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Fighting Fires: Common Sense Prevails

Updated on December 7, 2017
William F. Torpey profile image

Graduated NYU in 1964. Worked in NYC for 2 years in public relations then as reporter and editor before retiring from The Hour newspaper.

Firefighters Routinely Take Risks

Norwalk, Conn., Firefighters on the Job -- Hour Photo Eric Trautmann
Norwalk, Conn., Firefighters on the Job -- Hour Photo Eric Trautmann

A Not Uncommon Scene

House fire in St. John's -- an all-too-common scene in virtually every community requiring a rapid response by local fiire departments.
House fire in St. John's -- an all-too-common scene in virtually every community requiring a rapid response by local fiire departments.

Windsor Bulding Fire in Madrid

A "towering inferno" -- the kind that present a special challenge and greater danger to fire departments throughout the world.
A "towering inferno" -- the kind that present a special challenge and greater danger to fire departments throughout the world.

Some 20 years ago I stood less than a block from New York City Hall in downtown Manhattan, entranced by a "towering inferno."

Seemingly from nowhere crowds of people -- eyes staring intently upward -- gathered round as fire trucks and police cars gathered beneath one of the city's unheralded skyscrapers.

I couldn't believe my eyes. The entire top floor of the building was ablaze, flames licking the underside of the roof.

Brave Firefighters Do Their Job

A half dozen or more firefighters could be seen streaming onto the roof armed with axes and other firefighting paraphernalia. They were walking directly over the flames, presumably to poke holes in the roof to vent what must have been incredible heat.

Intellectually, I knew they had to stop that fire before it got out of control and spread to adjacent skyscapers, but I couldn't help thinking, "Those guys are crazy. There's got to be a better way."

I was reminded of all this when I read Hour correspondent Harold F. Cobin's report of the suspicious fire at the vacant building that for many years housed the Howard Johnson's restaurant on East Avenue (in Norwalk, Connecticut.)

Fire Chief's Wise Decision

When I read that Fire Chief John Yost had decided to keep firefighters out of the unoccupied structure, preferring to rely on what The Hour called a "defensive attack" to extinguish the blaze, I could not have been happier. "Chalk one up for common sense," I thought.

Firefighters rely on their leaders to make good judgments when they put their lives on the line. Too often, I see newspaper accounts of firefighters who are severely injured or killed when roofs collapse or flash explosions occur.

Greater Caution Advised

I have the nagging feeling that those deaths could have been prevented; maybe the best judgment was not made; maybe the brass could have been a bit more cautious, considering that lives were at stake.

Norwalk firefighters, I think, are fortunate to have men of the caliber of Chief Yost.

While fire officials must make difficult decisions every time the alarm rings at the firehouse, police officials, too, face life-or-death decisions virtually on a daily basis. As fire officials have to decide how to fight a particular fire, police brass often must decide at a moment's notice whether to pursue a suspect in a tempting but dangerous car chase.

High Speed Chase Tragedy

Some 30 years ago, I lost a nephew when New York City police decided to begin a high-speed chase. My nephew was wanted for driving his family car without permission.Two young girls died with him when he tried to escape his pursuers by exiting the West Side Highway at a speed estimated to be close to 100 miles per hour.

Since that time, many police departments, including Norwalk's, have established guidelines for cutting off pursuit when the danger is perceived to be greater than the need to make an immediate capture and arrest.

Unfortunately, we still read about high-speed police chases that result in injuries and death to innocent people.

In any case, it's a given that the fleeing suspect is acting irrationally and irresponsibly. But, the police pursuer also is out of control and dangerous when traveling at such high speeds.

Here's another one we can chalk up to common sense.

I wrote this column as a "My View" for The Hour newspaper of Norwalk, Conn., on May 11, 1996. I now write my views on a wide variety of topics on HubPages.

Should Police Policy Ban High Speed Chases for Safety Sake?

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Trailer for the Movie 'Towering Inferno'


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    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 6 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      Thank you, RunAbstract. I happen to have several friends who are (or were) firefighters and I have great respect for all of them. They invariably have a social conscience and dedication to their job. We'd all be in big trouble without them.

