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FlashPoint: Admitting our mistakes and learning from them

When we look at the history of our services we often dwell on the tragedies. This is natural and appropriate; it connects us with our heritage. But to learn from the mistakes of the past is to truly honour our forbearers.

December 5, 2008
By Peter Sells

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When we look at the history of our services we often dwell on the tragedies. This is natural and appropriate; it connects us with our heritage. But to learn from the mistakes of the past is to truly honour our forbearers.

At 1:16 a.m. on May 17, 1947, Toronto Fire Department pumper 5 was responding eastbound when it t-boned the northbound pumper 4 in the intersection at Queen and Parliament streets. All eight firefighters were thrown from their open-cab apparatus, either off the tailboard or over the windshield. The fire those men were racing to was inside a public school that had been broken into and trashed. This callous and immature act of vandalism was, in fact, the murder of three brave firefighters.

Firefighters Melville Kerfoot, Charles Leslie and Joseph Walker died that morning. All three were riding on the tailboard – Kerfoot on pumper 5, the other two on pumper 4. Albert Creighton was on the back of pumper 5 with Kerfoot.  He sustained a fractured skull and severe internal injuries but survived.

Two weeks later, the Municipal Act was amended to repeal the right of local councils to pass bylaws that gave absolute right-of-way to fire apparatus. To this day, we are required to adhere to the Highway Traffic Act, which grants us the right to go through red lights only after stopping first to ensure the way is clear, even at 1:16 in the morning.

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It wasn’t until 50 years later that the law of the land, at least in this part of the country, finally and explicitly took us off of the tailboard. The photos of those pumpers after the crash, along with the descriptions of the event that have been written over the years by witnesses and survivors, are graphic and detailed.

Fast forward to 2008 and we have red-light cameras, rapid electronic mass media and streaming video over the internet. If you haven’t seen this one already, take a break from reading this, go to YouTube and search for “St Louis fire truck crash”. Go ahead, I’ll wait here . . .

. . . Did you see it? Essentially, it was the same incident. Both apparatus were responding to the same fire on separate routes. One entered the intersection without stopping and was struck
by the other, spun around and overturned. In this case, no fire-
fighters were killed, although all eight were injured. Let’s examine the differences:

St. Louis has a total quint fleet, so the vehicles involved were much larger, heavier apparatus. The laws of physics are such that occupants of a heavy vehicle will tend to fare better in a collision, even with another heavy vehicle. Obviously, the firefighters were not riding on the tailboard. Today’s apparatus feature enclosed cabs for all personnel, reducing BUT NOT ELIMINATING the chance of firefighters being thrown into the street. Why did I emphasize those words? Because modern apparatus also feature seatbelts, which work even better when firefighters are buckled up. None of the St. Louis firefighters was thrown from the rigs because they were wearing their seatbelts. This incredibly simple fact prevented a mistake from becoming a tragedy.

If today was the first time you watched that video, it certainly will not be the last. The news stories of this incident mention that it is being used to train recruits and remind veteran firefighters of the necessity to buckle up and to reinforce safe emergency response driving behaviours. I have a feeling that we will all be seeing this clip or, in fact, using it in our own lessons for years to come. In that way, it will become as well known in the fire service as the video documentation of the 1988 fire in Hackensack, N.J., in which the collapsing roof of an auto dealership took the lives of five firefighters.

My hat is off to the St. Louis fire chief for responding quickly and appropriately to the problem rather than sweeping it under the rug. I only hope that it is not seen as exclusively a training issue and then forgotten until the next accident. The city administration, however, is reportedly miffed that the clip got onto the internet. It’s not like you can trash a couple million dollars worth of fire equipment in broad daylight and keep it a secret, so I’m with the chief on this one. You can’t correct an invisible problem.

Incredibly, statements were made after the Hackensack fire to the effect that “I wouldn’t have done anything differently” even after exhaustive review showed breakdowns in incident management
and communications.

Failure to recognize and react to our mistakes with positive change does a disservice to our fallen comrades.


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