Doing The Best You Can – Rescues and Reflection on Our Purpose in Lowell

Dave LeBlanc shares how a tragic fire recalls another similar incident that again reflects our mission

APTOPIX Apartment Fire

The Boston Globe’s Kevin Cullen has an excellent article about the first-in crews at the Lowell apartment fire on 10 July. In it he shares the views and actions of Fire Captain Brett Dowling and Firefighter Ryan Carroll,

“We could see the flames as soon as we pulled onto the street,” Dowling said. “We were still pulling our gear on while we were going down the street.”

Even before Engine 2 drove that 100 or so yards, Dowling struck a second alarm. He knew they needed more ladders, more engines, more firefighters, more everything.

Dowling and Firefighters Dave McNeil and Marc Poirier decided to pull Engine 2 down Queen Street, because the back porches of the three-story building were fully engulfed, and they needed to get water from a 2½-inch hose on them ASAP.

But as soon as they rounded the corner, they screeched to a halt: A man was lying in the middle of the street, writhing in pain.

“He had just jumped from one of the windows,” Dowling said.

The man, one of his legs or ankles seemingly broken, dragged himself with great effort out of the path of the hulking engine.

The story is quite gripping and emotional as most of Cullen’s articles about firefighters are. It also points us back to another time where Lowell firefighters, particularly Dowling, were faced with stepping up to the mission, the purpose we have when the box is struck. We raised the issue of some skirting that purpose behind the abuse of slogans and efforts here with “Remembrance and Our Purpose” and the Globe article helps by once again showing us, as if we needed reminding, what the public expects of us,

The engines were roaring, the red lights flashing, and even before the doors to the old firehouse were opened, Lowell Fire Captain Brett Dowling realized that someone was outside, pounding on those same doors.

He wore only underwear and a look of sheer terror.

“My family’s trapped!” he screamed at Brett Dowling when the doors opened. “My kids!”

Dowling and other Lowell firefighters were no strangers to this and we’re reminded of a fire back in December 2010 that had multiple rescues and the lessons from it that he imparted onto then-new recruits…

Recruits learn from rescues at working fire that fire service rules must be flexible if they are to have any impact on people trapped and training must be grounded in the basics.


Every day we read about firefighters that take extraordinary risk, make split second decisions, and operate in a world that can be hard to recognize from behind a keyboard or an article in the newspaper. These firefighters are not cowboys or reckless, some are well trained and loaded with experience and others are newer to the job. They all have one thing in common, they found themselves in a position where they had to make a decision, a choice to risk their life to try and save another (“Firefighting According To Pirate Rules” on Backstep Firefighter).Last week a graduation was held for the 189th Recruit Class from the Massachusetts Fire Academy. These recruits had just completed 504 hours of training conducted by some 60 odd instructors. While well trained, they now have to go gain their experience, to learn how to mix their training into the real world and their department’s operations.

“Before you can “think outside the box,” you have to know what’s in the box! Learn the basics, know your job. The rest will come in time.” by Firefighter Philip LaRocco, Ladder 148, FDNY

It is during this period of time, the transition from probie to firefighter, that they will learn that the academy cannot prepare them for every situation. This is not an attack on their training at all, those 504 hours are irreplaceable as far as training goes. This statement is more of an acceptance of the fact that each fire we see, we are seeing for the first time. Everything from time of day, to construction, to contents, to occupancy, to the weather will offer us a different fire each time we respond. It is this fact alone that makes this job so dangerous and requires every firefighter to be “tuned in” to what is happening around them.

Many of you will remember the dramatic footage from Lowell, Massachusetts this past October. Short staffed and faced with companies out of service due to brownouts, Lowell firefighters arrived at 353 Bridge Street to find “nothing showing”. What happened over the next several hours tested the fire department and resulted in the loss of two lives (When Seconds Count on Backstep).


Class 189 and those assembled at their graduation heard all about that night. The guest speaker, Lowell Fire Captain Brett Dowling, described his experiences in great detail. Captain Dowling, assigned to Lowell’s Heavy rescue, was detailed to Ladder 3 that night. Working with two firefighters he did not normally work with, Dowling responded to the 4am call on Ladder 3.

Captain Dowling was asked to speak to Class 189, because as he explained during his speech, that night he found himself falling back on his academy training from 15 years earlier. For example as they were throwing ground ladders, he remembers saying “overhead clear” and “pawls locked”, commands he learn at the academy but hadn’t used often because he had been assigned to Engine companies throughout his career. Another example was as they were trying to rescue a victim from the fourth floor and heavy fire entered the room they were in. The Captain left the rescue effort momentarily to try and close the door to buy them more time, another lesson for all those years ago.

What stood out in the Captain’s story was the things that went right, and the potential for things to go so wrong. The first due companies arrived on scene to find nothing showing. These words alone often cause us to drop our guard, to become complacent. Many of you have been to a “good fire” that started out with the words “nothing showing”. But the firefighters in Lowell were not complacent. They were trained to “expect fire”, so when the Deputy arrived and reported heavy smoke, everyone was ready to go to work.

The Captain went on to talk about how due to wires and obstructions, the ladder wasn’t able to get that close to the building. As a result, when he was ordered to the fourth floor to assist victims, the ladder only made it to the third floor. The Captain and the other firefighters were forced to climb onto the top rail of the bucket and then climb up and over the fire escape balcony rail. Certainly this was not an ideal situation and one that is probably not in the academy curriculum.

These firefighters then operated above the fire without the protection of a hoseline, committed to the rescue of victims in an area that soon became heavily involved in fire. Another decision made, one that benefited their victims while increasing the risk to the firefighters.

Finally the Captain talked about how they operated streams from the streets into the windows once the victim was on the fire escape. These streams were keeping the heavy fire in check while the rescuers tried to move their victim to the bucket. Typically outside streams are not used while firefighters are inside or near where the streams are being operated, the concern for injury to those firefighters being too great. But what if the alternative is those firefighters being burned?

While all live by rules every day. We live by rules that govern how we drive, what we do in our houses, what we do at work, and how we interact with people. Sometimes these rules are flexible, like in social interactions, and other times they are less so, like motor vehicle laws. The rules we operate by in the Fire Service fall somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. We cannot plan for each and every situation. SOPs cannot cover every scenario. We must train our people in the skills needed to do the job, and then give them the latitude to make good decisions based on the training they have received.

It is obvious, after reading the stories related to Lowell and hearing Captain Dowling speak, it is obvious that that is what happened that October night in Lowell.

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