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  That is, unless you happen to know something about fighting fires and the history of great fires in America. I just watched a show on PBS, Damrell's Fire that is a fascinating look at the career of a man who played a huge role in making modern cities far safer than they would otherwise be.

       In the 19th century, American cities were growing by leaps and bounds - but the tools to keep them from burning down were not keeping pace. The 1871 Great Chicago Fire is perhaps the best known example. In 1872 Boston too suffered a great fire - but that it was fought and brought under control was due in large part to the efforts of John S. Damrell.

       Damrell followed a family tradition by becoming a volunteer firefighter. Born in 1829 in Boston, he'd worked in building trades growing up; but his passion was firefighting. By age 38, his abilities and recognition by his fellows saw him elected to Chief in 1866. He campaigned to make changes in Boston, repeatedly warning of inadequate water supplies, insufficient fire houses and equipment, unsafe building practices and a lack of city laws needed for safety.

        Damrell wasn't just concerned with fighting fires, he was thinking about how to fight them more effectively - and how to prevent them in the first place. Against him were arrayed the usual suspects: those with their own political agendas and empires to protect, those who objected to the expense of his recommendations, those who considered them impractical, and those who simply wanted business as usual.

       Damrell toured Chicago after the fire there, studying it, trying to understand what worked, what didn't, and what might have been done differently. He brought those lessons back to Boston, knowing his city was just as vulnerable as Chicago. When a fire broke out in the business district on November 9, 1872 at 7:20 pm, Damrell saw his worst nightmares realized.

        The film lays out in detail the battle Damrell directed through the night and into the next day to keep the fire from destroying all of Boston. He faced multiple challenges: poor water supplies, highly flammable structures - and a disease outbreak that meant most of the horses who'd haul fire engines were too sick to do their jobs. As the fire grew from its initial start, it began to create a great roaring updraft wind that fed the flames and spread them, a firestorm. On top of that, he had to deal with a city government best described as Byzantine, and 'experts' full of the wrong ideas, not to mention people frantically insisting their buildings be saved at all costs.

        A common practice up to that time was to dynamite buildings to create firebreaks in a city fire - except what it mainly did was create piles of kindling to spread the fire even faster. Tried at one point by Damrell himself, it only confirmed what he'd learned in Chicago and by talking to others who had tried it: it only made things worse.

       Nonethless, Damrell was finally able to establish a line of men and equipment around the fire that stopped it and finally allowed it to be contained, a feat that had never been accomplished before. One of his early decisions at the start of the conflagration, within 30 minutes of getting to the scene, turned out to be critical: he'd had telegrams sent to every fire department for 50 miles around in New England calling for help. It began arriving as his firefighters were facing exhaustion, and helped turn the tide. It marked the first time this had been done by a Fire Chief in America. The firestorm was contained and under control 12 hours after it had started.

      In the months that followed, extended hearings were held into the fire; Damrell gave testimony several times in the course of them. The political enemies he'd made while advocating for fire safety attempted to scapegoat him, but the final report adopted every recommendation he'd made over the years, and the testimony of others made him a hero. It did not save his job, however. Within a few months, he returned from a trip to New York City where he had met with other fire chiefs to share what he'd learned, only to find his political enemies had reorganized the fire department in his absence and installed a board for 'oversight'. He resigned.

       It was what he did next that is his real legacy. Damrell is something special - a hero of the public sector. He became instrumental in getting other firefighters together in a professional organization that would share knowledge and best practices. He became a building inspector and created a department to oversee the  new construction going up in Boston. He fought tirelessly to get fire codes adopted that would make buildings safer from fire from the ground up, climaxing in a national code. Damrell changed forever the way fires are fought, and more importantly, institutionalized fire prevention in a way that modern cities still follow. His name is still a touchstone among firefighters everywhere.

    Here's a short trailer for the film about Damrell. A virtual Boston of 1872 was recreated to show how the fire was battled and finally stopped. It was first shown on PBS in 2006; I hadn't seen it until now. It's well worth tracking down - it's available on DVD and just might turn up on your local PBS station from time to time.

* edited to add more info, after seeing the show rebroadcast today.

Originally posted to xaxnar on Fri Feb 21, 2014 at 08:35 PM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.


John S. Damrell:

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