LAFD History – The Birth of the Drop Bag

May 31, 2018

By Barney Nipp, Captain II, LAFD Retired

Frank’s note: Captain Nipp wrote this story for the LAFD Historical Society’s second Newsletter in 2001. The same year the Hollywood Museum was opened in Old Fire Station 27. Captain Nipp was a highly respected officer, well liked and very knowledgeable about firefighting tactics and strategy. He was a long time Task Force Commander at Fire Station 27 and a great supporter of the Historical Society. He was one of the first volunteers to help open the Museum and designed and built our mobile grill aptly named “Barney’s Grill.” Barney passed away this year and we have dedicated our annual May Pancake Breakfast in his memory.

During the early evening hours, on January 28, 1966, a fire occurred in the Commercial Exchange Building, located in downtown Los Angeles, on the SE corner of 8th and Olive Street. The 13 story building had a fire escape and dry standpipe on the west end, and a stairway and elevator on the east end of the structure. The south and east sides of the building were inaccessible for placement of apparatus. Law firms (with heavy fire load of wooden furniture, law volumes and related materials) occupied the upper floors. The fire originated in an office suite on the 8th Street side just east of Olive Street.

Upon arrival of the first companies (Engine & Truck 28), fire was visible from windows on the 10th floor. Engine and Truck 28 went into a ladder pipe operation attempting to extinguish the fire from the exterior. Engine 9 laid into the dry standpipe with a 3 ½ inch line. As acting Captain, I took two other firefighters with 1½ and 2½ inch hose packs, to the 10th floor. We were able to pass the fire rooms and attach the 2½ inch hose pack to the standpipe located adjacent to the fire escape. This line was advanced down the hallway, but a faulty blocked this effort. Shortly thereafter, the fire advanced into the hallway and auto-extended from the 10th floor to the 11th floor exterior. It later also extended up the exterior and involved the 12th floor. Attempts by other companies to advance a line up an aerial and then to the fire escape were prevented by the spread of the fire and by debris falling from the building.

During this time span, a window-mounted air conditioner dislodged from an upper floor striking the decking on 28’s aerial and skidding into the intersection. Miraculously, no onlookers or firefighters were injured. The fire was eventually extinguished by dropping 2½ inch lines from upper floor windows and attaching them to ladder pipe assemblies (improvised standpipes). Many empty air bottles and several singed ears later, the fire was extinguished.

(Note: The dry standpipe inlets were equipped with piston type inlet valves. At an earlier date, the building had a new material attached to the exterior at ground level. This re-facing required alteration to the standpipe inlets. A faulty installation hindered pistons from traversing to the rear of the riser thus preventing water from entering. This defect was discovered during an investigation following the fire. The standpipe failure, coupled with similar failures experienced with fire protection systems at other incidents, prompted the enactment of Chief’s Regulation #4.

The failure of the standpipe at this and other fires also challenged firefighters to devise alternative, more fail safe methods for fighting above ground fires in older “high rise” buildings. Another standpipe problem arose during these years, which involved people stealing the brass fittings from dry standpipes servicing these buildings and selling them for scrap.

I believe the simplest and most effective method devised for hoisting above ground, the “Drop Bag,” was originated at Fire Station 11. Initially, the Drop Bag consisted of a desired length of sash cord rolled into a ball and secured with rubber bands cut from old auto inner tubes. This was carried to upper floors and dropped from uninvolved rooms or fire escapes to the engineer waiting on the street. A hose line was then attached and hoisted above ground. Ample slack was flaked out and then the line was loaded and advanced to extinguish the fire. Further refinement of this method resulted in substituting ¼ inch Dacron line for the sash cord. This line is much stronger and impervious to water damage.

The red tote bag was devised to carry the cord. The bag has a snap that attaches to the breathing apparatus frame. This frees up the hands for carrying other equipment aloft. The length of the line varies by district. Companies with 12 story “old high rise buildings” in their district carry 150 feet, which enables them to reach the street from the top floor. A firefighter grasps one end of the cord and tosses the bag to the street. The engineer then takes a bight of cord, passes it through the shut off butt bail and loops it over the nozzle. The bag is attached to the line above the nozzle, hoisted aloft, then removed, making it available to pull additional lines if needed. The simple knot is easily removed from the nozzle.

At the time of the Commercial Exchange building fire, walkie-talkie radios were not yet available on the Department. With the advent of state-of-the-art radios now in use, engineers in the street can be alerted from the firefighters above ground as to where the Drop Bag line is being dropped and then provide the desired hose line to hoist aloft. This Drop Bag line also provides for other multiple uses such as hoisting tools and equipment in search and rescue efforts and in various other tasks. A distinct advantage of this tactic for firefighting above ground fires is that, after reaching the fire floor, you can then select the size of line best suited ( i.e. 1½ inch, 1¾ inch, 2½ inch). By using the Drop Bag, you are not committed to lay from a standpipe, or laying lines up stairways or ladders. An uninvolved room often provides an ideal area to start. You can hoist the desired line, pull sufficient slack, don face pieces and then advance the line to extinguish the fire.

It is quite a sight to see the red Drop Bags flying out of the upper story windows of a building and the engineers on the ground rushing to get them to secure hose lines for hoisting. It is still a very effective method for getting lines and equipment to the fire above ground.


Barney Nipp

Frank’s note: Fire Station 11 developed the drop bag years ago for use in their many old multi story apartment buildings and apartments. In my research I found out that they also developed a power point training program for the use of the drop bag and train with them periodically. I will quote Barney Nipp “Another tribute to the innovative Firefighters on the LAFD”.

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