1930, Columbus, OH

  • SS Morro Castle Fire (Ship)September 8, 1934, New York, NY

  • Winecoff Hotel Fire: December 7, 1946, Atlanta, GA

  • Rhythm Club Fire: April 23, 1940, Natchez, MS

  • MGM Grand Fire: November 21, 1980, Las Vegas

What do you think? Let us know in the comments or contact us. Share your favorite training idea with us, we know you have a good one!

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