Firemen Never Fiddle (Sep, 1938)

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Firemen Never Fiddle

By Stanley Gerstin

Our modern fire-fighter is a young husky about whose exploits under fire little has been written. This story tells how he is trained; what he does.

IN 1871 a cow kicked over a lamp and started a fire that reduced Chicago to ashes, and a bucket of water started a fire that leveled Seattle 18 years later. The water was thrown over burning glue causing it to spread, and Seattle, like San Francisco a few years later, burnt to the ground. There have been other great fires throughout the history of the world but in all the records of fires little is ever written of the heroes who fought them. I am thinking of the fire-fighters whose exploits under fire rival those of the famous G-Men of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. These are heroes of the flames, smoke-eaters all, fire-fighters who know how to hem in a big city fire; they can stalk fugitive fires in walls and between floors —track them down with hose and axe and when they meet the fire demon, blast it with water. These are the 20th century minute-men of America; they are off with the crack of the gong hell-bent for the nearest fire hydrant. They are heroes of a thousand-and-one-nights, protectors of peoples and property from the ravishes of the flames.

These modern fire-fighters believe literally that where there is smoke there is fire. They battle thousands of fires yearly, large and small—waging war against hundreds of millions of dollars worth of conflagration which claims 10,000 lives annually. Figuratively speaking, they watch this money go up in smoke. But to watch it is no Roman holiday for our fire-fighters. To combat it they must learn to climb like monkeys, tie knots like sailors, jump into life nets (like the man on the flying trapeze) with the greatest of ease. They must be life-savers and man-handlers, building inspectors and first-aid men. They learn to penetrate smoke-filled rooms wearing gas masks, operate smoke ejectors and cutting tools, pulmotor and in-halator, provide artificial respiration and even operate refrigerating systems.

In New York, Detroit and Chicago; Atlanta, Omaha and San Francisco, they are trained for their role of fire-fighting. One of the best examples of the schools that teach them their tricks is the New York training college—largest in the country. More than 1,000 men a year are trained here as firefighters for New York city and men from all over the world, to the tune of 50 to 60 a year, come to learn how it is done and then return to their homes to establish training schools modeled after the one in New York.

Those who train here are typical of fire-fighters all over the country. They are usually men like Henry Miller, a mechanic, 26 years of age, a husky fellow who took the fireman’s exam because it offered him a secure future. Like Henry, the rookies who enter the school are between 21 and 29 years of age and include engineers lawyers, mechanics, button-hole makers and metal workers, toy makers and bridge workers. Many of the men are college graduates. Average age of the rookie is 24-1/2. A class of rookies at the New York school averages about 250 men appointed for a probationary training period of 90 days. Before entering the school the rookie is subjected to a rigid physical examination (his second) which must include blood tests. If he makes the grade, salary begins immediately at $2,000 a year and all the benefits of medical care, sick leave, insurance and pension become effective.

The rookie supplies his own training uniform at a cost of $11; spends about $125 for a fireman’s outfit about once every four years.

The rookie fireman goes to school 5 days a week, 8 hours daily and leads a busy life from the day he enters. He spends 24 hours on Saturday assigned alternately to the hook and ladder station, pumping station, rescue station and fireboat Key to the training routine is to crowd in as much outdoor activity as possible. The beginner receives a liberal education in the use of tools and equipment. He learns to handle the small 1-1/2 inch hose for small fires, the larger 2-1/2 inch hose for general fires and the deluge hose (3 inches) for special fires. He learns to scale ladders from 10 to 85 feet in length.

Like a real scholar, the rookie learns about ladder construction (to give him confidence in what he hangs on to 85 feet in the air). All portable ladders are made by the department’s own carpenters so that there is no question of quality and workmanship. Average life of a ladder is 3 to 4 years but under extremely hard usage, ladders have been discarded after 6 hours. In one week of training the average rookie does more calisthenics than in all the previous years of his life. Fireman Henry Miller, for instance, after a weeks training has worked up a perpetual sweat and melted away any excessive fat he may have had. He has limbered up his muscles in leaping and climbing. He must swing himself across a 40-foot ladder 50 feet in the air and walk across one at the same height, and if he thinks he has done his part for his country, wait until he is required to leap into a life net from the third or fourth story window! Not only has he become an expert trapeze-man but he can now handle a fire hose under pressure so that the back pressure won’t throw the nozzle and brain him. Normal fire hose pressure is 35 pounds, enough for 3-story work. Pumping trucks can raise enough pressure to shoot a stream of water over a 15-story building.

