Prevention Matters — Capt. William Peterson

If you follow my column at all, you will often see me write about the importance of our Fire and Life Safety personnel. These “prevention” experts are dedicated to examining plans before a building is built to ensure it will be safe to occupy. 


Additionally, they inspect existing buildings to ensure that they are operating in a safe manner and will limit, to the extent possible, the chances of a fire occurring. If we think back to our basic fire training, a fire occurs whenever an ignition source and a fuel source come together in the presence of oxygen with sufficient chemical chain reactions to make it self-sustaining.

If you are not already subscribed to the United States Fire Administration’s (USFA) Firefighter Fatality Notifications, you should sign up through their website. It provides you an opportunity to see what is killing us. Although there are many of us that are dying from heart attacks while responding to incidents, there are still a few of us dying in fires every year. Sadly, those line of duty deaths (LODDs) do not attract much attention unless they involve multiple firefighters. This is the case for Captain William Peterson. We will get back to him in a minute. First, let’s consider the contributing factors to some of these multi-firefighter fatality incidents.

  • On June 30, 2013, the Yarnell Hill Fire claimed the lives of 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots. The contributing factors were a change in fire conditions and rapid growth as a result of extreme and sudden shifts in the weather patterns and the fuel loading present along the Arizona landscape.
  • On June 18, 2007, at the Sofa Super Store in Charleston, South Carolina, nine City of Charleston firefighters perished as the result of a flashover and structural collapse. The response was also complicated by water supply issues.
  • On December 3, 1999, six Worcester, Massachusetts firefighters died in a cold storage warehouse fire. The contributing factors in that fire were building construction (Type IV), and the fact that the building had been abandoned, which left limited access and egress.
  • On February 23, 1991, in what can only be described as a fire where everything goes wrong, three Philadelphia firefighters lost their lives in the Meridian Bank Building. Contributing factors included delayed notification, lack of fire protection systems, forcible entry problems, incorrect standpipe valve settings that contributed to insufficient fire flows, auto exposure, and electrical failures at both the fire building and the neighboring building. At this incident, it is interesting to note that the fire burned from the 22nd floor to the 30th floor (which was the first fully sprinklered floor). During operations, the building was eventually evacuated because of a fear it would collapse. Ultimately, 10 sprinkler heads on the 30th floor extinguished a fire that was thought to be capable of bringing down a 38-story building.
  • On July 17, 1972, which is exactly 35 years and one day prior to Charleston’s Sofas Super Store Fire, the Boston, Massachusetts Fire Department had their own fire with nine line of duty deaths at the Hotel Vendome. At this fire, there were considerable building alterations that had occurred between when the building was erected in 1871 and the fire date (101 years later). One of these alterations was the removal of a load bearing wall on a lower level. Although the fire was brought under control in an hour or two, the majority of the building collapsed about an hour after the fire was out and overhaul was occurring. The collapse was attributed to the modifications of load bearing elements within the building that were clearly contributing factors to these LODDs. An eerily similar fire occurred in New York City on October 17, 1966 where 12 FDNY firefighters lost their lives.

    The 23rd Street fire had several contributing factors including the storage of flammables and removal of load bearing wall between occupancies, which resulted in a floor collapse. Tragically, this fire left 12 widows and 32 children without a father.

