Mar 252015
Brentwood Oaks Condo fire June 2012 in Nashville. 3rd floor collapsed onto the second.  18 condos  destroyed. 34 residents displaced.  Sprinklered building but for attic where fire started.

Brentwood Oaks Condo fire June 2012 in Nashville. 3rd floor collapsed onto the second. 18 condos destroyed. 34 residents displaced. Sprinklered building but for attic where the electrical fire started.

Murfreesboro apartment fire 25 March 2015.  Eight apts damaged, 14 children, 15 adults out of a home.

Murfreesboro apartment fire 25 March 2015. Eight apts damaged, 14 children, 15 adults out of a home.

More than once Greer’s prose has been called prescient by readers, and “Engine 10″ is no exception.  Those who read the novel know it depicts a Tea Party dystopia in 2016 in a city where the four remaining union firefighters resist draconian plans to destroy public service, including the fire department.  At the same time, building codes are considered an impediment to business, and repealed.

atavistic idiots
In the Tennessee assembly, atavistic idiots, neither of whom live in a city, co-sponsored a bill to override all local Tennessee fire codes with a law that prohibits a sprinkler requirement for residential buildings with three or more occupancies.  That means condos and townhouses and apartment buildings. One of these morons, state senator and businessman Mike Bell, graduated from community college, and the other, state representative Ryan Williams, a backwater Southern Baptist college graduate, claim their bill will overcome the competitive disadvantage Tennessee builders suffer from surrounding red states that don’t require sprinklers.

Yet another Nashville apt fire. 12 apartments destroyed and 40 people displaced by this Sept 2014 Antioch fire.

In other words, why can’t Tennessee be as stupid as those other states are?  People in Tennessee have the equal right to live in fire traps as do people in Georgia, for instance,  And Tennessee contractors should be able to build fire traps without a “competitive disadvantage.”  And Williams should know.  He’s a contractor.

You could say that the party of local control is a bunch of, if you’ll pardon the metaphor, flaming hypocrites because the sprinkler ban would usurp local control of fire codes.  But, of course, the Tea Party counter-argument is that each individual has responsibility for fire safety, meaning each resident in a condo or apartment building is responsible for buying a smoke detector, an extinguisher, emergency light, turnout gear, SCBA, and for keeping a fast-attack inch and a half line connected to the kitchen faucet.  The family in Brooklyn, New York, that lost seven kids last week had responsibility for their own home and failed to install a smoke detector anywhere but the basement where it would never be heard upstairs at night as the family slept, assuming it would be triggered by a first floor hotplate fire.

JamesBridge Apts burn in Memphis 22 December 2014.  Caused by food on the stove. 20 families displaced.

JamesBridge Apts burn in Memphis 22 December 2014. Caused by food on the stove. 20 families displaced.

applied tea party idiocy
Of course, the big flaw in applied Tea Party pseudo-ideology ignores the reality that multiple family dwellings depend on mutual responsibility.  A fire in one condo can and sometimes does burn other condos and will do so a lot faster than a fire in a detached single-family home. And if the fire doesn’t kill, the smoke will as it travels throughout the building. So sprinklers protect responsible apartment, condo, and townhouse residents from the irresponsible like the one in Memphis who left food on the stove or the gomer in Chattanooga who flipped a cigarette butt over the balcony railing. You can’t fix stupid, but you can install sprinklers.

Ideology is just a cover, though, for benighted self-interest, meaning blind greed by builders.  Being pro-business has nothing to do with the bill.  Being competitive has nothing to do with the bill.  Tennessee could rake in the cash from buyers and renters by advertising safe buildings. “Why live in a Georgia fire trap when you can live in a safe Nashville condo? And your insurance rates will be lower.”  No, the bill is another example in a long history of short-sighted greed at the expense of public safety.  Slap up the condos, grab the profit, and run.  After that, it’s not the builder’s problem.  Hell, San Francisco did just fine without building codes or serious fire protection until the 1906 earthquake, but people have to learn to live with risk.  And school construction was just fine until the Our Lady of Angels fire in 1958 that killed 92 kids and three nuns.  Then the nanny state came along and imposed school fire safety codes on builders. At the urging of the private sector, of course, through the National Fire Protection Association.