    • RunAbstract profile image

      RunAbstract 6 years ago from USA

      William F. Torpey, we certainly owe a lot to firefighters, both professional and the volunteers in rural areas.

      This was a great article, and the video was great too!

      I can't imagine doing what these brave people do! But thank goodness they do it! Where would we be without them?

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 9 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      Thank you for your kind expression of sympathy LdsNana-AskMormon, as well as your keen observation and kind, complimentary words. I thank you also Mystic Biscuit for your very wise analysis and for sharing my thankfulness for the good works of our police and firefighters.

    • Mystic Biscuit profile image

      Mystic Biscuit 9 years ago from Phoenix, AZ

      Having been married to a fire fighter, having a brother who is in law enforcement and being in the healthcare field myself, I have had an important epiphany over the years regarding this topic. Particular personalities are drawn to each profession and this is a very good thing. Let me speak to fire fighters as an example.

      People with a strong desire for adventure, who get a "thrill" overcoming sometimes life threatening obstacles are exactly the kind of people we want fighting fires.

       If say, an accountant were to don fire fighter drops, sling on their self contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and carry a hose up a ladder to fight a blazing inferno, he/she would likely hesitate to carefully think through the risk being taken at that moment. And quite likely, when the actual risk is considered, he/she might choose NOT to climb that ladder.

      Whereas the adventure/"testosterone" type does not hesitate to climb the ladder (not even for a second) with his/her 40 pound SCBA on his/her back and then, if necessary, would even proceed to climb through a window 40 stories high to get inside to fight the fire and potentially save someone left unconscious in the burning building.

      No offense to accountants, of course, I want you all to carefully think through my tax returns! (That is your personality strength and likely one reason you are drawn to your profession.) But dang, am I glad that adventurous person is the one climbing the ladder when it is me or my family left unconscious from smoke inhalation in the burning building.

      Fire Fighters and Law Enforcement - I thank the good Lord every day for these real-life heroes and pray they stay safe even thorugh an occaisional quick decision that brings them too close to injury or death.  

    • LdsNana-AskMormon profile image

      Kathryn Skaggs 9 years ago from Southern California

      I too, am sorry for the loss, that you and your family have suffered.

      Isn't it interesting though -- that these experiences, which cause us the most alarm, are what bring out of us -- our greatest passions in life.

      This was a very well written article, that has provoked interesting comments, as well as good conversation. To do this, is truly a skill.



    • profile image

      Bob 10 years ago

      Bill , I commend you on some of your knowledge of firefighting. You know I could tell you many stories of fires. Best rull of thumb in a nut shell for extinguishing fires is , protect life , protect the enviroment , protect property. Yars ago property took preference to the enviorment , but things have changed since I was a "young" fireman. As far a common sense goes , I think this Country and the politicians , on both sides , are sorely lacking .

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 10 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      That's very interesting, compu-smart. I didn't know movies could be videotaped that way.

    • compu-smart profile image

      Compu-Smart 10 years ago from London UK

      Your welcome..

      Nowadays people videotape movies at the theatre "illegally"..Here in London we have many oriental girls and guys who specialise in this. They go in theatres and record all the latest block busters and them sell them on the streets and by walking in and out of shops selling them..All you hear is DVD DVD DVD and i have never seen other cultures selling them at all..The dvds are really bad quality and will ruin any film you try watching and i bet even your copy would be better than theres!

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 10 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      Your observation is absolutely correct, lisaj66. Police are frequently sent out on a mission with very little information. It would only be natural for them to believe the worst case scenario, which really gets their adrenaline going. Thank you for your comment. Compu-smart, thank you for your condolences. It's always a good idea to have an escape plan whenever we enter any kind of building. More choppers would help, I think. Towering Inferno was indeed a brilliant film. I saw it at a theater and later videotaped it off my TV.

    • compu-smart profile image

      Compu-Smart 10 years ago from London UK

      Firstly im very sorry to hear about the above events and your loss..Its such a waste!!..

