Book review: The Fires, by Joe Flood

A book was released recently which I would like to recommend to you.  The Fires by Joe Flood (Riverhead) is an account of the circumstances and driving forces behind what FDNY famously experienced as The War Years.  While the famous line during the World Series that “the Bronx is burning” is the beachhead in the public imagination, Dennis Smith’s Report From Engine Co. 82 was the defining book for an era of the FDNY and inspired countless young men and women across the country to join the fire service.  But where the World Series line is the What and Engine Co. 82 is the How, The Fires is the Why.

Author Joe Flood frames the story with two tragedies that are still discussed throughout the American fire service: The Wonder Drug store fire and collapse in 1966 and the Waldbaum’s grocery store fire and collapse in 1978.  In between he tells the story of a pair of reform-minded idealists, Chief and Commissioner John O’Hagan of the FDNY and Mayor John Lindsay of New York City.  Both were true believers in statistical systems analyses in thrall to the idea that all sorts of complex systems could be reduced to equations and rationalized.  Flood also argues that they were adherents to what Charles Lindblom called Root Planning, the idea that an old system of governance can be ripped out and replaced wholesale.

O’Hagan’s myriad life safety reforms and command innovations pale in comparison to his assiduous pursuit of “efficiency”, that is to say, cutting staffing and companies.  Even as the Bronx was burning on a scale rarely seen outside of a Western wildfire season, O’Hagan was eliminating companies, cutting firefighter positions, and closing firehouses.  For justification he used the NYC-RAND Institute, a branch of the legendary military-industrial think tank.

Though ostensibly about the destruction of the Bronx, Flood spends approximately half the book delving into the history of systems analysis and Root-style central planning.  From logistics and naval bombing planning in World War II to the post-War revolution at Ford Motor Company and onto Cold War wargaming in the 1950s, Flood offers an illuminating sketch of the genesis and evolution of RAND-style analysis.  His discussion of branch-style urban planning moves from Robert Moses to Le Corbusier to societal atomization to the freeway movement of the 1950s and the construction of the World Trade Center.  Also coming into the discussion is the movement for “planned shrinkage”, once more en vogue today in the American Rust Belt.

Flood does a competent job of intertwining these disparate examples of these two converging themes.  These phenomena provided the intellectual justification, indeed, the encouragement, for allowing the Bronx to burn during the War Years.

The results were staggering, with XXXX of the housing stock disappearing over the years XXXX-XXXX.  A whole community was utterly plowed under and allowed to disperse on the winds.  The human toll, in both lives lost and lives destroyed, probably remains untold.

If you are looking for a tale of firemen facing hardship when the fires were hotter and the water was wetter, this is not it.  Though there are some war stories and plenty of interviews with the players, the focus of the book is on the True Believerism of people like Lindsay and O’Hagan.  Most striking is the example of a man by all accounts dedicated to excellence who, through overpowering personal ambition, blind dedication to a faulty cause, and a failure to exercise personal judgment, forsook all the fire service stands for.

Students of leadership and administration will do well to note these cautionary themes.  Those with an interest in fire service history will find a multidisciplinary survey of the causes of one of the darkest periods every endured by firefighters in America.  Others, who are not likely to read this blog, may just find he history interesting, especially as it relates to urbanism, 1960s unrest, 1970s malaise, and the ever-fascinating New York City.  At a time when “leaders” and politicians are once again sacrificing safety for what they think is efficiency, the fire service should studiously revisit its past.

A note for those seeking to delve deeper into the causes and effects of the fires themselves:  the sociological work A Plague On Your Houses by Deborah and Rodrick Wallace offers an excellent academic discussion of fire contagion, housing stock destruction, and myriad sociologic factors at play in the Bronx at the time.

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