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Joe Flood of “The Fires” – Part II

December 8, 2010

Joe Flood - The Fires

“Standing on the roof or floor above a blaze is the most dangerous place a fireman can position himself. Before the terrorists attacks of September 11th, 2001, the deadliest day in the history of the Fire Department of New York came when the first floor of a brownstone apartment building collapsed into a burning basement below, killing twelve firemen. Most of the deadliest blazes for American firefighters… were all collapses. But getting above the fire is precisely what the “Truckies” of a ladder company like Billy O’Connor’s do for a living.” –Joe Flood, The Fires


Chris Horan — On Tuesday, November 23rd, 2010, book author Joe Flood stood at a podium in the front of a packed room at Metropolitan College of New York, reading from the first chapter of his book, The Fires. His audience was composed of Emergency Management students and professors from the graduate program at MCNY, as well as visiting guests from the field.

The opening chapter of the book, from which Mr. Flood was reading, tells the story of a city in turmoil and its’ firefighters during a period of history the FDNY refers to as “The War Years”. During this period, budgetary limitations, mistakes, and corruption left the city vulnerable to a plague of fires which turned areas, including large portions of the South Bronx, to ashy rubble. The city was struggling to manage and contain fires, poverty, crime, and outbreaks of disease. At that time the city was in the early stages of using computational analysis to make policy decisions, with The Fires taking a look at the work of the RAND Corporation and the role it played.

Putting down the text, Flood points out that he originally was motivated to look into the possibility of racism being behind the politics that allowed so many fires to burn, but that as he researched more deeply, he found that truth to be far less complicated; it was political ineptitude. The use of computational analysis is important, he argued that policy decisions cannot be based on numbers alone; they lack “humanity and context”. Flood found that a “utopian, machinistic policy”, wherein computers could solve all of mankind’s trouble, was in vogue at the time. Use of these new ideas and techniques to counteract the policies of poor spending, left effects that can still be seen in the five boroughs today, in neighborhoods that never truly recovered.

The evenings’ discussion touched on race, politics, disease, pestilence, firefighting procedure, and economics from a period in time many modern New Yorkers may have forgotten. The dark times for the city in the 1960’s and 1970’s cannot be summed up in one book, though the smell of charred wood and ruined lives rises from the very pages of Joe Flood’s work. However, standing before his attentive audience, Mr. Flood was able to give life to a reality modern New Yorkers, in this field and others, hope never to see again.

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