HISTORY OF THE SEATTLE FIRE BUFF SOCIETY
Written by John Fisken
The beginnings of the Society were couched in the needs of the Second World War. The exodus of firefighters to the war front, lack of new available recruits for the same reason cut deeply into the manpower of the department. Added to this was the potential for attacks by the Japanese on the city overwhelming the ability of the Department to fight multiple site fires that were expected from such an attack.
The solution was to recruit and train civilians in firefighting skills to be available as a reserve. The Seattle Fire Department Auxiliaries were formed. From all accounts they were well trained. They were able to, and regularly manned reserve apparatus in the event of multiple alarm fires. They were equipped with bunking coats, and "tin hats" which distinguished them on the fire ground from the regular firefighters. There were however several members who had become very competent and were dedicated to this new skill. During the war they did not need to be officially "called out" but would respond to incidents from their homes, as many had fire department monitor radios. Because of this they became well known and accepted as firefighters by the paid department members and officers.
With the end of the war and the return of regular fire fighters to the force, the need for the auxiliary force went away and it was "officially" disbanded. The dedicated members were told that although the Auxiliaries were officially disbanded, that did not mean that they could not still respond as in the past. Only their official callout and manning of reserve apparatus functions were no longer performed. They were no longer protected by any insurance etc. however. They continued to respond, performed firefighting activities with their neighborhood fire companies, and maintained otherwise their ties with the department. Several interested citizens who observed their activities at fire scenes were permitted, after careful coaching and evaluation, to also respond and assist in firefighting operations, but no formal, or informal organization existed.
In the spring of 1964 the department desired to have a spectacular entry in the Seafair parade. The idea was to have an old horse drawn steamer fire engine as their entry. Investigation determined that the cost of the required draft horses was not something the city fathers were willing to underwrite. Knowing the interest of the past Auxiliary members in Department support, the active ones were approached with the idea of raising the money so the horses could be hired to pull the engine. The active members contacted others who had financial backing or were successful in business. After several meeting the necessary funds were obtained and provided to the department for the horses.
As a result of the essential reunion of the core auxiliaries at the meetings it was discussed as to how the group could continue with the idea of future organized assistance to the department. From these meetings the Seattle Fire Buff Society began to be organized as a non-profit service organization.
Through contact with the International Fire Buff Associates, the IRS, and the Fire Department, the papers of incorporation and bylaws were finally prepared, submitted, and accepted in December of 1964. Because a steam-fired fire engine was the nucleus for the start of the organization, and the Fire Department had a steamer powered by a Seagraves gasoline tractor, a silhouette of the fire engine was adopted as the Society emblem.
The Charter members were Bill Dings, Boyd Thomaier (deceased), Bill Waldo, Art Watson, Mike Clark, Ernie Jenner, John Coleman, and John Fisken (deceased).
Through lengthy negotiations and many rewrites, by Boyd Thomaier and our attorney member, the initial bylaws and articles of incorporation of the Society were approved and made acceptable by the IRS. The Society obtained its 501 C(3) non-profit status from the IRS in 1965, largely through the efforts of Boyd.
About the time of incorporation there was a very serious multiple alarm fire in a business on the west waterway of the Duwamish River. From the ruins a partly charred mallet was recovered. This mallet was adopted as the symbolic gavel of the Society.
Our first president, Ernie Jenner, was a young spirited antique fire apparatus enthusiast, To provide the new Society with a new goal, he challenged us to put on the "First International Grand Concourse of Fire Apparatus and Firefighter's Muster” the next summer. This muster to include static and active pumping displays of old and new apparatus at the Hydroplane pits on Lake Washington. It would encompass as well competitive drills by firefighters in hose handling and make-and-break relay races. The star of the show was hoped to be an Aherns Fox front piston pump fire engine. It had been rescued from a farmer’s field and it was in the process of being restored.
Through much sweat, some blood and tears, and the great enthusiasm and support of the new young members, we were successful in the muster except the appearance of the Ahrens Fox. The amount of effort (over 2500 man-hours) and cost exceeded the resources available for its restoration in time.