      It was just yesterday i was working out all the ways i could vacate my property depending where the fire was coming from!!

      I also beleive many more police helicopters are needed to help, not just solve crimes more easily as it always proves to do with an eye in the sky, but so the police can back off from high speed chases and let the choppers follow ! I think in the long run having more choppers could help reduce the amount of accident and save more lives..

      I remember very well running as fast as my little legs would carry me to see towering inferno, It was such a brilliant film for it's time and still looks good today.


    • lisaj66 profile image

      lisaj66 10 years ago from Arizona

      So often we see clips on the news and tsk tsk, thinking “what a shame” but forget there are real families out there who will be forever changed by tragedy. Thanks for reminding me of that. Nonetheless, I do have to say that the police involved in the chase may not have been given all of the necessary information. They could have been told the situation was an “abduction” assuming the worst case scenario, and failure to apprehend the suspect would have been unacceptable.

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 10 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      Thank you for your condolences, John. I totally agree with your comments. I'd say you hit a hole-in-one on this issue.

    • lynchjo profile image

      lynchjo 10 years ago from Merrimack, NH USA

      Hi William,

      Allow me to also give my condolence to the loss of your nephew and the 2 young girls 30 years ago in that ill-advised police chase.  I think sometimes eagerness to do your job clouds your ability to make rational decisions in the heat of the moment.

      I personally feel all police chases should be outlawed expect when the suspect has been deemed to be a threat to other people.

      May we hope some day we all are able to live in a society where cooler heads prevail in all facets of life...what a glorious place this planet would be!


    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 10 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      I appreciate your expression of sympathy, In The Doghouse. It certainly was a tragic event. I agree that policemen and firefighters share many common traits. Your brother, as well as others with his obviously desirable attributes, deserves commendation from all of us. Like the fire chief I mentioned in the hub, your brother and other deserving civil servants rarely receive adequate public approbation.

    • In The Doghouse profile image

      In The Doghouse 10 years ago from California


      First, I must express my sympathy for the loss of the three children right up front. I realize that as human beings we all have a tendency to get "caught up in the chase". This was certainly an unfortunate accident that probably could have been prevented. I for one, believe that it takes a certain type of person to become a firefighter or police officer, and there are very few out there who fit the bill. I happen to have a brother who is a wonderful example of just that type of person I am referring to and he happens to be an officer. He has a personality that is one of sympathy, patience, and just respect for all human beings. When he worked in the prison he actually got letters of appreciation from prisoners for the way he treated them with respect. He is not a "hot head" and is one who uses "common sense' continually. I know that good people are out there doing their job, they just don't seem to make the news as often. Thank you for posting the admirable quality of the Norwalk fire chief, we need more men like him and to acknowledge them more often.

    • profile image

      Iðunn 10 years ago

      that makes sense.

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 10 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      Interesting comments, Iðunn . Thanks. I believe many, if not most, police departments now have some kind of "no chase" policy. The "slow chase" pursuit of O.J. Simpson in L.A. would never have happened a few decades ago. When they break off a chase, police can sometimes pick up the trail of escapers via helicopters and police radio -- and I'll bet they'll be using Google Earth before long (when they don't need it to track down Osama bin Laden.) In fires, I maintain that no firefighter should die, or be injured, just to save a building. Saving lives is another story.

    • profile image

      Iðunn 10 years ago

      very interesting hub. firefighting is out of my league, but I have read news where some particular towns have banned high speed pursuits because of deaths of children and other innocents caused by a policeman chasing, say, a purse snatcher or a graffiti artist, nothing capital especially for innocent bystanders.

      on the other hand, you hear cases when they let someone go and discover later it was some serial murderer and I'm sure the most infamous, while, not a high speed chase, is the one in which the police escorted one of Dahmer's victims back to his apartment to be killed.

      all I can say is I'm thankful for those who choose to serve as police or firefighters and make those tough calls and I'd be loathe to blame any direction at all because I'm not the one having to make the call.