Damrell’s Fire

In case you are ever tempted to believe that rich people are perforce wise

John Stanhope Damrell was the fire chief of Boston, Massachusetts, and didn’t just fight fire; he studied it. He had a passion for saving lives and property. But this story is only partly about him; it’s also about his bosses.

In 1871 when fire swept through Chicago, Illinois, killing about three hundred people, destroying seventeen thousand, five hundred buildings, Damrell wanted to know why. He had a hunch that Boston embodied similar risks.

Traveling with an assistant he toured the ashes of Chicago. He interviewed people, made notes, took measurements. Then he went back to Boston to write his report.

Comparing Chicago to Boston, he found disturbing parallels. His recommendations included bigger water pipes, flow capacity, pumping and ladder engines, certain streets wider, and improvements in building standards. He didn’t want Boston to suffer Chicago’s fate. Yes, he said, it will cost money, but Chicago’s losses exceeded $222 million dollars (four and a half billion dollars in today’s money). And Boston had all the same vulnerabilities as Chicago.

At the time, Boston was led by a group of wealthy men known as the “Brahmans”. Captains of industry, finance, and commerce, they heard Damrell’s report and… rejected it. They just couldn’t see how any of those expensive proposals would make a difference. They basically told him to ‘stick to fighting fires’.

Then in November of 1871, fire started in a six-story building in Boston’s business district. The epic, heroic story of how Damrell and his men fought that fire to a standstill, limiting its reach to 700 buildings and a handful of fatalities, could be a summer blockbuster.

“Chief Engineer John Damrell was in command at the fire, but his attention was frequently interrupted by city officials seeking meetings to discuss strategy and the political impact of the fire.”

Boston after 1872 fire

You would think the Brahmans would give Damrell an award. Well, not so much “award” as “hauled into an inquiry and made to account for why he let that fire happen and do so much damage”. By 1874 Damrell was pushed out, forced into retirement.

But he didn’t exactly retire; he went on to found the International Association of Fire Chiefs, and the driving force behind the first US national fire code. He is the reason US cities stopped burning to the ground in the early 20th century.

The “Brahmans”? Well they went on being rich and respected and in-charge. But eventually even Boston had to adopt an updated fire code in spite of them.


The Truth may not set you free, but it can slow down a pandemic

Coronavirus, Image source: CDC

Ever wonder why it was called “The Spanish Flu”? It didn’t start in Spain, after all. But back in 1917 – 1918, the US and European governments were trying to keep it secret. Only the Spanish told the truth, so it got named after them. Even so, it turns out they did the right thing. And now we are facing a serious new threat: the Coronavirus.

A pandemic is no time to engage in propaganda. It is a very good time to look at specifics, without flinching. Here are some specifics, and all the links below are to actual subject experts, or credible, research-based resources, to learn more:

Coronavirus is roughly as deadly as the 1918 flu; about one fatality in 31. Those are terrible odds, and that’s even with modern medicine on our side.

60% Alcohol hand sanitizer is effective, but only if you use it correctly with the same hand-rubbing technique that you use for thorough hand-washing. See page 2 of this WHO guide: Hand Hygiene: Why, How, and When. Also check out this graphic of common hand washing results.

When washing hands, plain soap and water is effective on most viruses including Coronavirus. Follow the WHO guide in the previous paragraph for technique.

Touch less stuff, or touch stuff less. Operate public touch-screens with your knuckle. Ditto for elevator buttons, phone buttons, credit-card readers, etc. Open door handles with the heel of your hand, not your fingertips. (I started doing this last trick because of arthritis, but now I can say I’m ‘using best practices’!)

Avoid touching your face if you can (this is hard for people with allergies*) and sanitize your hands more often if you can’t.

Adopt non-contact or limited-contact greetings. A fist-bump, a little bow, or even a nod + smile are far preferable to the disease-hand-off we call a “handshake”.

Maintain 2-meter social distance. This is the length of an adult llama, or a broom extended at arm’s length.

Bane wearing mask
This mask would help others to maintain social distance from you

UPDATE: Wear a mask. Consensus has emerged that in public, procedure masks or makeshift masks (as opposed to specialized N95 surgical masks) ARE helpful.

Gloves are not that helpful, at least not if you use them like some kind of magic talisman. Unsafe touching habits contaminate gloves just like anything else. Can be helpful if a skin-protection part of frequent sanitizing. This is just common sense, really.

Use disinfecting wipes on surfaces. Read the directions. The Coronavirus can last on surfaces up to 9 days but it’s pretty easy to kill. Be sure to include your own surfaces; your cell phone, laptop, doorknobs, office phones, light switches, public staplers, etc. Big, low-touch surfaces you can skip.

Cough into your elbow, not your hand. Coughing and sneezing releases tiny droplets that can carry the virus, linger in the air, or come to rest on surfaces. Keep your distance from others when you are sick. Stay home if you can, work at your desk if you can’t. Skip meetings. Now is the perfect time to indulge your anti-social tendencies.


  • This post will be updated and edited as new information comes in or readers suggest sources and clarifications. Last updated on 28 March, 2020. Please discuss this post on Twitter and Facebook.
  • “Not touching your face” is hard for people with allergies, people with anxiety disorders, and people socialized in ordinary society where we stroke our chins, rub our eyes, etc. There’s a lot to un-learn.
  • Trump is ignoring the lessons of the 1918 Flu pandemic that killed millions, historian says. The Washington Post interviewed John M. Barry, author of “The Great Influenza: the epic story of the deadliest plague in history”. Barry said things were made much worse by the government trying to “raise morale” and prevent bad news.
  • Countries that insist on commoditizing medical care, making it available only to those who can pay, will pay a terrible price. Ditto for countries that don’t have paid medical leave for all workers. People who can’t see a doctor, won’t. People who can’t take time off from work, won’t. Rich people feeling safe should think about who made their lunches; we truly are all in this together.