The muster was held annually for several years until the costs of insurance, trophies, and volunteer effort again exceeded the resources available. The Ahrens Fox was fully restored and did perform magnificently the second year after the hours of dedicated volunteer effort and $5000 spent by the rig's owner. The Muster was able to obtain timing equipment that made the contests the high point of the year's activities for competitive teams. The equipment became the standard used by area competition teams for years.
During the next several years, the Society and its members provided support for the department at fires and other events. There were some notable incidents that could be considered marginal in their support.
The publicity of the incorporation, Musters and other activities also drew other interested "buffs" to the Society who applied for membership. Our only criteria then and now were "an interest in the fire service". We quickly found that not all “buffs” were interested in fires and firefighting and canteen service. Other interests were restoring and parading antique fire apparatus, fire photography, fire communications, fire apparatus models and photography etc. Our membership grew to approximately 20 in about a year. Over the years it has gradually increased to a total of 32 in 1993 year end.
With the experienced members of the Society to train, monitor, and control their performance, these new members were allowed to participate in fire ground activities. There were also provisions made for monitoring prospective member actions at fire scenes to be certain adverse characters were not included. Prospective applications w ere also reviewed by the Seattle Fire Department. Members interested in participating in active firefighting or access to the fire ground were required to sign a waiver of responsibility from the city.
At many of the regular meetings held once a month, the members were instructed in activities and equipment used by the department at fires and other emergencies. These included drills on how and why fire department tarps are folded and how to properly throw and use them to protect a room’s contents. We were instructed in some of the basic hose evolutions including extended hose lays. We were instructed in the proper method to change air bottles on the firefighter’s SCBA (self contained breathing appratise). When new equipment arrived at the department it was usually presented and its use explained. We were instructed in the reasons behind many fire scene operations such as why roofs are opened and windows broken. These sessions allowed us to correctly answer questions at fires from victims and the public.
While a spectator at several major fires in Toronto Canada, I had observed the wholesale welcome response from the firefighters when the Toronto fire buff club, Box 12, rolled up with their canteen.
With support from Bill Dings, the most active responder and the fire chief, we began to respond to fires in our neighborhood, after the fire was tapped, with a thermos of hot coffee made up at home. This met with instant success. Soon several members were carrying a large pot, cups, and instant coffee in the trunk of our cars. We would ask the neighbors to heat the water. One day I was asked by a firefighter if I had anything other than coffee, as he did not drink it. At the next fire I made the mistake of bringing along a thermos of hot chocolate as well as the pot of coffee. The chocolate was gone almost instantly. It was asked for at the next few fires. It became necessary to carry packets of chocolate as well as instant coffee and the pot was used just to heat water. Initially a large stovetop pot was used, but later a 20-cup electric perk was gutted and used. As might be expected providing canteen service from our own vehicles and pocketbook was becoming a rather expensive service for the individual members, and the Society had no way of subsidizing the expense. Certain events brought a solution to our costs and later the end of our automatic participation in active firefighting.
This incident sparked interest in the Department providing an activity for fire buffs other than active firefighting at fire scenes. At the same time the American Red Cross was attempting to improve their ability to better serve fire victims and to be notified directly about fires. One of the chiefs felt the Buffs should provide this service as we attended most serious fires, it would provide an outlet for our interests, and at the same time lessen our firefighting activity. A meeting was set up with the Red Cross. From the meeting, an agreement was established between the Red Cross and the Society, and training in disaster assistance provided to those interested.
Red Cross Service
Our initial activity was limited to collecting the information regarding the fire victims and reporting this to the Red Cross. The Chapter would dispatch a disaster worker if required for the incident or provide telephone authority for service. This soon changed so that members were given authority to place people in motels and provide other immediate assistance at night and to contact the Chapter for follow up the next morning. As the Buffs and the Red Cross gained mutual experience, the interested buffs were given full authority to provide disaster assistance to clients without a need to contact the Chapter. When we began providing the service the chapter had a total disaster budget of under $20,000. Through our service so many more victims were assisted that that amount was expended in less than 6 months, identifying the value for our services to the community.
A lot of times fires involved insured homes. No direct service was provided at these but we had a letter with recommendations to the family for follow-up actions to help them recover from their loss.
