FIRE BUFFS, WHO ARE THEY ?

 

by Steve Hansen, Past President
International Fire Buff Associates

Co Publisher - VISITING FIREMAN

 

When you mention fire fighters, everyone knows whom you are talking about.  Those daring, brave, highly motivated individuals who have made it their chosen career to protect neighbors, friends, family, and communities from one of the oldest adversary known to mankind; Fire!  Less well known are those individuals who chase fires at all hours of the day looking for a chance to observe fire fighters in action.  Fire Buffs are somewhat a mystery to the vast majority of the population and even some fire fighters find it hard to believe grown men and women would chase fires in bitter cold or sweltering heat just to be near the action.  Fire Buffs are unique in their quest to be “students of the fire service”. 

What makes a Fire Buff?  In life all passions have their roots in childhood experiences.   Those early impressions not only influence our lives but also can influence what we do later in life.  For Fire Buffs chasing massive red fire engines with their red flashing lights, bells, and sirens heralding their appearance as they dash to a blazing infernos leads to images of fire ground heroics, intense heat, and danger.  With danger comes a certain amount of excitement; the unknown dangers that fire fighters face with each fire they fight.  For many fire buffs there is more to this passion than chasing fire engines.  There is a whole tapestry of fellowship, tradition, values, and knowledge gives the buff a rewarding experience of being part of the fire service.

Where does the word “Buff” come from?  Clarence Meek, Honorary Asst. Chief, once researched about “Buffs”.  Asst. Chief Meek says ‘ some legendary explanations include the wearing of buff colored uniforms, or parts of uniforms by the frustrated volunteers who frequented the engine houses after paid companies were established.  An often-quoted explanation is the legend about buffalo robes being used by the volunteer auxiliaries when attending fires in freezing weather or waiting in the cold for the fire bells to ring.  Some of our correspondents like to facetiously suggest that “Buff” was the name of a favorite squirrel food”.

The late Governor Alfred E. Smith, four-time governor of New York State, provides a story that can be verified.  Governor Smith indicated in his experience as a member of the Buffalo Corps of the New York Fire Department this organization provided an informal association for young men who were pioneers of a fraternity, which gradually became known as “Fire Buffs”.  Apparently during the turn of the century great herds of buffaloes roamed the Great Plains, and the name “Buffaloes” was chosen out of pure chance.  The Buffaloes were affiliated with the early companies of the paid fire departments as helpers and “go-fers”.

Being close to the action allowed Fire Buffs to get intimate look at fire ground action.  As a fire unfolded the buffs, after several years of seasoning, can explain in detail why hoses were laid in a particular fashion, how much water is flowing, what are the tactical advantages of straight stream vs. Fog streams for a given fire, what is happening to a fire based on the color of smoke and the way it moves, when will the Battalion Chief be calling for additional companies, and explain in detail the difference between various fire pumpers and ladders including their strengths and weaknesses.  In many instances the Buffs knew more about the department, its tactics, and equipment than the fire fighters who manned the department.  Buffs were unique in that they have opportunities to chase many fires citywide where as fire fighters assigned to one station only get an opportunity to see and work with companies in their own district.

Of course Fire Buffs not only observed the fire ground action from their vantage point but also were eager and quick to lend a helping hand to the fire fighters when the occasion presented itself.  Catching another plug for more water, getting that ladder up to the window, helping position and anchor hose streams were all common activities buffs became involved with at a working fire. 

Fire photography.  Many fire buffs are avid photographers and they have captured many dramatic moments on film for posterity.  Dramatic rescues exhausted fire fighters, blazing infernos and intimate, tense moments of daring skill have all been captured for the benefit of history and the fire fighters alike. Many fire department histories would not be complete without the unselfishness of the fire buffs that have shared their collection of photographs for the greater benefit of documenting the history of a fire department.

Over the years fire buffs have dedicated themselves to the prevention of fire, and the safety and well being of those who fight fires.  Fire Buffs have a solid reputation for community service, and are frequently known as the strongest, most enthusiastic supporters of the local volunteer and full time paid fire companies.  Quite often a strong bond exists between buffs, fire department officers, fire administration, and runs all the way down to the newest recruit.  This bond is built on years of experience and mutual trust that can only come with the passage of time.  In many cities buffs are considered to be part of the close-knit fire fighting family.