  • The Strand Theater fire occurred in Brocktown, Massachusetts on March 10, 1946. In this case also, a partial building collapse was a contributing factor in a fire that had no visible smoke or flames on arrival and ultimately resulted in 12 LODDs.
  • At the Chicago Union Stock Yard fire in Chicago, Illinois on December 22, 1910, a building collapse was a contributing factor to this fire which claimed the lives of 21 Chicago firefighters including Chief James J. Horen.
  • On August 22, 1910, building construction and inadequate water supplies contributed to a fire in Avery, Idaho that claimed 28 firefighters’ lives.
  • On March 17, 1890, the Bowen-Merrill fire occurred in Indianapolis, Indiana. The Indianapolis Journal reported, “What ought to have been a $1000 blaze, at the worst, unattended by loss of life or casualties of any kind, developed yesterday afternoon into a destructive fire, accompanied by a frightful sacrifice of human flesh and blood.” Thirteen firefighters lost their lives due to a partial collapse of the building.
  • During the Great Boston Fire of 1872, on November 9th, eight firefighters lost their lives. Building construction, locked fire alarm boxes, delayed fire department notification, and unstandardized fire hydrant couplings were all contributing factors during this fire.
  • This brings us to May 19, 1811 and the first recorded Line of Duty Death in the United States Fire Service. A structure fire occurred on Chatham Street, which is now named Park Row, in the New York City borough of Manhattan. According to John Lossing Benson’s book History of New York City, the fire began in a coachmaker’s shop in Chatham Street on the corner of Duane Street. A young boy was passing by that morning and discovered the fire. He then ran down Chatham Street yelling “Fire!” The Debtors’ Jail bell began ringing but it was a Sunday morning and many church bells were also ringing. This caused a delayed response by many that thought the bells were a call to worship in lieu of an alert to what would become a conflagration. There were high winds and an ongoing drought. Before the fire was brought under control in the mid-afternoon, more than 100 buildings had been consumed. Captain William Peterson is thought to have died as a result of “overexertion.”

If the United States Fire Administration had existed in 1811, their Line of Duty Death notification might have included the typical information we see when one of our own suffers a heart attack or stroke at the scene. We do not know a whole lot about the contributing factors at this fire, but we do know that Captain Peterson was 39 years old and most likely had a family. Presumably, the high winds, delayed notification, and construction of the period were all contributing factors to the fire spread. Exhaustive research has not been able to identify a documented firefighter line of duty death prior to May 19, 1911, although it is safe to assume there were many between our country’s founding and Captain Peterson’s line of duty death.

If we consider the many contributing factors listed above, there are some commonalities. However, there are a number of factors to consider. The weather had an effect in New York City in 1811 and in Arizona in 2013. Building alterations were presumably contributing factors in Indianapolis in 1890, in Idaho in 1910, in Brocktown in 1946, in New York City in 1966, and in Boston in 1972. Water supply issues were contributing factors in Charleston in 2007, in Philadelphia in 1991, in Idaho in 1910, and in Boston in 1872. Our prevention personnel (fire marshals, inspectors, etc.) are charged with attempting to remove these contributing factors by doing plans reviews, inspections, etc. However, their bigger mission is to prevent the root cause, which is the one thing all of these incidents have in common. The fire. Preventing the fire, prevents these line of duty deaths. Had the fire not started in the coachmaker’s shop on Chatham Street on May 19, 1811, Captain William Peterson may have lived a long and fruitful life. The same can be said of all of these other multi-firefighter fatality fires. The same holds true for our citizens. My fire marshal has a sign in his office gifted to him by me. It reads, “You protect the lives of our citizens. The rest of us are only here for whenever you screw up.”

Prevention activities often get a bad rap. Do not underestimate the power of a pre-incident survey, fire inspection or plans review. These activities are what can keep our ignition source and fuel source from coming together. They protect us and they protect our citizens. As a result, we should place a greater importance on them and support our prevention personnel as much as possible. Although it is not feasible to expect that our prevention personnel will make it to where we never experience a fire again in this country (the Yarnell Hill Fire was started by lightning), Captain William Peterson’s family would have been eternally grateful if we could have prevented the fire that occurred on Chatham Street in New York City on May 19, 1811. If you want to prevent a Line of Duty Death, then prevent the fire.

Be safe and do good.

Dr. David A. Greene has over 27 years of experience in the fire service and is currently the deputy chief with Colleton County (S.C.) Fire-Rescue. He holds a PhD in Fire and Emergency Management Administration from Oklahoma State University and an MBA degree from the University of South Carolina. He is a certified Executive Fire Officer through the National Fire Academy, holds the Chief Fire Officer Designation from the Center for Public Safety Excellence, holds Member Grade in the Institution of Fire Engineers, is an adjunct instructor for the South Carolina Fire Academy and is a Nationally Registered Paramedic. He can be reached at

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