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Armed firefighters: A moral decision 50 years ago

Firefighters in Birmingham showed moral courage in the face of direct orders during a very difficult time in history

Each new act of violence against first responders prompts calls for firefighters and EMTs to carry weapons. And so it is worth considering where an armed fire service might lead. For example, might we ask armed firefighters to use their weapons against protesters?

In the United States, firefighters have turned fire hoses against civilian protesters. Is it a stretch to imagine armed firefighters with orders to assist the police in quelling a protest by civilians?

Imagine also that it is not in self-defense.

Non-violent protest generally falls under protected speech in the U.S. Constitution, but when emotions run high, gut reactions can turn good intent into regretful action very quickly.

To get a sense of what it looks like when firefighters use fire hoses against protesters we need only look to the images of Birmingham, Ala., from May 1963. What happened in Birmingham 50 years ago seem as distant and foreign as do the images of U.S. troops fighting in the jungles of Viet Nam.

In the fire service, we do not say much at all about what occurred 50 years ago in Birmingham and we do not discuss what we might do if called upon or ordered to deploy fire hoses against other Americans.

Would you follow such an order? Would you cave to threats to your job if you failed to follow such an order?

Firefighters talk of physical courage as essential to doing the job, but they rarely talk of moral courage.

Birmingham, Alabama
Founded in 1871, Birmingham, Ala., rapidly grew into an important industrial and commercial center. As late as the 1960s, however, it was also one of America’s most racially discriminatory and segregated cities.

The city’s public safety commissioner, Eugene “Bull” Connor was notorious for using brutality to deter demonstrators. The city’s reputation as a bastion for white supremacy attracted civil rights activists in 1963 in support of efforts to desegregate the Deep South. The civil rights protests in Birmingham frequently started from the steps of the 16th Street Baptist Church.

A major fire in 1872 provided the motivation for Birmingham to form a volunteer fire department. In 1884 the organization converted to a fully paid municipal fire service. Using annexation the city grew to 75 square miles by 1963 with 442 (all white) firefighters protecting 341,000 people.

In 1963, Chief John L. Swindle managed the fire department under Connor’s executive oversight. The Birmingham Fire Department was very typical of organizations of that era and for cities of that size.

BFD in operation
Records showed that of the 1,376 building fires during 1958, the majority were extinguished with booster lines or 1 1/2-inch lines. When responding to a known address in the principal business district or to an apartment house, hospital, school or similar target hazard the BFD laid 2 1/2-inch hose lines upon arrival.

For other non-target occupancies, company officers made the decision of whether to use a booster line or lay a larger size attack line. Department policy called for hand-lines run directly from the hydrant; they connected pumpers to hydrants to boost hose pressures only on orders of the chief-in-charge or in a few areas where the water system pressures were known to be low.

The hydrants were mostly of the type having one 5-inch steamer connection and two 2 1/2-inch outlets. In the principal business district, there were generally two hydrants at each street intersection and an intermediate hydrant at the alley intersections.

The fire department divided the city into four battalions, with the battalion chiefs running out of fire headquarters, Stations 2, 12, and 16. The principal business district was within the north battalion and had seven engines, a ladder, a water tower and two hose companies.

Chief Swindle and Bull Connor
Chief Swindle joined the department Jan. 1, 1938 as a probationary firefighter. Within a half an hour of being on duty, he responded to a working fire. Chief Swindle was a member of the Boy Scouts of America while growing up and continued to support the organization throughout his lifetime.

In 1976, he served as one of three members of a site selection board to research available properties and to make a recommendation for the permanent site of the newly created National Fire Academy. He served as president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs in 1977 and continued as Birmingham’s fire chief several more years.

Connor was born in Alabama in 1897. He trained as a telegraph operator and eventually settled in Birmingham where he found work as a radio sports announcer.

Exploiting his popularity as a radio announcer and his nickname (“Bull”), Connor entered politics in 1934 and won election to the Alabama House of Representatives. His next elected office was public safety commissioner of Birmingham in 1937, a position that gave him administrative authority over the city’s police and fire departments.

He is the man responsible for ordering police dogs and fire hoses to disperse civil rights demonstrators in Birmingham during the spring of 1963.

