The lessons of Bellflower

Massive Boston fire 50 years ago has lessons for government today

Fifteen minutes after the initial alarm was sounded for a report of smoke, the call went out: “Give me all the help you can get.” It was May 22, 1964, in a Dorchester neighborhood, and within moments of arriving on scene, a Boston deputy fire chief was asking for every available firefighting asset the city could muster. The blaze he was facing would become known as the Bellflower Street Conflagration, and to this day it ranks among the largest that Boston has ever seen. On the fire’s 50th anniversary this week, we do well not only to remember the event, but also to reflect on its lessons and how we might apply them today.

Starting in the early afternoon on a residential street just off the Southeast Expressway, the Bellflower fire was fueled by wind, dry air, and the wood of closely-built triple-deckers. The flames moved from house to house so swiftly that the initial responders were overcome in short order. The request to dispatch all Boston assets within 15 minutes of the initial report was followed 10 minutes later by a general call for help to a “mutual aid network” of surrounding towns. Fire departments from as far north as Lawrence and as far south as Holbrook answered the call, with over three dozen out-of-town assets rushing to the scene and to cover for city firehouses left empty by Boston companies responding to the blaze.

As supporting units poured in, the fire spread in both directions and along both sides of Bellflower Street, south to Dorset Street, north to Howell Street, and west to Boston Street. Several homes were completely engulfed in flames; others collapsed as their structural integrity burnt away. Firefighters scrambled to get ahead of the racing fire and extinguish the structures already burning. Eventually—nearly five hours after the conflagration began—the massive team on scene was able to contain and extinguish it. Over 30 homes had been damaged or destroyed, and dozens of people were taken to hospitals. Remarkably, there were no fatalities. Despite the massive extent of the damage, far worse catastrophe had been prevented. The Boston Fire Department and its partners had outmaneuvered the windswept flames and prevented their spread to even further residential blocks.

Several lessons from the Bellflower fire have been applied today, including tactics for containing rapidly spreading flames and improvements to safety codes. Perhaps most importantly, though, the response to the fire points to the value of partnerships in public-sector work. While Boston would have found it difficult to justify a fire department that manned three dozen additional trucks on a day-to-day basis, the city was in desperate need of that many supporting assets on the day of the Bellflower Street Conflagration; a mutual aid network solved that problem.

That model is still commonly employed for emergency services today. Mutual aid networks remain in place, as do compacts for sharing National Guard units between states, and Department of Homeland Security and Department of Defense schemes for reassigning employees to areas of critical need. But in an age of tightening budgets, such cooperation and flexibility should not be limited to emergency circumstances alone.

Government agencies of all kinds, from the administrative to the technical, can and should look to partnerships and other flexible arrangements to make the best use of people and assets. Public managers need to realize that employment is no longer best defined by role and physical place; telecommuting, “bring your own device,” and team-to-task models have started to revolutionize the way we work. Capability and cyclical capacity, not the desk at which one sits, are the relevant factors. This makes partnering ever-more applicable in the public sphere. Cities can surge their public works departments across town lines for seasonal needs, federal entities can share IT personnel with partner agencies working on website launches, administrative and legal staffs can temporarily assist neighboring state governments with paperwork reconciliation projects, and so on. All of these measures can save public funds.

Meet the Author
Bellflower taught us that cities sometimes need more firefighting assets than they would otherwise keep on hand, and that cooperation between jurisdictions can make up the difference when needed. Why not apply this lesson to the rest of our government services?

Kevin Duffy is a US Coast Guard officer who previously worked in the Office of the Secretary of Homeland Security. His grandfather, Boston Firefighter Daniel Duffy of Charlestown’s Engine 50, fought the Bellflower Street Conflagration.