A fire 'family' holds reunion

Firehouse Expo celebrates 25th year

July 25, 2008|By Nick Madigan | Nick Madigan,Sun Reporter

Perched next to a chrome siren on the fire engine's polished front bumper, 6-year-old Kevin McAdams wasn't much concerned that the huge pump truck he had commandeered as a chair was worth almost half a million dollars, or that it could deliver 1,500 gallons of water a minute onto a blaze.

Instead, Kevin had his eye on the future, and a more elevated view.

"I want to be a tillerman," he said, referring to the firefighter who sits in a cab at the rear of a ladder truck, steering wheel in hand. "I like to be up high in the thing and shut the doors."

If the aspiring firefighter had prior experience sitting in that lofty spot, it might have been because his father, Michael McAdams, is an assistant chief with the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service, one of hundreds of emergency departments represented yesterday at the Firehouse Expo being held this week at the Baltimore Convention Center.

The elder McAdams was among 16,000 firefighters from around the country - and some from overseas - attending the event, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary and is a showcase for not only the latest technology for emergency responders but for a host of seminars on survival techniques, drills, management tips and firefighting strategies.

"We all have a common language," McAdams said. "The faces and names might change, but the issues usually don't."

For the average firefighter, the conference serves as a six-day, full-immersion class in virtually everything that could possibly be learned about the job and how best to perform in it. The schedule lists 120 sessions overseen by 250 instructors, including lessons on handling fires on roadways, in basements, on roofs and in rural areas, as well as in large dwellings, high-rise buildings and nursing homes. There was even a seminar on how to use a chain saw without doing damage to life and limb.

One session was titled, "All Hell Breaks Loose, and Now You're Out of Air," and another, "Saving Your Crew Tonight - Why are We Still Losing Firefighters?"

The latter question was also addressed in a keynote speech yesterday by J. Gordon Routley, former chief of the Shreveport, La., Fire Department, who, without mincing words, revealed the lessons learned from his investigation of a disastrous fire at a large furniture store in Charleston, S.C., on June 18, 2007, in which nine firefighters died. As he read aloud the fallen men's names, the packed ballroom of the convention center erupted in applause.

After providing a detailed chronology of the events that led to the deaths of the firefighters, who became disoriented in the heavy smoke and could not find their way out of the burning building, Routley blamed poor communications between firefighters and their superior officers as well as a lack of coordination among the companies that responded.

"Nobody was performing the basic functions of an incident commander," said Routley, who had been called in to lead the investigation. "There were multiple chiefs giving orders."

To make matters worse, he said, distress calls from trapped firefighters were not heard by officers outside until it was too late to save them.

In the audience yesterday, there were murmurs of disapproval. "It's unbelievable to listen to this," said George Rehberg, former chief of the Westbrook, Conn., Fire Department and now the town's fire marshal. "This thing is disgraceful. If I'd done something that bad, I couldn't live with myself. I'd have to quit the service. My men come first."

Additional sessions were to focus on what was learned from mistakes in other fatal blazes, such as the Dec. 31, 1986, fire at the Dupont Plaza Hotel in San Juan, P.R., in which 96 people were killed; the warehouse fire in Worcester, Mass., on Dec. 3, 1999, in which six firefighters died; and the auto dealership fire on July 1, 1988, in Hackensack, N.J., that killed five firefighters.

"This whole industry is like a family," said Mike Wise, the national sales manager for Nupla Corp., an equipment manufacturer, who was displaying fire axes, wire cutters and other tools of the firefighting trade. "These people really hang together."

nick.madigan@baltsun.com

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