Chattanooga  Carriage Parc Apts burn 24 Jan 2014.  Caused by cigarette butt.  12 units destroyed.  75 displaced.

Chattanooga Carriage Parc Apts burn 24 Jan 2014. Caused by cigarette butt. 12 units destroyed. 75 displaced.

you can’t fix stupid
The insurance industry, through the NFPA and Underwriters Laboratory, does appreciate building codes and has fought long and hard for safe construction, which is really the key to reduction in public emergency services and therefore lower taxes. Modern fire protection, as one Washington DC firefighter said, will become nothing more than a sponge and a squeegee in well-designed, well-built, well-protected buildings where the fire is out on arrival of the first due engine.

Ben Franklin started a fire department to keep his insurance company from going bankrupt, and Founding Father Franklin knew he had to depend on his neighbors to be equally concerned about fire prevention and rapid suppression, but Ben was never naive in assuming everyone would be responsible. The National Fire Protection Association continued that close private-public relationship between fire prevention and fire protection to keep insurance companies in business when they issued fire protection policies and to prevent life and property loss in public and private buildings.  So, in spite of Tea Party rhetoric, business owners want strong building codes that are good for business.  People who live in buildings do not want to burn or have all their possessions go up in smoke.

But you can’t fix stupid.  Not in a Tennessee legislature led by two badly educated and irresponsible gomers with no sense of community and no grip on reality.

You can reach Senator Mike Bell at 615-741-1946
You can reach Representative Ryan Williams at  615-741-1875


Barry Roberts Greer, editor
author, Engine 10, Seven Two, Pipe Nozzle, Of Cowards and Firefighters

Mar 142015

1655 Middleton Avenue Philadelphia

Sisterhood of fire
Firefighters, who are predominantly male, like to refer to the profession (paid or not) as the “brotherhood” even though women have been in firefighting from at least 1818 when Molly Williams served New York City with the Oceanus Engine Company.

One hundred fifty women serve in the modern Philadelphia Fire/EMS Department, including Melissa Coflesh working at Engine 43, who was the first Philly firefighter in the basement under the crushed Salvation Army thrift shop in June 2013. She guided five people out from under the rubble.

Joyce Craig, Philadelphia firefighter

Joyce Craig, Philadelphia firefighter

Nyree Bright, a two-year Phily firefighter, worked a shift with Joyce Craig-Lewis, an eleven-year veteran PFD firefighter on Engine 73 when at 0250 on 9 December 2014, the usual two engines and two ladders and one battalion chief were dispatched to 1655 Middleton Avenue in the Oak Lane section of northeast Philly.

The radio transmission indicated that Engine 73 arrived first and the lieutenant on board reported “nothing showing” from the brick rowhouse at 1655 Middleton, a standard size-up report from the first officer on scene if no smoke or fire is visible from the street. That initial size-up was transmitted four minutes after dispatch, the SOP reason being that other inbound companies can reduce speed to reduce risk during response.. But shortly thereafter the PFD dispatcher advised responding companies to resume emergency speed because the battalion chief (BC), who arrived just after Engine 73, called for a full box response.

For most residential fires in small dwellings such as rowhouses, two engines and two ladders and one battalion chief is a standard Philly response and usually one engine and ladder is all that’s needed, which is what the BC first reported, then boom. Fill out the box, which meant two more engines and a ladder over the initial 2 and 2, including a RIT, but by the time the box was filled and the RIT assigned, it was already too late contrary to all the shrill reporting from Philadelphia news media. The flashover happened just after the lieutenant, Joyce Craig, and Nyree Bright from Engine 73 pulled a charged line into the rowhouse and started into the basement. As far as we know. None of the reporting includes detail on the position of the three firefighters when the flashover occurred. At the top of the basement stairs, at the bottom, in the basement? Were the stairs in the front or rear of the first floor? Was the nozzle ever opened?

