Opinion: What is a four-alarm fire?

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Commentary by Ward Degler

Ever wonder what makes a four-alarm fire a four-alarm fire? Yeah, me neither. Until fire trucks rolled by the other day and a friend wondered if it was a four-alarm fire and then asked, “What does that mean?”

Folks learned a long time ago the best way to send me into the dusty and forgotten reference stacks at the library is to ask a question that starts out, “What does that mean?” In this case I cheated and went directly to Google.

The number of alarms assigned to a fire depends on how many firefighters are dispatched. It’s a system that got started in one city (no one seems to remember where) and then spread across the nation.

For example, a one-alarm fire, also called a box alarm, calls for 20 firefighters in five sets of four firefighters. A two-alarm blaze calls for 40 firefighters plus four command staff. A three-alarmer calls for 60 and six commanders. A four-alarm calls for 80 and eight, and so on.

Multiple alarms doesn’t mean multiple fire houses. It just means more firefighters and equipment are sent to the fire.

Apparently, the system works this way: A fire call comes in and the chief sends out the first crew. So far, it’s a one-alarm fire. The call comes for more help and the chief sends out another crew. Now, it’s a two-alarm fire. You get the picture. The most recent 10-alarm fire was last May in Brooklyn when an apartment building was ablaze. Several fire houses reportedly worked on that one.

Back in the 1800s, cities had watch towers, and if a fire broke out, the attendant rang a bell. Firefighters would then emerge from their houses and check the sky for smoke to determine where the fire was. In New York City they added codes to the bell to point out the location and size of the fire.

The telephone and fire alarm boxes updated all that, of course, so now it’s just a matter of determining how many alarms it takes to quench the flames.

To be clear, this has nothing to do with Two-Alarm Chili, however. This was the creation of newspaper reporter Wick Fowler, who invented a spicy chili mix that won the international chili cook-off a few years ago.

I accidentally tasted that stuff once at a local street festival. I almost called the fire department.

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