At several fires Buffs encountered persons who were terribly in shock from the loss of the fire. Our service to these persons was the same as others; that is just get them into a motel and get them necessary food and clothing. We had no training in how to recognize this condition, nor experience in how to cope with these persons. Contact was made with the Crisis Clinic, and a very informative class was provided on how to recognize the symptoms of "the acute loss syndrome" shock and its causes, and recommended actions to take. As it worked out our present actions, lending a shoulder to cry on, asking the clients about their future plans, and providing them assistance and comfort were the best medicine.
After the Society became acquainted with the Disaster Services "mass care" function of the Red Cross, we became aware they would provide supplies to firefighters at the scene as well as feeding victims of the incident. They had not been doing this as they were seldom notified during an incident, of a need. Through negotiations, the Society members arranged to obtain prepackaged cups of coffee, chocolate and soups from the Red Cross, augmenting our meager supplies. Arrangements were made for contacting the Red Cross for meal/canteen service for extended operations. The coffee and chocolate service provided at fires did not go without attention of the Fire Department administration, and others, usually good but sometimes bad.
Lack of guidance caused an incident at one of the first major fires when the Red Cross was requested by the Society to directly provide support with their canteen. The fire involved a school, and burned stubbornly from one end of the attic to the other over a period of probably an hour or more. The Red Cross responded about 30 minutes into the fire, set up by the command post and began to serve coffee to any and all firefighters who asked. Most of the drinking of the coffee was done by off shift firefighters as they arrived on the scene called out to respond to this multiple alarm fire. When the fire was knocked down the first-in crews were given a break. This did not occur until nearly 30 minutes after the canteen arrived on the scene. When they arrived at the van, it was to learn that the coffee had just run out. There were many unkind justified words exchanged. The incident occurred due to errors on both the Department and Red Cross side and lack of communications. A major change resulted from this. Canteen operations were not to begin without approval of the officer in charge. Incoming firefighters were not to "stop by" the canteen, open or not.
Society Canteen Service
The Society had indicated a need for a focal point at a fire scene, and the equipment we were beginning to collect in different cars was becoming considerable. Often however items needed were in the car of a Buff that was not present at the scene. We did not have a location to store our supplies of coffee cups etc. Through some behind the scene negotiations our president was able to surprise the Society with a solution to our needs for a common collection point. Through a "friend of the Society" (in high places) a surplus aid car was acquired that was dubbed, appropriately "Buff I". It was promptly painted with our emblem and stocked with supplies. We still had to use neighbors to heat the coffee. Arrangement were made that Buff I be kept in the parking area of a central fire station, later in the basement of that station, then in a spare stall in a fire station.
Again background negotiations went on, until it was announced that one of the local mobile lunch companies had donated to the Society a working surplus 20-gallon propane coffee urn. This unit was installed in Buff I initially as a “fixed” installation. A surplus Fire Department radio receiver was installed in the unit and then later a light for the rear serving area. A surplus stretcher was installed but luckily never needed.
A major long lasting shipyard fire commonly called the "Turkey day fire", because it happened on Thanksgiving Day, tested the Society, and the Red Cross efforts to supply refreshments. During the initial operations, the fire buffs participated and assisted in hose lays as more and more lines were required. Conditions were so bad they had to wear particulate masks when on the dock against the creosote fumes. Later the Buffs were detailed the task of carrying food and refreshments into the fire area. This fire involved a large area of unsprinklered creosote preserved dock. The creosote fumes and smoke made visibility on the dock almost nil. Access to the docks was very limited, and what there was available, was covered with fire hoses. All refreshments and later food had to be carried approximately 1/2 mile from the canteens into the site. The myriad of trip hazards and smoke resulted in many fire buffs with barked shins and many spilled pots of coffee. This and other fires about the same time identified a need for a portable coffee preparation set up, capable of providing quantities of hot water and coffee. The coffee urn was adapted and a cup dispenser for two hundred cups were built such that they could be carried into and set up close to the fire scene. The 20 gallon coffee urn required approximately 45 minutes to reach serving temperature.