But the facts do tell us that before any other companies arrived, the basement fire blew up to the first and second floor. Fire moves that fast, especially when it’s confined to a basement, builds heat, and is suddently freed into a fresh supply of air and fuel. Boom. A flashover occurs with near explosive force, being the first cousin of a backdraft.

A year ago, on 26 March 2014, two Boston firefighters entered the basement of an apartment building where initially nothing was showing. Both were killed by a backdraft from a confined wall fire that engulfed the building. Lt. Ed Walsh and firefighter Michael Kennedy died in the line of duty, just as Joyce Craig did. As with the Craig death, the Boston reporting was wrong. The Globe left the impression that high wind caused the blow up and killed the firefighters. The backdraft occurred because of a confined space fire, not the wind, but once the fire was out and ventilated, the wind pushed it rapidly up into the entire structure.

The families of both Nyree Bright and Joyce Craig need to know that no investigation of Joyce Craig’s death can eliminate the brute facts of the profession. Flashovers happen. Backdrafts happen. Firefighters die in the line of duty in a dangerous profession where all the safety rules in the world short of not entering burning buildings will stop death and injury. Statistics do indicate safety improvement. The National Fire Protection Association catalogued 103,340 firefighter injuries in 1981, a number that dropped to 65.880 in 2013, or about 181 a day, with the Northeast having the highest rate in the country because firefighters in the Northeast face some of the most dangerous construction, such as rowhouses.

Joyce Craig’s sacrifice in context
But Philadelphia firefighters have to be aggressive because one rowhouse fire could easily become a block on fire, so the Engine 73 lieutenant and two firefighters pushing right into the house with a hose line in the middle of the night and pushing down into the basement was nothing unusual. And Philly burns all the time, so the risk of being a firefighter in Philly is as high as it gets. Here’s a sampling of the working structure fires in Philly since 9 December 2014 when Joyce Craig made the ultimate sacrifice for her city.

March 8: Rowhouse fire with one rescue. Filled the box.
March 6: Church electrical fire extended into the walls.
Feb 25: Dwelling fire. Box filled out.
Feb 24: 3-alarm building fire.
Feb 20: Four dwelling fires, including a basement fire, a rescue, and box filled three times
Feb 18: Dwelling fire with box filled.
Feb 16: Two-alarm fire, twice  that day.
Feb 12: Basement fire. Box filled out.
Feb 6: Two-alarm building fire.
Feb 4: Apartment fire eighth floor.
Jan 31: Dwelling fire twice at same location.
Jan 29: Rowhouse fire. Filled the box.
Jan 29: Double fatality rowhouse fire.
Jan 27: Apartment fire with vagrants rescued.
Jan 14: Rowhouse fire.
Jan 12: Rowhouse fire. CPR on two dogs without success.
Jan 10: Dwelling basement fire. Box filled.
Jan 8: Dwelling fire in duplex with one fatality.
Jan 6: Large detached home fire. Added two engines to the response.
Jan 3: Rowhouse fire. Box filled.
Jan 2: Four rowhouses burn. One burn victim transported.
Jan 2: Basement fire in rowhouse. Filled the box.
Jan 2: Building fire rekindle.
Jan 2: Duplex fire. Filled the box.
Jan 2: Store fire. Added engine to the response.
Jan 1: Garage fire fully involved.
Dec 29: Dwelling fire. Box filled.
Dec 29: Grarage fire with vehicle inside.
Dec 27: Dwelling fire in duplex with burn victim transported.
Dec 24: Basement fire in dwelling. Box filled out.
Dec 22: Dwelling fire in duplex. Box filled out.
Dec 19: Apartment fire with one firefighter burned.
Dec 18: Apartment fire with victims rescued.
Dec 15: Rowhouse fire. Box filled out.
Dec 14: Rowhouse fire with five, including an infant, rescued from roof.
Dec 11: Rowhouse fire with box filled.