Fire Buffs are involved in other fire related activities also.  In some communities local fire buffs preserve the history of fire and conflagration through a local fire museum.  The collection of fire fighting artifacts and memorabilia can take many years.  Buffs often times have a unique ability to ferret out long lost artifacts and secure those items for display in a fire museum.  Fire museums themselves need substantial attention also.  House cleaning, and of course polishing of the brass can occupy many hours of a buff’s time.  Fire apparatus on display in a museum still need occasional attention with periodic cleaning and waxing.  Displays need to be rotated occasionally and of course tours need to be given.  With their vast knowledge of local fire history, fire buffs provide citizens with an intimate look at fire fighting in years gone by.

Another aspect of fire buffing is providing a mobile Rehabilitation (Canteen) service for area fire departments.  Over sixty groups throughout the United States and Canada respond with local fire departments on all working fires, Haz Mat incidents, and other emergencies for the purpose of providing food, water, and temporary shelter from the environment for fire fighters and fire victims alike.  At times when a major fire keeps fire fighters busy battling the flame for an extended period of time, buffs and their Rehab Units supply a hot or cold meal, a cooling drink or a hot cup of coffee, air-conditioned or heated shelter from the elements, and a moment’s diversion from the dangerous job they face.  On occasion Rehab Units have been used as Command Posts in unusual and unique situations since they often times have the necessary radios and cellular telephone equipment to allow an incident commander to coordinate the ongoing activity.

Recently a new aspect of fire buffing is coming in to play.  With the advent of trunked 800 MHz radio systems in many major metropolitan cities fire buffs have turned to Alpha-Numeric paging to keep up with the action.  Call monitors listen to trunked radios and then retransmit incident information over the alpha-numeric pagers.  These pagers have been networked together through mutual agreements to send fire information from one city to another and vice versa.  A member of a fire-paging group in Chicago can get the fire action from the Northeast or California.  Conversely fire activity from Chicago can be sent across the country to other paging systems as well.  With more cities moving to trunked 800 MHz systems and as fire buffs become more mobile in today’s society Alpha-Numeric paging systems will become an increasingly important part of fire buffing.

Tying fire buffs together is an umbrella group known as the International Fire Buff Associates, Incorporated (IFBA).  The International Fire Buff Associates was founded in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and chartered in 1953 as a means of bringing otherwise independent buff groups sharing common interests closer together.  In the United States and Canada there are more than 80 organized buff groups affiliated under the IFBA.  The organization acts as a means of sharing information between member groups.

As the name implies, the IFBA is international in scope having members in England, Germany, France, and Australia in addition to those members in North America.  Currently there are over 3000 active fire buffs who are members of the IFBA through their local fire buffing group.  It has been estimated that there are as many fire buffs as there are fire fighters with many fire buffs being closet buffs.

The IFBA is divided in to eleven regions in North America.  A vice president who sits on the IFBA Board of Directors supports each region.  In addition to the Vice Presidents, the executive board’s four principal officers are the President, Secretary, and Treasurer as voting members and an Executive Vice President who provides continuity, a mailing address and functions as an assistant to the President. 

What is a fire buff?  A unique individual with a special interest in the fire service and the fire fighters who protect us 24 hours a day.

 

 

WHO OR WHAT IS A FIRE BUFF?

 

By James P. Rasmussen

Past President IFBA

Past President Racine Fire Bells

 

Not to be confused with a fire bug, a FIRE BUFF, (or fire fan, as called in times past) is anything but a pyromaniac. On the contrary, just the opposite is true. Fire Buffs, nicknamed before the turn of the century because of the buffalo robe worn during the winter by men who frequently followed fire engines to an alarm destination, are ardent supporters of their local fire departments. They are dedicated to the prevention of fires, and the safety and well being of those who fight fires. In this respect, fire buffs have a solid reputation for community service.

Fire Buffs take many forms, and can be found throughout the United States, Canada, and in many overseas countries as well. Buffs come from every walk of life and profession: Doctors, mechanics, lawyers, teachers, priests, ministers, laborers, accountants, and just about any vocation that comes to mind can be found in the ranks of fire buffing. Many professional and volunteer fire fighters are proud to be counted as buffs, also. Some more prominent fire buffs include Benjamin Franklin, Arthur Fielder, and Fiorello La Guardia (Mayor of NY City).

Buffing activity is not restricted exclusively to men, for many women are likewise involved. Buffs nurture a special relationship with organized fire departments world-wide. In their own communities they are frequently known as the strongest, most enthusiastic supporters of the local volunteer or full time, paid fire companies. A strong bond exists between buffs, fire department officers, and administration, down to the newest recruit riding a rig. In many cities, Fire Buffs are considered to be part of the close-knit fire fighting family.