Unlike many Buff canteens, the interest of the members is such that there was a response to almost all fires, including individual house fires, not just multiple alarm fires. We looked for an alternate means of heating water faster than the coffee urn for firefighters at smaller fires, somewhat similar to how we started. At this time the Fire Department normally performed extensive post fire overhaul and cleanup. Many times a fire put out in 10-15 minutes would involve 1-2 hour overhaul. If it appeared there would be such overhaul, Buff I usually would respond. This resulted in a lot of propane expended for a few firefighters when using the urn. The solution to this was to install a Coleman fueled propane camp stove in Buff I, a 20-cup stove top pots and 5 gallons of water. A table to hold the stove and for serving was also later added. This allowed us to be able to start serving hot drinks within 15 minutes of arrival on the scene. If no Red Cross representative were present, the driver would also initiate or provide Red Cross services to the client.
The connection with the Red Cross did not eliminate our active fire ground activities entirely. Our activities however tended to shift to a supportive function. As noted previously we were given instruction in how to "Tarp a room" to protect furnishings and belongings in a building from water or debris coming from firefighting operations on the floor above or adjacent rooms. When there was a fire on an upper floor the buffs might tarp a lower floor room. This was usually done under the direction of a ladder company officer. Many beds and living rooms of furniture were saved from water damage through these efforts.
At many fires our assignment was to collect full air bottles from all apparatus on the scene; and often using the instruction provided in class, replace air bottles on the backs of firefighters. Because most of the training of newer members was minimal we operated normally in the periphery of the fire scene. If we arrived during initial operations we were put to work.
A member who shall be nameless, but an officer of the Society, had the distinction of not once but at twice, operating a monitor on a fireboat and in doing so accidentally washing down the fire chief on the dock. It is not recorded what transpired following the incidents, but he was not given a third opportunity.
As might have been expected, active participation in firefighting by minimally trained fire buffs did not agree with all of the fire department members. There were some who were against it. At one instance where fire buffs participated in a house fire, several regular firefighters were injured when an otherwise unattended hose line was directed into a fully involved window of a room on the second floor, just as the crew inside reached the top of the stairs. The stream drove fire and steam back onto the firefighters and some were injured. As it happens a newer buff was tempted to "put water on the fire" but was coached by a wiser buff to leave the line alone. Following guidelines, the buffs asked for an assignment, and were requested to bring a ladder to the rear of the building.
Following the fire, charges were made to the Society that it had been improper actions by Buffs that had caused the firefighter's injuries, and the Society was responsible. Just prior to the incident, Fire Buffs had been seen next to the hose line and were reasonably accused of using the line. As it so happened, another buff, acting only as a spectator, noted that a TV news photographer had filmed activities at the front of the house at the peak of the fire. The films were requested and they verified that no fire buff had been performing improper activities, and that in fact the party operating the line into the window was an off-duty firefighter, but not from Seattle.
During the period of time the Society members participated constructively at many fire, there were sometimes interesting twists. Bill Dings and another firefighter were advancing an exposure line into a storage facility adjacent to a well-involved building. The exposure was partially filled with smoke. As they advanced into the building with the roar of flames heard nearby; the firefighter on the nozzle gave a cry of terror. When he and Bill looked up there was an apparent apparition of Christ looming in the fire pointing to the exit. They both took it as a sign to immediately evacuate the area and they did. The fire did not enter the exposure even when they left. A timid check after the fire revealed that the apparition was in fact a temporarily large Christmas pageant statue of Christ. After the incident it was humorous but not at the time. A large multiple alarm fire by Queen Ann had all firefighters on the scene committed when fire threatened an exposure. With minimal direction, a crew of the Buffs present was detailed to stretch a 2-1/2" line and operate it to protect the exposure. They were successful in preventing the fire spread in their direction.
Circumstances placed a buff on the scene of a fire in the vicinity of the Tyee yacht club when a major fire broke out. The fire grew so rapidly the dispatcher initiated a second alarm before the first unit was on the scene. The buff was directed to back up a firefighter advancing a line in the front door. They were able to penetrate about 10 feet into the structure when flames began curling back over their heads. As their line was providing protection to another crew further in the building they could not back out. The Buff became vary uncomfortable, and was very glad to be able to relinquish his position to the next arriving firefighter from a 2-11 crew following the line into the building. The main reason for "retreat" was lack of training in how to protect himself should the entire area flashover. Leaving the building, the Buff proceeded to assist in laying additional lines and doubling up lines to manifolds. No criticism was given or expected for his actions.