But by this time fireman Henry’s headaches have only just begun. Battalion Chief David J. Oliver, in charge of the training school, decides to introduce the rookie to the scaling ladder and does it very mildly by requiring him to climb a 12-foot ladder to the first-story window. These scaling ladders vary from 12 to 18 feet in length and are made from second growth hickory. Each of its rungs will sustain a weight of 600 pounds and the ladder will safely sustain the combined weights of a man on each rung. They are made by the fire department carpenters and weigh 1-1/2 pounds per foot. They are re-enforced with wrought iron and an iron hook at the top serves to grab a window-sill so that a man may safely climb to any height with one ladder simply by passing it up from floor to floor. Rookies learn to climb a story a day until they reach a height of 90 to 100 feet from which they are required to dangle by their safety belts with arms outstretched —and if you think that’s nothing, just try it. This little feat is accomplished in 2-1/2 to 3 minutes climbing time after a rookie is sufficiently toughened to it. To make the trick harder, Chief Oliver requires each man to carry a 140-pound dummy down a scaling ladder and so efficient are the men becoming that those in the service are increasing scaling ladder rescues yearly. Firemen now average one to two rescues a week.

Compared to a scaling ladder, an 85-foot aerial ladder looks easy until a rookie must do the trick with a heavy fire hose and hold it in position under pressure. Either he holds it or gets thrown for a power dive into kingdom come.

A fireman is a son of the sea when it comes to making pretzels with a rope. The rookie must learn to splice ropes, make special knots and bows designed for rescue work so that victims may be trussed up and lowered without slipping from the rope or suffer broken ribs.

Life with a life net is not an easy one for the aspiring fireman. The net jumper’s problem is to gauge his distance and land correctly because if he misses or lands badly, he may never live to tell his children about it. Leaps are usually made from 35 to 40 feet, but graduate firemen must be qualified to jump from 50-foot heights. Highest jump on record was made a few years ago by an unsung hero who catapulted from a 10th-story window—and lived. However, six-story jumps have frequently been made.

The rookie fireman does not lead a strictly outdoor life. There are classroom periods when he is expected to use less brawn and more brain, when lectures are the order of the day. Classroom work consists of lectures on safety and discipline, fire rules and regulations, duties of building inspectors, how to track down fires, etc. By the time a rookie completes his 90-day probationary training, he is qualified to “general” a fire from the first spark to the last wisp of smoke. Men who fail to make the grade are given additional training; are never dropped. Those who can’t make the grade usually see the handwriting on the wall and drop out of their own volition.

Men who are assigned to fire boats are usually seamen with exceptionally fine records in the merchant marine and navy. After being trained at the regular training college they receive an additional period of training at the marine school.

Assignments to fire houses are on the basis of 8 men to a shift, three shifts to a fire house and their responsibilities include checking property and fire boxes, checking businesses using combustibles, checking water mains and stand-pipes. Men chosen as inspectors are first grade firemen who receive an additional 6 weeks training.

On an average, the New York smoke-eater answers 39,000 alarms yearly of which 28,000 are fires and the remainder false alarms or unnecessary. He combats $7,700,000 worth of fires at a per capita cost of $1.05 (1936 estimates). He squirts 50,000,000 gallons of water through all kinds of hoses. He guards 674,000 buildings spread over an area of 315 square miles. By 1939 New York will have 11,300 men assigned to 369 fire houses which garage about 800 pieces of fire-fighting equipment. And the city spends over $22,000,000 annually to keep this force in trim.

To live this life, a New York fireman receives $2,000 the first year, $2,500 the second year and $3,000 the third year after which he is rated a first grade fireman. Thereafter increases depend on promotions. He is eligible to take the lieutenant’s exam, after receiving his first grade rating, at a salary of $3,900. Captains receive $4,500; battalion chiefs get $5,300 and deputy chiefs, $6,300. Commissioner is tops—and there is only one of those. He is John J. McElligott. He came up from the ranks and in any batch of rookies, there may be a potential commissioner—future headman of the smoke-eaters.

There is no telling what fires these men may have to battle from year to year throughout the country. In 1879 the country suffered $77,000,000 worth of fire losses. Worst year was 1926 when fire losses totalled $562,000,000. In recent years losses have been well below $300,000,000.

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