A career firefighter thanks NFPA, and the author thanks a mentor
NFPA Journal®, January/February 2012
More than any other factor, the success I’ve had in my fire service career and beyond is due to my first fire department assignment, to the Louisville, Kentucky, Fire Department Quad Company #4, which I began on November 12, 1967. That was also the day I began a life-long education with Captain John Ridge. It was a different world then, a time of big fires and lots of them, and Captain (later Colonel) Ridge instilled in every company member the importance of studying past fires and applying lessons learned through pre-fire planning and training. And every duty day, that is exactly what we did. Colonel Ridge was the finest firefighter, fire officer, teacher, and leader I have ever known. In late October, he died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. He was 83.
Earlier in the fall, when I called his daughter-in-law to see how he was doing, she told me that he wanted to talk to me. I had no idea what to expect, as John was a realist and knew his days were short. We talked for a few hours, and he told me he’d completely planned his funeral. He’d even written his own eulogy.
But that’s not why he wanted to talk. He wanted me to look at a photo he thought might be of the Feeder’s Supply fire in Louisville in the early 1970s, and asked if I’d been there. The photo was of very poor quality, though, and we couldn’t tell which fire it was or if I was there. Then he asked if I remembered the Texas City fire. Like most students of our profession, I was familiar with it; it was the first time I learned about the hazards associated with ammonium nitrate fertilizer. While we talked, I contacted the NFPA librarian, Sue Marsh, to ask for help, and she soon found an article on the fire. It occurred on April 16, 1947, in Texas City, just across the bay from Galveston. The ammonium nitrate explosion killed 468 people, injured 2,000, and damaged 1,000 buildings, resulting in property loss exceeding $40 million. It also killed all 28 members of the Texas City Fire Department.
John explained why he wanted to discuss these two fires. Like the Texas City fire, the Feeder’s Supply fire involved large amounts of ammonium nitrate fertilizer. Unlike Texas City, there were no deaths or injuries at Feeder’s Supply, and the fire was confined to the building of origin. "I read about the Texas City fire in an NFPA publication in 1950, took the lessons learned and incorporated them into our pre-fire planning and training, and put that information to work at the Feeder’s Supply fire," he told me. "NFPA never received the credit it deserved in those days, but I feel NFPA should be recognized, even 40 years after the fact, for the outstanding work it has done in helping prepare fire officers in the field."
Throughout our book, Structural Fire Fighting, Ben Klaene and I talk about the importance of learning from past incidents, and then planning and training to apply those lessons to future incidents. For this reason, our text includes numerous case studies of past fires. Talking with John, I was once again reminded of the importance of learning from the past. I hope this brief tribute is a fitting way for me to thank the finest firefighter I have ever known and that it accomplishes John’s desire to recognize NFPA for the fine work it has done for more than 100 years.
Russ Sanders is the co-author, with Ben Klaene, of Structural Fire Fighting.