What is a Fire Buff?

Former Third Alarm editor Walt McCall recently submitted this article to the Windsor Fire Department website:

In general terms, a “buff” is defined as anyone with an intense interest in virtually any subject. There are sports buffs, jazz buffs, antique auto buffs – and fire buffs.

The very word “buff ”in fact — meaning a rabid fan or aficionado — has a fire service-related origin. More than a century ago as the legend goes, well-heeled civilian supporters of the New York City Fire Department would attend extra-alarm blazes regardless of time or temperature. Standing on the sidewalk watching their helmeted heroes hard at work, these well-to-do citizens were conspicuous in their (expensive) buffalo-hide robes or coats. Hence their nickname “the buffaloes”– inevitably short-formed to “buffs”.

A fire buff, therefore, is a person with an all-consuming interest in the fire service. Mostly civilians, they are ardent admirers and enthusiastic supporters of all firefighters and the job they do. More than a few firefighters — professional and volunteer – are also avid fire buffs in their off-duty hours.

“Fires to us are not mere spectacles” Baltimore fire buff Karl Detzer wrote many years ago. “They are demonstrations of strategy and tactics, for behind the apparent confusion at any working fire there is generalship. A real buff can tell at a glance just how the battle lines are drawn. The placement of hose lines and ladders, the use of high-pressure turrets and water towers, the location of windows being smashed with axes – all these are clues as to what kind of fire it is, where it is centred and how the job of extinguishing the blaze is progressing”

Fire buffing has, in many respects, the same connotations as sports fans supporting their local teams whether it be baseball, football or hockey. Fire buffs are basically eager students of the science of fire fighting with a parallel interest in a host of other activities designed to aid and promote their local fire department. Contrary to popular perception that the average fire buff is a small boy who never grew up, we take pride in numbering among our companions the following whose motives or sanity has never been questioned: George Washington, Boston Pops conductor Arthur Fiedler and Winston Churchill to name a few who have shared our enthusiasm.

Fire buffs’ interests are as varied as the individuals themselves. In addition to championing their local fire departments and firefighters everywhere, some fire buffs specialize in compiling fire department histories, taking and collecting fire apparatus photos, building and collecting model and toy fire engines, monitoring area fire frequencies and responding to extra-alarm fires and collecting and trading uniform shoulder flashes and patches. Every true fire buff’s dream, of course, is to one day own his or her own fire engine – a dream that is realized these days with remarkable frequency.

In many U.S. and Canadian cities, local fire buff clubs operate mobile canteen services for fire and other emergency services, and actively participate in fire prevention and fire service educational activities.

Canada’s largest and most active fire buff organization is the Ontario Fire Buff Associates. Founded in 1971, the OFBA has active members from coast to coast across Canada and in the U.S. and overseas. Toronto boasts two active fire buff clubs – the Box 12 Association founded in 1949, and the Greater Toronto Multiple Alarm Association. Other Canadian fire buffs groups include the Box 43 Association of Hamilton; the Regional Niagara Fire Buffs and Kitchener’s Box 690. In Quebec, the Montreal Auxiliary Firemen has provided fireground canteen and first-aid service for many years. Appel 99 is Quebec City’s active fire buff club. For many years Detroit had three fire buff clubs – members of which routinely hopped across the border to take in major fires in Windsor.

The umbrella organization for the more than 50 fire buff organizations in Canada, the United States and overseas is the International Fire Buff Associates, Inc. The IFBA held its first meeting In Toronto in 1953.Three years ago Appel 99 hosted the IFBAs annual convention in Quebec City. Previous IFBA conventions have been held in Toronto and Hamilton.

“Watching your fire department control and extinguish a fire can only bring admiration and confidence that the fire department has again met the challenge of man’s greatest friend – and enemy” – the IFBA’s little red Code for Fire Buffing handbook states. “It finally can be said that an interested — and enlightened — citizenry becomes the strongest bulwark against unfair criticism of any municipal (fire) department – paid or volunteer”.

Although Windsor does not have an organized fire buff club as such, a small group of dedicated individuals (the author among them) have been chasing the rigs here for many years.

So the next time you spot your local fire buffs behind the yellow fireground tape, give them a friendly wave of thanks for the unbridled respect and admiration they share for the vital job you do so well.