At the community level, Fire Buffs provide a variety of services to better the lot of fire fighters. Canteen/Rehab operations is a typical example that provides exhausted fire fighters with a cheering smile and a hot cup of coffee while at a 2:00 am fire on a cold and blustery morning. At times, when a major blaze keeps fire fighters busy battling flames for an extended period of time, buffs and their Canteen/Rehab operations supply weary smoke eaters with a hot meal and a moment's diversion from the dangerous job they are engaged in. Other buff clubs operate museums dedicated to preserving the memory of heroic fire fighters of the past, and the artifacts of their trade. Members of a few clubs assist at a fire scene by hauling hose, directing traffic, or recharging and changing air bottles.

Each Buff Group is unique, and distinctively individual in its own way. In the United States and Canada there are more than 80 organized Fire Buff groups affiliated under an umbrella organization known as the International Fire Buff Associates or IFBA for short. The IFBA is a means of bringing otherwise independent Fire Buff Groups together sharing common interests. The IFBA acts as a communications vehicle between member groups. TURNOUT Is the official Magazine of the IFBA and is for sharing information and ideas between affiliated member groups.

The answer to the question posed at the beginning of this article is simple: a Fire Buff is a community oriented individual, with strong ties to the fire service; Buffs come from many vocational backgrounds; and Fire Buffs are International in scope because of a shared avocation/hobby that recognizes no borders.

 

 

WHAT IS A FIRE BUFF?

 

By Robert W. Masters

From "Pictorial History of Firefighting” 

 

Buffs have been variously defined as "sidewalk superintendents of fires," as "fire-engine chasers who think they're the guys for whom the bell tolls," as "frustrated firemen," and as "smoked hams who are never quite cured." Irreverent as these definitions are, buffs have been called still nastier names by some firemen and chiefs. Traditionally, most professional fire-fighters look down on buffs, without good reason.

The best behaved spectators at fires are usually the buffs. It is a principle of good buff behavior never to interfere or offer unsolicited suggestions, but to stand ready to perform any task requested. As buffs watch fires they resemble baseball fans watching home games. They cheer the direct hits and scoring plays, they groan at mishaps, and sometimes they tell each other the trouble started back when the second alarm was turned In too late. They may even criticize the chief for not bringing up the water tower to pinch hit for the deck pipe, but they'll say it quietly. Buffs are great rooters for the home town fire team, and they only wish they could be in there pitching.

Those fire chiefs who look down on buffs as nuisances might find on looking deeper into the subject that these men formed the core of auxiliary fire departments during World War II, when regular departments suffered draft gaps. In New York City, various buff clubs furnished most of the auxiliary personnel to man the fire alarm telegraph bureau. Overseas, Army, Navy and Marine fire departments were run by buffs, and a good many were cited for excellent duty. Even in peacetime, the Kansas City (Mo.) department, for example, has been forced to send out SOS calls for buff assistance, when strained to the limit by multiple coincident alarms. In case of another war, conflagrations may spread regular departments so thin, the buff is likely to become "the man of the hour" for chiefs to depend on.

A buff is not trained, but born. He's the boy who's always playing fireman, looking at pictures of fire engines and getting his daddy to take him to the fire house. Later, his childhood curiosity about fires develops into a mature understanding of the art of firefighting. He learns by watching and trading information with other buffs. But the original excitement and intense interest never diminishes.

Nothing can bring blood to the eye of a buff more quickly than being confused with the arsonist of the species... the fire-bug. The socially destructive pyromaniac bears as little resemblance to the intelligent buff as a fly does to a fly swatter. The bug's attention (if he's foolish enough to hang around) is centered on seeing how much damage his "pretty" flames can create. The buff is interested in seeing how much damage can be avoided and how quickly the flames can be controlled. A buff's hobby impresses him with the destructiveness of fire and keeps him alert to the dangers in his own home and neighborhood, making him an extremely valuable asset to any community.

The name "buff" originated in the hose-and-wagon days when enthusiasts with smoke-bleared eyes stood on icy street-corners for hours, huddled together tightly under buffalo robes. Firemen humorously named them "the buffaloes," which soon became "buff" for short. In some cities, they are known as "fire-fans" and in a few as "sparkies" but whatever they're called they're easily recognized. They're the boys who attend each major blaze with almost religious determination.

