Excerpt: The Professional Volunteer Fire Department, By Thomas Merrill

Apr 12th 2024

Excerpt: The Professional Volunteer Fire Department, By Thomas Merrill

Understanding Our Fire Service History

Professional firefighters should possess a basic understanding of the history of the US fire service. The evolution of equipment and tactics, as well as the contributions of the outstanding individuals who have helped develop the fire service over the past 300 years, are truly fascinating.

Learn from the past

There is a serious side to understanding fire service history. The old saying, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” is a powerful reminder that taking the time to understand and learn from the fires and tragedies of yesterday can help prevent similar tragedies from occurring today. Legendary FDNY Fire Chief Vincent Dunn put it more directly when he said, “There are no new lessons to be learned from a firefighter’s death or injury. The cause of the tragedy is usually an old lesson we have not learned or have forgotten along the way.”

The Hackensack tragedy

When I was a young firefighter, the poster child for fire tragedy involved a bowstring truss roof failure that occurred at a Ford dealership on July 1, 1988, in Hackensack, NJ. Five Hackensack firefighters were tragically killed when the bowstring roof collapsed in the fire.

This tragedy occurred early in my fire officer career, and our chief officers spent a lot of time discussing what had happened. As a result of this tragedy, our department implemented procedures to hopefully prevent a similar event from occurring in our area. It remained imprinted on my mind, as it did with all of us who later became officers, and the lesson stayed with us as we moved up through the ranks in the years that followed. We made sure we discussed it at drills and training events. I have noticed, however, that this story is now fading from the collective knowledge base of area firefighters. A mention of the Hackensack Ford fire to newer firefighters is usually met with blank stares.

Time marches on, and my career as an officer has passed, as it has with the other officers who served with me. Sadly, when officers and senior members leave, so does their experience and knowledge. It is imperative that the veteran firefighters of today teach and pass on the lessons learned from yesterday. And it is equally important that the officers and firefighters of today truly listen and recognize the importance of studying and understanding our fire service history. We do not want the future generations to have to relearn tragic and horrific lessons. We do not want those who made the supreme sacrifice to have done so in vain.

The Hackensack tragedy was by no means the first time a bowstring truss roof had failed during a fire. In fact, it had occurred in 1978 when six FDNY firefighters were killed at the Waldbaum’s Supermarket fire. And 10 years before that, on November 21, 1968, four Wichita, KS firefighters, including the chief of department, were killed at a fire at the Yingling Chevrolet auto dealership. This fire was eerily similar to the Hackensack fire, with little smoke and no fire visible in the dealership, but fire raging above in the cockloft area. Tragic similarities and lessons to be learned such as these are why professional firefighters respect history. By respecting that history and ensuring it survives and is passed on, you honor the memory of all those who have sacrificed. It ensures they have not died in vain.

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The Professional Volunteer Department