Seattle provided contract fire protection to Firecrest, a State residence north of the city limits. One night fire broke out in the laundry building, which was a large barn like structure. The downstairs was almost a rabbit warren of rooms and corridors. A multiple alarm was sounded as the fire was found in the walls as well as the ceiling. An owner of a car had parked right opposite a door on the west side of the structure, marked NO PARKING, making it impossible to advance the first line without catching on the tires. The solution was that windows on the car were opened and lines passed through the car. I often wonder if it was deliberate that one line had a very leaky coupling positioned inside the car. Buffs arriving at this fire assisted in advancing lines into the structure, while ladder companies were opening walls. The result was vast clouds of steam. More than one Buff with glasses was forced to leave the building as their glasses fogged up.
One fire Buff who liked to get in the thick of it, climbed up a 35-foot ladder to get to the roof of an involved building on Queen Anne hill. Shortly after he reached the roof, smoke and heat drove him across the roof. He looked over the side for another ladder to climb down. None could be found. It was dark and so very smoky such that he could not see the ground. As the conditions got worse the buff realized he was alone on the roof and was going to have to jump for safety. He gritted his teeth, climbed over the side, hung for a moment and then dropped, expecting about a twenty-foot fall. He received a terrible shock when he dropped only about 2 feet. The building was three stories high on the street side where he had climbed up, but only 10 feet high on the uphill side.
Three events in major fires precipitated the change that officially ended the Society member’s voluntary participation in emergency activities such as actual firefighting. At a major hotel fire in Seattle, a buff was operating with a regular engine company on the 5th floor inside the well-involved building. Common sense dictated he should not have been there. What made it worse was that the department chief found him there and ordered his immediate exit. At a second major hotel fire in Seattle, early in the morning very shortly afterwards, fire crews performed many courageous rescues of the occupants using ladders and other means. Because of the speed of the rescues and the time of day, no news people were on hand to get pictures of the rescues. Many of those rescued were elderly or partly crippled. Occupants removed from the building were placed in doorways of adjacent stores or other places of temporary refuge. One elderly rescued woman had just her nightclothes and a blanket and no shoes. The doorway she was put in was surrounded by broken glass.
After the fire was mostly out, arrangements were made by the Red Cross at a local hotel to interview victims Two Buffs were delegated to collect the woman and bring her to the hotel. Because of the amount of glass, she was carried between them down the street. Arriving too late to get pictures of the fire, at least two newspaper photographers took pictures of this operation and the pictures made the two major newspapers. The pictures were front-page items to the chagrin of the Buffs for two reasons. They were identified incorrectly as "rescuing the woman", and one paper identified the buffs as firefighters. . Neither was presenting the picture of a correctly dressed firefighter. Because of the early hour, and not involved in any fire fighting activity the Buffs had not paid much attention to their dress. One had his bunker wrongly fastened, and was wearing his hard hat cocked to one side. The other had his bunking coat flapping open and was wearing just a lightweight cap. Justifiably the firefighter's union, some firefighters, and officers of the department were upset, particularly as no other pictures taken of actual rescue activities were printed. The firefighters, primarily because the buffs were identified erroneously as firefighter “making a rescue”; and the officers, as we portrayed a very sloppy firefighter image.
At about the same time, in New York, a building collapse caught 12 firefighters inside the structure during a fire and none survived. Reaction within the Department to the headline pictures and the presence of a Buff in an involved fire building. The potential liability, if a Fire Buff became injured (It was felt that the "waiver" signed by the Buffs would not protect the city). These resulted in an adverse position to allowing continued firefighting by fire Buffs. The Chief issued a directive that henceforth the Fire Buffs were not to wear bunking gear, our fire ground uniform was to be only our red jackets and white caps, and we were not to participate in any emergency activities unless specifically requested and ordered by a fire department officer.
At major incidents the Buffs were not however prevented from providing valuable support to the firefighters. Those who still wish to provide active service at a fire scene report to the incident command and request an assignment. We are often assigned tasks on the periphery of the fire that utilize our manpower. We will not normally be assigned actual firefighting functions, but it has happened. One major activity that we participate in at many serious fires is assisting in the exchange of air bottles for firefighters.
