Burning Down the Firehouse

To look at the tidy little house at 48th and York, you’d think the fire that killed Pearl Gallagher on June 14 didn’t really amount to much. Sheets of plywood cover the windows, but there are no flame-scarred walls, no singed rafters. The flower garden just beyond the front door blooms as if nothing happened. The perky impatiens nestled in a ceramic lamb at the bottom of the steps wait to be watered.

This fire, like most of the 200-odd blazes the Minneapolis Fire Department puts out each year, was pretty routine. The dispatcher downtown got the call at 8:21 p.m., and by 8:24, Engine 28 was on the scene from the station six blocks away. Engine 25 arrived a minute later. The house was already engulfed in smoke, and Gallagher’s son was there telling firefighters that his mother was in the living room. Two firefighters went inside. A third engine, number 22, pulled up at 8:27, just as the first ladder truck showed up. Five minutes later, a heavy rescue crew arrived.

Meanwhile, inside the house, firefighters couldn’t find Pearl Gallagher. She wasn’t in the living room at the front of the house as her son had thought. Fighting through thick smoke, they finally found her in the rear of the house, where she had collapsed from smoke inhalation. At 8:38, firefighters pulled the 70-year-old woman from the house and began efforts to revive her. Soon she was hustled off to the hospital.

Four days later, Pearl Gallagher was dead.

To a civilian reading through an official incident report, a tragedy like this is both instructive and provocative. Firefighting is romanticized all the time—never more than in the past two years—but it is a highly technical and tactical profession. Every second counts, and every firefighter has a specialized job to do. When you lose time or have the wrong equipment or not enough firefighters, the results can go from bad to worse in a hurry.

An expert looking dispassionately at the circumstances surrounding Gallagher’s death would say that our fire department did its job. Four firefighters were at the scene in less than five minutes. That is within standards established by the National Fire Protection Association. Fifteen firefighters were there within eight minutes—another NFPA standard.

It’s certainly true that people sometimes die in fires even when the department is firing on all cylinders. Still, in firehouses around the city, Gallagher’s death added fuel to a smoldering controversy. Budget cuts at the Minneapolis Fire Department have resulted in layoffs and ladder-company closings—including a ladder company at Station 27, less than three miles from Gallagher’s house. Ladder trucks and crews are key to ventilating a burning building—cutting holes in the roof to help clear the air inside. Could Pearl Gallagher have been saved if the ladder crew from Station 27 had answered the alarm, rather than the one at Station Eight at 28th and Blaisdell, a mile and a half farther away? Would it have made a difference if there had been four firefighters on those three engines, instead of three? Nobody will say for sure. But one firefighter told me, “Four minutes less in that atmosphere, would her chances be better? Yes.”

Many people, some of them in positions of authority, have no idea what a Minneapolis firefighter actually does. They don’t know that firefighters are the city’s first responders, and that they make tens of thousands of runs to “medicals” all over the city, including shut-ins who have no contact with the outside world other than with whoever responds to a 911 call. People don’t know that it usually takes more than one firefighter to lay down “charged” hose, because one firefighter can’t pull hose past more than two 90-degree turns. And people don’t realize that one of the most important things firefighters do is knock holes in things, to provide lifesaving air.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, fire stations are no bastions of card-playing, truck-washing layabouts, shuffling around the station until some opportunity for heroism beckons. At least once every half-hour, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, a crew is being dispatched somewhere in the city on an emergency medical call. They are the first to arrive when somebody’s suffering a heart attack or a gunshot wound. Crews also responded to more than 9,000 calls last year to handle various other “hazardous conditions.”

There are fires, of course. The numbers have declined steadily over the past 30 years, especially as older commercial properties have either burned down or come up to code, with sprinklers and the like. There were 724 structural fires in 1970, compared to 261 last year. Still, the number of people needed to battle even a routine blaze hasn’t really changed.

The crew of the first engine to arrive on the scene usually sends two people in—one with a charged hose—for search and rescue. With a four-person crew, one starts the pump and another provides support for the “attack line” (the first hose in)—helping to feed hose if it gets stuck rounding more than two corners or if it gets lodged beneath the wheel of a car. As a result of budget cuts, that fourth person now often comes from the crew in the second engine to arrive on the scene, which can cost the first crew valuable time in its search-and-rescue efforts.

Equally vital is the arrival of the ladder company, which is called upon to ventilate the structure by chopping holes in the roof to let out the smoke. Inside a burning house, firefighters generally cannot see more than a few inches in front them; they navigate by feeling along the walls. Also, without proper ventilation, volatile gases can accumulate and explode.

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5