The Great Chicago Fire: Could It Happen Again?

What families can learn about fire safety and innovation at the Chicago History Museum’s new exhibit, City on Fire: Chicago 1871.

Could it ever happen again? That’s one of the burning questions about the Great Fire of Chicago since it devastated the city 150 years ago, and it’s sure to be top of mind for children who visit the sweeping new exhibit at the Chicago History Museum.

“Could it happen here today? No,” says Larry Langford, director of media affairs for the Chicago Fire Department. “Our department is innovative and leads the way, and the rest of the world has pretty much followed. We stay on the front edge.”

The fire that began on Oct. 8, 1871, had several things in its favor, Langford says. First, dispatch was given the wrong location of the barn where it broke out so firefighters lost valuable time in responding. “Chicago has one of the best dispatch systems in the world now, so there would be no delay,” Langford says. “Our typical response time to a fire is under four minutes. Today, a fire would not get a head start like it did back then.”

The city had also been weathering an extremely hot period and many smaller fires had worn out both firefighters and their equipment. “Today we have a lot more redundancy with equipment and firefighters. After a fireman goes off a shift, he can go home, sleep and come back refreshed,” Langford says.

On the other hand …

But, as the expression goes, after the fire the fire still burns. This is particularly true when it comes to social and racial equity and justice in the city, says Museum Curator Julius Jones.

“One of the interesting things that our exhibit explores is the way the fire didn’t particularly change the city,” he says. “While skyscrapers emerged in the 1880s as Chicago continued to grow and we saw an increase in professionalism in the fire department and more investment in firefighting technologies, instead of building a better city, the city committed itself to rebuilding as close as possible as before the fire happened.”

That, Jones says, meant a huge missed opportunity to tackle issues of race and ethnicity inequality.

“Instead of trying to address some of those tensions, we see how some of those prejudices and biases informed how the city recovered. And that has led to those issues really smoldering long after the fire had been put out. And I use that word ‘smoldering’ on purpose, based on the book Smoldering City by Karen Sawislak.”

He continues, “You have a city that before the disaster is unequal and unequitable and has tension. Do you use the efforts of recovery to recreate that status quo or use it to create a more equitable society? The lesson here is that they recreated the status quo.”

Major advances

While that may be true from a socio-economic standpoint, it’s hardly the case at the Chicago Fire Department. Langford ticks off the impressive statistics: 5,000 employees, 96 firehouses and 750,000 calls a year between fires and EMS.

“Each fire has a minimum of two engines responding,” he says. “Some engines can deliver more than 1,000 gallons a minute, and most can do 700 gallons a minute. And even if we were hit with something super, we could call for help from our suburban neighbors under MABIS, the Mutual Aid Box Alarm System.”

Furthermore, he notes, “Building codes have changed quite a bit. We don’t have wooden sidewalks anymore and a lot of construction is brick and mortar. The neighborhoods with frame houses have better building codes, and downtown structures are fire resistant.”

Though it does not whitewash the city’s lack of social foresight in rebuilding, Jones says the exhibit also points no fingers.

“We are not making a backward-looking moral judgement, not saying anyone did anything wrong in 1871,” he says. “We are making that argument that we could do things differently in 2021. That is a lesson the fire can teach us.”

Learn more about City on Fire: Chicago 1871 at chicago1871.org.

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