I have on more than a few occasions been critical of big city fire departments efforts at providing EMS. That won’t change and I have a couple of posts in the pipeline that will continue doing that. One thing I don’t do is criticize their fire suppression work. That’s mainly because I’m not qualified to do so despite having stood by at fire scenes and observed what the Sort of Big City FD did. Which was in many cases amazing in terms of how fast they got a raging fire under control. It’s very impressive to watch as a building with fire rolling out the windows is saved in a short period of time by aggressive fire fighting. Sort of Big City has a well deserved reputation for doing aggressive interior attacks and saving buildings and property. That doesn’t happen everywhere and some departments will do only exterior fire fighting once they are sure that all of the occupants are out of the building.
The Boston Fire Department has long been noted as one of the agencies that does aggressive interior attacks. Among big city fire departments they are considered very good at it.
Aggressive fire fighting is fraught with risk to the people doing it. One of those risks is serious injury or death. While fire fighting doesn’t have a high number of deaths per year from that, it doesn’t mean that they don’t have any deaths.
In EMS, we mostly die from transportation accidents. That includes responding by air or ground to calls and during transports to hospitals. Or being struck by cars or trucks while working at the scene of a collision. Rarely, EMS providers will die from assaults by patients or even medical problems that happen during a call. Rarely.
Fire fighters die often (maybe most often) while working in burning buildings.
Which is what happened on Wednesday. Boston Fire Department crews responded to an alarm of fire in a multi apartment building and when the first due crews arrived they found a building with heavy smoke and fire showing. The crews, one engine company and one ladder company, didn’t hesitate, they did what they are trained to do. They went in to the burning building and started fire fighting operations. Most times, a fire like this would be be knocked down and the building would be saved. Another more or less routine day in the fire service.
This time it was different. Winds gusting into the 40-50 mile per hour range caused the fire to move much faster than the norm. The crews went in and one of them got trapped in the basement of the building for reasons that aren’t fully clear right now. Then ran out of water for reasons that also aren’t known. They called for help, but the fire was too fierce for the rescue teams to go in. They tried, but Incident Command ordered them out. Which might have been the toughest thing that commander ever had to do. Then the fire fighters ran out of air, still trapped. Lieutenant Ed Walsh and Fire Fighter Michael Kennedy died what I can only imagine was a pretty horrible and painful death.
I don’t know if there is anything harder than knowing that two of your coworkers are dying feet away from you and being helpless to do anything to help them. Fortunately, I’ve never had that experience so all I can do is imagine how hard that was.
By the nature of that job, firefighters are closer than in most other occupations. The military is probably much the same, but in civilian life the closeness of the fire service is very rare, if not unique. They work together and for a large part of their lives, they live together.
It’s the kind of thing that I think about when I see people gratuitously attacking the pay, benefits and “overly generous” pensions that fire fighters and other public safety workers. Those are people that run towards the source of danger instead of away from it. Sometimes they pay with their lives as happened Wednesday. That puts everything into perspective in a way that mostly we don’t have to think about.
There will be a couple of very big funerals over the next week, with firefighters, police officers, and EMS providers from all over attending. Still, when it’s all over the families (both of them) will be left to deal with their losses long after the rest of us have forgotten what happened.
If anything good can come out of this, it will be changes in how the fire service works under the unusual conditions that existed on Wednesday. Maybe down the road sometime their deaths won’t be in vain because the lessons learned will result in more fire fighters not dying.
Maybe that will be of some comfort to those left behind, at least I hope it will.