Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Fighting Fire! by Michael Cooper - rambing discussion instead of strict review

Fighting Fire! Ten Deadliest Fires in American History and How We Fought Them
by Michael L. Cooper

Published: March 4, 2014
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co. (BYR)

Pages: 224
Genre: Nonfiction 
Age range: 10 - 14 Years
Source: Provided by Publisher for Cybils consideration

From the cover:
Since colonial times, the destructive power of fires and the bravery of those who fight them have remained constant in American history.

Fighting Fire! presents ten of the deadliest infernos this nation has ever endured: the great fires of Boston, New York, Chicago, Baltimore, and San Francisco; the disasters of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, the General Slocum, and the Cocoanut Grove nightclub; the wildfire of Witch Creek in San Diego County; and the catastrophe of 9/11. 

Each blaze led to new firefighting techniques and technologies, yet the struggle against fires continues to this day. With historical images and a fast-paced text, this is both an exciting look at firefighting history and a celebration of the human spirit.

Okay - so I am about to be something of a wet blanket here (which is almost a pun, sorry about that). The tag line on the back of the book says:
Discover their stories and find out how each one changed the way fires are fought today. 
So - random piece of information about me that you might not have picked up on, since I haven't been posting about it lately - I do HAZWOPER (Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response) 40- and 8-hour training. I am pretty much on the operations end but I know several fire fighters and emergency response personnel. I already knew about all of the fires discussed in this book but I was interested in how the author was going to discuss them and excited about the idea of looking at them in the context of how firefighting changed because of each of them.

I thought the book started out well - the historic fires were discussed and basic issues, like the fact that there was no such thing as professional fire fighters initially and that as the idea took shape there were competing private companies that took to activities like fighting over which company was going to fight a fire (while the buildings burned down) and setting fires in each others patches (thus the first sentence from the blurb really annoyed me) as well as issues with the lack of equipment and infrastructure. It felt like the book was laying the base for a good discussion of how things have changed over time.

Then, somewhere about the General Slocum/Triangle Waist Fire chapters, things started going downhill for me. These were historic events that had some major repercussions but the book focused more on the horror of these fires without really taking the time to discuss how important changes were made in public attitudes and in law - it went from feeling educational to feeling like tawdry sensationalism. I felt that more time should have been taken to discuss context and impact - there was a bit, but not enough. The Triangle Waist Fire in particular marked a change between the concept of fire suppression to fire prevention. For example - the building they were in was of modern construction and considered "fire proof." For one narrow meaning of the term, this is true. The building was basically fine - it was just the people and the contents that burned.

There are lots of things to discuss that I felt were given insufficient attention. The Triangle Waist Fire was utterly horrific - it took until fairly recently for the last six bodies from this fire to be positively identified - almost 100 years. And it might seem more personal to young readers - nearly half the victims were teenagers. Changes in how people thought about the treatment of immigrant workers followed this fire. From the technology end - the nets that the fire fighters had, well, they didn't save any lives. The fire fighters actually got there quickly and put out the fire quickly. But they were clearly working with tools inadequate for the job of rescuing people. And building codes and inspections ... lots to discuss there too.

The 'fire escape' to nowhere from the Triangle Waist Fire. Instead of leading to the roof or the ground,
for some weird reason it lead to a second floor skylight.  I really want to see the building plans because
I don't understand the descriptions of this at all. Plus, the thing was weak and substandard anyhow
- it collapsed and many people fell to their deaths from here. Not how a fire escape is supposed to work.
Oh, oh - and the book mentions that "[The factory owners'] insurance company paid each victim's family about $75" but fails entirely to point out that the insurance company actually paid Harris and Blanck (the owners) about $400 per life lost and that they settled at trial for paying out about $75 per life. They actually made about $60,000 of the deaths of the workers!  It infuriates me even now! and they opened a new factory all of a week or so after the fire - one with no fire escapes and too few exits! Here - OSHA has a great link roundup from the 100th anniversary - go read - I will stop ranting about this one.

Okay - to get back on track ... The Cocoanut Grove chapter was a bit better - some specific changes were discussed. Still felt more sensationalized though. 

Then for some reason the book skips from Cocoanut Grove (1942) to 9/11 (2001). Um - there were fires between these two points. Some important ones actually. And thinking more about this, given the context of the book, the 1903 Iroquois Theater fire (NFPA pdf) should have been included as well. Six hundred and two people were killed and major changes were made in building codes following that fire. It is pretty relevant to the supposed discussion at hand.

So, anyhow, 1943 - 2000 falls into a black hole, along with the Rattlesnake Fire (1953) - started by arson in which 15 fire fighters died, is still used as a training example and led to major changes in how forest fires are fought, the Yellowstone fires of 1988 that never were controlled - they were finally put out by snowfall, the Oakland Fire Storm (1991) that destroyed 3469 homes, Alaska's 2003 fire that burned 1,305,592 acres - I will stop, you get the idea. Lots of possible candidates here.

Right so fast forward to 2001 - the book gives you a localized perspective of events mostly through the perspective of Chief Picciotto, then gives you some death statistics and says absolutely nothing about how this fire changed fire fighting or anything about different technologies used or anything to provide contexts. (BTW - a command center and a staging ground are two different things.) Many friends and friends of friends from around here went to help fight this fire and deal with the aftermath. I was personally offended by this chapter. The book makes it sound like emergency responders were just wandering around at random and doing ill advised things without fairly giving a sense of the utterly overwhelming scale of events. This was a huge event, even if you just look at it through the perspective of fire fighting and the book doesn't to it justice. Now that I think about it, this chapter was written quite differently from the previous ones. The other chapters were putting events into historical perspective - this one was really a personal view of events. I admit that for some of us it is still hard to put 9/11 into historical perspective - and that much of the books intended audience, they were not born yet, so for them this is already ancient history. Just - this chapter didn't mesh well. What changed in how we fight fires due to 9/11 book? What was different here - inadequate tools for the job verses Triangle Waist ? This was a huge important events in many ways but I don't think that the book handled it all that well.