In 2013, the emergency call total, medical and fire, topped 437,000, or roughly one call for each three Philadelphia residents. 1200 calls a day. 50 an hour. On average. Some days are quiet, and some days all hell breaks lose.

This is why PFD attacks fast and hard: 4 kids died in this July 2014 rowhouse fire.

Somebody has to do the job
The pattern following Joyce Craig’s death is the same as it is for the line of duty deaths of other firefighters. Anger, grief, finger pointing, investigation, pledges of “reform,” and lousy journalism. Of course, fingers pointed to the other woman in the basement, given the sexism in the Philadelphia Fire Department. Nyree Bright is being scapegoated, punished without due process, laid off without pay or benefits. She reported Joyce missing to the battalion chief on scene. Neither the BC nor the Engine 73 lieutenant have been disciplined.

And, of course, the press has missed the real story. None of the three ladder trucks assigned to 1655 Middleton could have arrived in under six minutes, a minute over the maximum response time recommended by the National Fire Protection Association. The first due ladder truck, Ladder 29, already in route to another call, a forced entry to assist medics, called dispatch and asked if it should abort the medic run and respond to the structure fire. The dispatcher said no, correctly, but Ladder 29 was the only ladder company in Olney, housed right there with Engine 63, the second due pumper.

It happens in Philly. Simultaneous calls for the same engine or ladder company or medic. So the first due ladder at 1855 Middleton was actually the second due from Germantown. Philly fire dispatch filled out the box with added companies along with three medics being requested to respond to the scene. Dispatch also started reassigning companies to cover the areas left without protection by the working fire, and notified the BC that Joyce Craig had triggered her alarm. Any working fire is combat; it’s organized chaos with countless factors that cannot be anticipated, but somebody has to do the job, and the press cannot assume the battalion chief could have ordered personnel back into a fire blowing out of the basement to all floors in the house. Look at the scorch marks on the outside of 1655 Middleton in the top photo. Stopping a suicidal rescue attempt is the hardest decisions a fire officer has to make.

Wait for the full report on Craig’s death to judge whether or not she could have been saved. In the meantime, put Nyree Bright back on the job.

Real reform
So the PFD commissoner and Mayor Nutter can tell the press all they want about “reform,” by which they meant more training on basement fires following this LODD, as if training for the past will guarantee prediction in the future, and exactly how is more training done for basement fires? But more training is easier to talk about than real changes.

It’s easier and less expensive to lose one or two firefighters a year and have a few others injured than to pass ordinances that make fire safety seriously mandatory. Progress in building codes has been made since the 19th- and early 20th-Century urban conflagrations, but much more needs to be done–obviously. Such as mandatory smoke alarms and sprinklers on all floors in all buildings, both residential and commercial. Such as mandatory connection of an internal smoke alarm to an external alarm that can be heard from the street. Such as mandatory demolition of abandoned buildings. Such as mandatory grounded circuits and ground rods. Such as serious fines for the building owner if a firefighter is injured or jail time when a firefighter is killed at a fire, and that means all structure fires are presumed preventable, which clearly places the burden of fire safety on the builders and owners and not the fire department. The parallel is the burden of responsibility placed on vehicle manufacturers and owners.

Oh, and place more ladder companies back in service in Philly.

But, in the meantime, Philadelphia honored the service and sacrifice of Joyce Craig-Lewis, and should honor the service each year of all the women serving in the sisterhood of fire and ems in the Philadelphia Fire Department.

Today, 14 March, Philadelphia fought working fires at 0038, 0329, 0339, 0844, and 1607. All dwelling fires with one of them in a basement.

—Barry Roberts Greer, editor
author, Pipe Nozzle, Of Cowards and Firefighters, Seven Two, Engine 10.