November 15, 2022

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Learning From Historic Fires

Gordon Graham
Category: Fire Service

Gordon Graham here with Today’s Tip from Lexipol. And Today’s Tip is for my friends in the fire service, and I’d like to talk about learning from the past.  

The fires you studied in your fire academies are, sadly, responsible for thousands of lives lost – firefighters and civilians. Each of these fires has a lesson to teach us about planning, inspection, size-up, and operations.

Don’t disregard these lessons just because you don’t have large nightclubs, manufacturing, refineries, or casinos in your response area. Often, what went wrong can just as easily happen in the convenience store, bar and grill, grocery store, auto repair shop, townhouse complex, or community center in your town.  

Take a look at historic nightclub fires like Cocoanut Grove and The Station. They all have common elements: Means of egress problems, flammable decorations, and lack of built-in fire protection features, leading to hundreds of civilian deaths. Look for these same elements in your local chain restaurant or bar.  

Study fires that led to structural collapse, such as Hotel Vendome, Waldbaum’s Supermarket, and Hackensack Ford. Each of these events killed multiple firefighters because of undocumented structural changes and bowstring trusses. These are features likely found in your response area, especially in older, renovated buildings.  

And always remember that the fire code doesn’t eliminate conditions like insufficient exit capacity, locked doors, and lack of working sprinklers. The Our Lady of Angels School and Triangle Shirtwaist fires resulted in sweeping fire code updates to address high-risk issues, but the conditions still exist. It’s up to you to find the violations and enforce the codes.  

Now’s the time to start building lessons learned from historic fires into your planning, training, code enforcement, policy development, and operations. With effective risk management, we are definitely not doomed to repeat the past.    

And that’s Today’s Tip from Lexipol. Gordon Graham signing off.

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