Friday, October 31, 2008

History of Fire Fighting (part 2)

After this incident, stronger measures were enforced to ascertain that the insurance companies covering losses due to fire were not overdoing insurance to more than they were capable of covering in the near future. Laws were also enforced and put into practice pertaining to this topic.

Uniformity in the practices being followed by the firefighters and to establish a congruency between fire prevention and fire insurance was felt. This led to the formation of National Board of Fire Underwrites which was founded in 1866, and was responsible for looking into matters pertaining to fire losses, how insurance companies covered them and to catch defaulters, if any.

This led to a win-win situation for the firefighters, the insurance companies and the general public wherein, none of the three parties involved in arson, conflagration or a natural fire could be duped by any of them. Later, this union, which was composed of many companies and dealers joined hands together and formed what is known as the Insurance Service Office today. The ISO is headquartered at Jersey City, New Jersey and contain more than 11 billion insurance records as of today.

Fire and firefighters have been put to test time and again and the Great Chicago fire in 1871 and the forest fire at Wisconsin the following year were two such situations. These two incidents led to 1/4th of the insurance companies and firefighting houses to become defunct and was a huge blow to the morals of the firefighting administration as a whole in the US.

One incident which led to the modification of existing rules on how to prevent fires and what kind of signs and preventive measures to be used was the Iroquois Theatre Fire in Chicago, Illinois in December 1903, which killed more than 600 people. Supposedly, the building was totally fireproof according to the existing preventive measures of that time. When investigated, it was revealed that although the building was carved out of totally fire-proof material, there were some flaws in the construction which led to the outburst of the inferno. Moreover, confusing signs showing fire end emergency exists and incapability of the security to combat stampede and fire were the main reasons for such catastrophic outcomes. This led to some basic modifications in the existing laws of that time, including some obvious things like doors that open outwards and not inwards, compulsory fitting of fire alarm systems and a mandatory fire exit drill which was to be carried out weekly for security employees to make them capable of fighting such situations.

Firefighting, as we know today, is not only limited to fighting and preventing fires, rather, firefighters are looked upon as those heroes who have come to the rescue of many lives caught in dangerous situations, be it a child caught on a high rise building or an old woman stuck in a manhole. The role of firefighters has changed over the years, and one major incident in history, which led to this metamorphosis, was the earthquake in 1906 at San Francisco. This earthquake had lasted for more than 90 minutes and had destroyed more than 500 city blocks, killing over 600 people. Firefighters were responsible for saving lives of people caught in the rubble, under the debris or caught in a fire. Traditional roles changed from here on, and led to the new roles of the firefighters, evolving from firefighters to heroes for many.

Even after so many drills were carried out, preventive measures were taken and so many rules were established, devastating fires kept striking from time to time, reminding us of the importance to involve latest technology and ideas in firefighting. One such incident, which happened in the modern times, was the Boston nightclub fire, which struck the Coconut Grove Nightclub, leaving 500 dead, and registering itself as the worst nightclub fire ever in the history.
Things changed with times, and after the Boston Nightclub incident, the use of technology and the sedate use of modernity in firefighting equipment led to the phasing out of traditional equipments. Gasoline driven firefighting engines were introduced in 1900 and the last steam engine had retired in 1932 at New York. The concept of paid fire fighters was also introduced, and caught up with the department really fast. Wes Barnes, was the first paid firefighting chief for the city of Jefferson, and was paid a salary of $45 a year.

In the series of fresh changes pertaining to firefighting and fire prevention, 'Sparkey', the fire dog was introduced as the mascot of NFPA as the symbol of national safety in 1950. The story behind Sparkey is an interesting one. Sparkey was a shy puppy, who sat outside the fence of a school and wanted to play with the children, but being shy, this Dalmatian kept away. One day, while following these children to their homes, he saw that the children's house was on fire. The dog went barking to the firefighting station to call the fire fighters, and this led Sparkey into being the symbol of national safety.

It has not been a comfortable ride for the firefighters and their respective departments. During the September 11 attack on the WTC twin towers and on the days following it, there have been some tragic days for the firemen. During the incident, many firefighters, most of who were voluntary fire fighters, had either gone missing or had lost their lives. There were skeptical views about the then Mayor of New York - Rudy Giuliani regarding the unprepared-ness of the firefighters he had sent on duty, because of which so many of them had to loose their lives. Whatever the end result, firefighters fought the circumstances with full vigor in that situation also, and were the silent heroes of so many lives they had saved.

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