At many fires we assisted the police in traffic control to prevent damage to fire hoses. We have participated in laying additional hose lines or doubling up supply lines into manifolds. At one fire adjacent to the river, a crew of fire buffs was assigned to work with a firefighter to back a pumper down a narrow lane, extend lines from the pumper to the manifold of the fireboat arriving at the river dock, and then lay the line from the boat some 1000 feet to the fire scene. This was done with minimum assistance from the firefighter who drove the apparatus. This evolution made use of the Buff's knowledge of equipment and department evolutions. To make the distance it was required to connect proper adapters at the Boat, lay 600 feet of 3-1/2" line, install a "Y" and extend the lay with two 2-1/2" lines and then adapt again to the 3-1/2" port of the fire ground manifold. Following that fire the Society and participating members received a commendation from the department.
A major fire in a lumberyard was extending to a dry cleaning/laundry establishment next door. Water to protect the building was being applied to and through upstairs windows. Several Buffs on the scene, who had received instruction on tarping procedures, were requested to assist a ladder company officer in the tarping of freshly cleaned clothing on the first floor. The Buffs were able to assist in covering some 8-900 square feet of the racks of clothing just before the plaster ceiling started to leak. At individual house fires, under the direction of a firefighter, the Buffs have assisted in tarping rooms on floors below the fire floor.
For many years the Society operated Buff I, paying for its maintenance through Society dues and a donation from the Forresters. Occasionally, when major maintenance was required, the Firefighter's union provided funds. Buff I was a carryall type station wagon with limited headroom. This made for awkward operation for our taller members, and required standing outside in the rain to serve from the tailgate. The Society began to look for a replacement that would be a newer, more reliable van, and have more headroom. Despite all attempts at bargaining all suitable units were beyond our resources. Firefighters heard of our desires and accompanied us on some "shopping" trips to review those we thought financially feasible. They felt none were practical. Again behind the scenes there were negotiations. We were told to check a van that might interest us, but no price was mentioned. Our check found it to be most desirable but obviously in such good condition as to be priced out of our range. Within days we were presented with the keys of this candy apple red Ford van free, courtesy of negotiations and donation by the union. The van was equipped with the equipment from Buff I, and Buff I put in reserve, but retained ready to respond. There were several times when both units responded to a fire. There were times when Buff I would be used to support a second fire.
Buff II as the unit was designated, was painted by a professional artist with the Society's steamer emblem in white on the side. With a side sliding door, a serving table was installed to allow some comfort to the Buff serving. The concept of the propane stove, and the serving cup dispenser made the 20-gallon urn surplus. At this time we were obtaining pre-filled cups of coffee and hot chocolate from the Red Cross.
Buff I stn 14, 25s 24s
During the early years the Society operated Buff I canteen to provide primarily hot coffee and other hot drinks at the fire scene. Except at night, Seattle firefighters did not normally wear full bunkers to fires during the daytime. One of the changes in requirements in the department has been that full bunkers will be worn for all responses and during all firefighting activities. Along with this has been the introduction of better heat insulating bunking gear. The net result has been that firefighters can quickly become overheated just from exertion and become dehydrated from sweating even without external heat of fire. When this condition was noted, a study was made on the effects of various rehabilitating liquids on dehydrated firefighters. It was found that caffeine was inhibiting the body's ability to absorb fluids in the stomach intended to restore fluid levels. Various electrolyte drinks were studied to determine the best.
The Department selected Exceed and made it available to the Buffs. At the same time the Society was requested not to serve coffee or hot chocolate during the active firefighting, unless approved by the medic unit in charge of the REHAB area. The canteen operation was normally opened adjacent to the REHAB area to ensure those needing refreshment were attended to. It was soon noted that the firefighters were not happy with the taste of the electrolyte drink Exceed. They much preferred Gatorade.
A new era in the Society’s canteen service began in January of 1994. Up until that time we had been solely dependent on donations to support our canteen service and vehicles. Because of specific high level of visibility providing canteen service at some recent serious incidents, the department has arranged to place the Society on contract to respond to all multiple alarm fires when notified to provide “rehabilitation service to firefighters. The contract provides for specific funding in return for our services. The Society is grateful and proud to be so recognized.