Civil rights demonstrators
On May 2, more than 1,000 Birmingham students avoided school to gather at the 16th Street Baptist Church. There they received instructions to march to the downtown area to meet with the mayor and to attempt to integrate certain buildings.

The police arrested more than 600 students, the youngest just 8 years old. When there were no more police cars to block city streets, the fire department used fire trucks under orders of Connor. This was the first day of The Children’s Crusade.

On May 3, with the jail packed full, police changed their strategy in the effort to keep protesters out of the downtown business area. Another 1,000 students gathered at the church and walked across the street to Kelly Ingram Park chanting, “We’re going to walk, walk, walk. Freedom ... freedom ... freedom.” The police warned them to stop.

Reportedly, Connor ordered the city’s fire hoses, set at a level that would “peel bark off a tree or separate bricks from mortar” to be turned on the children. Boys and girls alike were struck by the fire streams.

Miracle Sunday
On May 5, the confrontation heated up as demonstrators abandoned their pledge of non-violence while a multitude of spectators taunted the outnumbered city police force.

Diane McWhorter in her book, “Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama, the Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution” investigated the events of May 5, also known as Miracle Sunday. According to her, there were a few things behind the refusal of the city firefighters to use their fire hoses on Miracle Sunday.

That day, Charles Billups, a local civil rights leader led a column of 2,000 marchers out of church dressed in their Sunday best. When blocked by Connor, his policemen, their attack dogs and the phalanx of fire hoses, Billups declared, “We haven’t done anything wrong. All we want is our freedom. How do you feel doing these things?”

With tears running down his face, he started a chant, “Turn on your water, turn loose your dogs, we will stand here till we die.”

McWhorter reports that at this point Connor ordered the firefighters to blast the marchers with high-pressure hoses. This time though, unlike the days before, they refused.

Connor demanded a second time, screaming, “Dammit! Turn on the hoses.” She writes, “Some firemen were crying, and one was heard to say, ‘We’re here to put out fires, not people.’”

Chief Swindle’s stand
McWhorter writes that another factor in the refusal was the role of Chief Swindle. He had arrived on the scene late, after the protesters were bunched in the park, and observed that they “weren’t creating any problems.” When Connor said to turn on the water, Swindle “didn’t hear him.” Neither did his nozzlemen.

After the heavy use of fire streams on protesters the day before, the chief instructed the fire department to ignore orders that did not come directly from him. Had Connor personally ordered Swindle to give his men the command, the chief later admitted, he “probably would have, because I didn’t have enough time [of service] to go on a pension.”

Given what the photographs show and the location of the protests, Engine 2 and Engine 6 were the two companies primarily involved in repelling the children who were marching for civil rights.

The photos also seem to indicate that the firefighters were operating the hoselines straight off the hydrants, not connected to the pumpers. Their equipment, public water supply, and methods of operation at the time also serve to dispute the claim that high-pressure hose streams were used against the marchers, despite the order of Connor to use high pressure.

What to remember about the Birmingham firefighters
A review of fire service journals in the months following the protests reveals no mention of the use of fire hoses in Birmingham. In October 1963, a major fire publication ran an article about three so-called progressive southern fire departments, one of them being Birmingham.

Though BFD did, over several days in May 1963, use fire hoses against U.S. citizens — children and teenagers demonstrating for their civil rights — at least several firefighters showed moral courage on Miracle Sunday by refusing to follow an order to turn the fire hoses against children.

In the context of the times, in the Deep South, despite the negative images, the single day when Birmingham firefighters showed moral courage says something positive about the mind-set of firefighters. In that not-so-simple act of disobedience, against their lawful superior, they redeemed their department and played a pivotal role in turning the tide of race history.

It is unfortunate that we only see the images of fire hoses hitting protesters and that we fail to acknowledge the act of moral courage. In the current discussion of arming firefighters, that simple act is something we should remember.

Bruce Hensler served as a firefighter from 1976 to 2011 in career, combination and volunteer departments. He previously served as a fire program specialist in the Emergency Response Support Branch of the U.S. Fire Administration, retiring in 2017. He also previously served as deputy director of the operations division for the firefighter training program in Maine. Hensler has a master’s degree in public administration. His interest in history led him to write “Crucible of Fire: Nineteenth-Century Urban Fires and the Making of the Modern Fire Service.” More information about his book is available at Connect with Hensler on LinkedIn.