Buffing knows no social or class distinction. Doctors, lawyers, bakers, factory workers, grocery clerks and Wall Street financiers all answer the call of bell or siren. George Washington not only chased a goodly number of fires in his day, but also donated a hand-drawn hose cart to the volunteer department of Mount Vernon. Benjamin Franklin was a familiar figure in early Philadelphia firefighting. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes is remembered as a buff in Boston and Mayor Florello H. LaGuardia in New York City. The radio comedian Peter Donald is a buff. Not to be outdone, the female "engine chasers" are represented by no less than Mrs. [Harry] Truman.

It is impossible to say how many buffs there are in existence today, and almost as difficult to find a community without one. There is a little buff in everyone-- who doesn't rush to the windows to see the fire engines whistling past?-- and many buffs hide their lights in unorganized areas. In large cities, where firefighting is a danger-filled occupation completely restricted to professional highly-trained men, buffs have organized clubs.

Many buff clubs have permanent club rooms where members can gather in off hours to pool their knowledge, discuss fire reports, examine old documents, and enjoy photographs and relics. Some clubs are fortunate enough to have a bell installed in their headquarters with fire department sanction, even though buffs seldom receive official civic recognition. At the clubhouse, the buffs listen to the calls pouring in from all parts of the city. It's a sure bet that, seconds after a second alarm comes in from a potentially hazardous area, little will be left of a clubhouse gathering but jangling hangers on an empty coat rack.

Buffs can reel off the locations of alarm boxes from their alarm numbers, some even recalling an entire large city system strictly from memory. In many cities, buffs carry their "bible" (the list of alarm box locations) with them at all times. One buff in New York City, Morris Heitowit, has even gone to the extent of printing a "bible" with other information to make up a Firemen's Manual for buffs to buy and enjoy.

True buffs seldom leave their radios. When they depart from the side of their club radio, tuned in always to the station broadcasting fire news, the members will go home listening to the same station on their car radios, and then keep an all-night half-waking vigil next to their bedroom radios. You'd be surprised how many buffs manage to attend early morning fires. Lately, some of the boys have converted their wives into buffs-- the ladies join their husbands at club functions and chase the engines too, rather than be left home alone.

New York City houses a number of buff clubs: The Fire Bell Club (where it's harder to become a member than in millionaire lodges), The Third Alarmers, and The "77" Club. To name a few, Philadelphia has the 1776 Club and The Second Alarmers, it's the Box 12 Association in Detroit and Toronto, the Box 52 Association in Boston, the Friendship Fire Association in Washington (D.C.) and the Phoenix Society in San Francisco. Buff utopia was reached recently by the Box Thirteeners in Cincinnati who now actively assist their city's firemen.       

  Becoming a buff club member is generally by-invitation-only, but since the fraternity is so closely knit the steady engine-chaser has little difficulty striking up acquaintances while watching fires. If there is an opening in the club membership, and the prospect's interest is sufficiently backed up with some technical knowledge of firefighting, he will be invited to apply for membership. Firemen of paid departments are not eligible for club membership. Occasionally, when a club member goes to join a paid department his club places him in a special nonvoting class where he still can participate in social functions and clubroom comradeship.

The pinnacle of success for a buff was achieved by Dr. Harry M. Archer, when he was appointed 2nd deputy fire commissioner of New York City, but refused to accept his salary in order to maintain his amateur buff standing. Dr. Archer believes he has attended more than 200,000 fires in his 60 years of buffing. When he began his medical career as an intern in the 1890's at Bellevue Hospital, there were no emergency stations at fires to take care of the burned and injured. Dr. Archer, of his own accord and often at his own expense, set up facilities at the scene of many disasters. Nobody called him at first, but he was always there... sometimes ahead of the firemen, and usually ahead of any other doctors. Today, at the age of 83, Dr. Archer is still active.

Just as a medical career can lead to buffing, so can buffing lead directly to a career: in news photography, as a fire insurance agent, as a writer, or possibly as a salesman for an equipment manufacturer. Many of the photographs in this book were taken by buffs arriving with firemen at the scene of a blaze. One well-known writer-buff for the past twenty years has gathered most of the material for his articles and books from on-the-spot observations. Some of the finest fire equipment salesmen have reached the top because they know their products from watching them in actual operation for years.

If you're not a buff you can't really know what a buff is. Those not infected with the desire to "chase fires" can't understand the buffs' deep inner urge to be on the spot when a blaze is in progress. One prominent buff explained his attitude this way, and it corresponds so closely to the attitude of the fire chief, it's worth noting: "I don't want anybody's house to burn down. But if yours does, God forbid, I want to be there to see it."