When tragic things happen, such as last week’s deadly house fire in Fairmount that took 12 precious lives, you would have to have a heart of stone not to look back and wonder: Why? And what if?
What if the six smoke detectors located inside the upstairs unit where the victims perished were where they were supposed to be and in good working order?
What if the one in the basement had gone off earlier and the occupants had heard it sooner?
What if the Christmas tree hadn’t gone up in flames and started the inferno the way that fire investigators are saying it did?
Mike Bresnan, president of Philadelphia Firefighters’ & Paramedics’ Union Local 22, has another what-if that he’s been fretting about in the days since the blaze broke out in the three-story duplex on the 800 block of North 23rd Street: What if budgetary cutbacks hadn’t closed North Philly’s Ladder 1 in 2009? How much sooner could they have gotten there? Might some of the young children who took their last breaths in that smoke-filled upstairs bedroom have gotten medical attention before it was too late?
To their credit, Philadelphia firefighters rushed to the scene of the fast-moving blaze and arrived four minutes after calls started coming in at 6:36 a.m. It’s hard to imagine a faster response, even from Ladder 1, which used to be located at 1541 Parrish St., about a mile from the blaze.
North Philly’s Ladder 1 was one of two ladder companies — the other was at 12th and Reed Streets — that were decommissioned in 2009 following budget cuts under former Mayor Michael Nutter. Altogether, the city closed seven fire stations — five engine companies and two ladder companies. A decade later, the Fire Department was able to reopen four of those companies thanks in part to a SAFER grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), designed to assist local municipalities to increase or maintain their number of firefighters.
Bresnan, who was a firefighter for 27 years, is haunted by what could have been. “Do we know if [Ladder 1] would have made a difference? Who knows. But a one-minute difference in response times could be the difference between life and death,” Bresnan told me.
Sadly, this what-if question is one that we’ll never know the answer to. But that doesn’t stop it from swirling around in his brain. He’s been bringing it up with city officials, the press, and even President Joe Biden when he called Bresnan Monday evening to discuss what had happened and offer his support.
“It was a very good conversation. He conveyed his concerns for our members and for the tragedy,” Bresnan recalled, adding that the two men had had a heartfelt conversation during which they commiserated over losing children. Bresnan had a child who died in infancy.
They also talked about growing up Catholic; Biden mentioned the Irish rosary beads he carries. They talked about firefighting and Bresnan brought up his lingering questions about the loss of Ladder 1 and the impact it could have made on saving lives last week had it still been in operation.
During the call, which lasted about six minutes, he told Biden that Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel is submitting a request for a grant through FEMA to restore the three remaining companies that never reopened after the 2009 cuts: North Philly’s Ladder 1, Engine 6 in Fishtown, and Ladder 11 in South Philly.
Biden reportedly responded positively, telling Bresnan that if FEMA funding is still available, the Philadelphia Fire Department would get it. I hope that’s true, and I hope Thiel, and even Mayor Jim Kenney, will follow up on that promise.
As Thiel pointed out Tuesday during a news conference at City Hall, this was a complex incident. There are no easy answers and solutions. But in a fast-moving fire like last week’s inferno, mere seconds count. If having a ladder company in North Philly once again means that firefighters can get to nearby residents even faster than four minutes, then it’s worth posing the question: Why not?