I have even more issues with the 2007 wildfire chapter - there was nothing about what changed in firefighting here either. In fact, I am not even sure why this particular fire was included. I believe that it still stands as the largest evacuation in California, but why is that special? Lots of wildfires require evacuations. That isn't new. There have been plenty of other wildfires that were larger, some that caused way more damage to structures. The 1871 Peshtigo Wildfire is estimated to have killed 1700 people or more but it happened the same year as the Great Chicago Fire so it tends to get forgotten about. This 2007 fire, more commonly known as the Witch Fire (it started near Witch Creek) ranks 5th or lower in terms of acres burned in California. It was expensive but not as expensive as that Oakland fire. I just don't understand why the book picked this fire to close with. This was the last chapter - shouldn't it have been about something big ?  Instead it was more of a "We Love You Firefighters" - which is all well and good (some of my relatives and friends were fire fighters - so yup, totally on board with a big thank you) - but again this chapter felt completely tacked on with little rhyme or reason.Why this fire book?

More recently, in the 2013 Yarnell Hill fire 19 hotshots lost their lives leading to some intense debates about those last resort fire tents. But that would have happened after the book went to press I can forgive this one.

And does anyone remember the Great White fire at The Station nightclub in 2003 that killed 100 people and injured 230. Overcrowded club where pyrotechnics started a fire which spread amazingly quickly along flammable foam used as insulation in the building. Two of the four exits were chained shut, and some bouncer initially prevented people from using the stage door, so that the only exit was the front door - causing a huge bottleneck as people tried to escape. Sounds eerily familiar once you have read the stories about Cocoanut Grove and Imperial Theater, doesn't it. 

Sorry - I started rambling again.

Ah, but one of the reasons that I was so interested in this book was that link to technology, right.  So well did it do there?  As far as I can see, not well at all ...

What about the robots used as scouts in collapsed buildings? What about infrared sensors to find trapped people?  Scooting back in time, what about the development of fire suppressant foam? Smoke detectors? SCBA - self contained breathing apparatus? The only technology that the book really seems aware of is fire engines. There were a bunch of opportunities here to explore changes in how we fight fires and they were all ignored.

Also the way the last chapter ends is totally trivial ... "From colonial bucket brigades to modern engines that can pump ten thousand gallons of water a minute, firefighting techniques and technology have evolved dramatically. But one thing hasn't changed over the centuries: the dedication and bravery of our fire fighters."

a. As I already pointed out the behavior and concept of being a fire fighter has evolved significantly since colonial times - the books author even tells us so in the first few chapters!

b. The book barely mentions the changes in technology! Which is one of the things I was most interested in reading about! It has a lovely little gallery of images of fire engine photos over time WITH NO CAPTIONS TELLING YOU ANYTHING ABOUT THEM!

Oh man and the recommended reading list of 10 books has 4 books about 9/11 !

Oops - I started rambling again didn't I.

To sum up - yes I know that I am being a bit unfair since I know so much about this topic. I can poke holes and nitpick in a way that kids can't and won't. However, I still feel that this could have been a much better book if it did what it claimed on the back cover. The book took a great concept, good pictures and decent writing - then didn't really deliver. It fell back on listing 'some famous' fires, ditched the how we fight concept halfway through and ended with a whimper.

BTW - it is not a discussion of the ten deadliest fires in US history as advertised - the NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) list is here and you can see only a little overlap. For example, this book has no coal mine fires. And, amazingly - those Great Fires like in Boston and Chicago - the loss of life there was extraordinarily low given the massive destruction, so while they were unarguably historically important, they were not 'deadliest' fires. Thus, the book doesn't even follow that criteria. Or you can take a look at the NFPA Deadliest Single Building or Complex Fires and Explosions list (the Great White/Station nightclub fire is there at number 17). Again, no match. I don't understand the criteria that the author used here.

On the other hand, most kids don't know anything about any of these events (this is also apparently increasingly true with adults as well - which really surprised me) so as a first introduction this book isn't that bad - I would much rather have kids read this book then learn nothing about these events, and I find it a much better true adventures style book than many I have read. Plus, it can serve as a jumping off point for more research - there are lots of obvious holes and unanswered questions that might spur interest in a younger reader. It might also be a good choice for reluctant readers. If you have students, I would say younger middle school age, interested in the topic, give this book a go. It isn't actually bad, it just really didn't live up to my expectations - in several ways.

Let me put this a bit differently.  I was hoping that there would be way more discussion of problems and the technologies used to overcome them. I would have given this book to my son to read then. Instead it focuses more and more on the horrific events and even starts to personalize them, without pulling back and providing a larger context or a really discussing technology at all.  I won't be giving this book to my son. He would have nightmares ... which leads me to this ... 

An important warning  - this book should only be given to readers that are not sensitive to fairly non-graphic but intense descriptions of death and tragedy. Some of the events described are pretty horrific and could lead to nightmares. Also be aware that if your students do some web searching on these fires, they might run into some pretty graphic images and much more graphic descriptions (testimony about the Triangle Shirt Fire and Cocoanut Grove fires still makes me ill to read) so preselect sites for them to visit to keep them from stumbling into anything too deep.

Well - there you go - a long rambling discussion that I hope helps you to decide whether this book would be a good one for any budding fire fighters in your life. 

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