Northeast Times

The golden years

Phil­adelphia Fire De­part­ment batal­lion chief and deputy fire mar­shal Charles LeP­re cel­eb­rates a mo­nu­ment­al ca­reer mile­stone. 

  • 50 years on the job: Charles LePre, a Philadelphia Fire Department battalion chief and deputy fire marshal, celebrated his golden anniversary on July 22. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO

  • Then and now: 73, recently celebrated his 50th anniversary with the Philadelphia Fire Department. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO

  • Then and now: At left, Charles LePre (third from left) is shown with Fire Commissioner Joe Rizzo and flanked by his parents Jennie and Charles Sr. in a photo taken in the 1970s.

Ima­gine be­ing on the job 50 years. 

Charles LeP­re, 73, doesn’t have to ima­gine. The Phil­adelphia Fire De­part­ment bat­talion chief and deputy fire mar­shal cel­eb­rated his golden an­niversary on Ju­ly 22.

LeP­re’s work days rep­res­ent a huge chunk of the Phil­adelphia Fire De­part­ment’s his­tory. He’s been a fire­fight­er more than a third of the 143 years the de­part­ment has ex­is­ted as a pro­fes­sion­al or­gan­iz­a­tion. It was all vo­lun­teer un­til 1870.

On the job since 1963, LeP­re has fought or in­vest­ig­ated some of the city’s biggest fires — the nine-alarm Roosevelt Pa­per Box blaze at Ara­mingo and Cum­ber­land in 1968, and two mid-’70s Gulf Oil re­finery fires in South Philly, to name just a few.

He’s seen hero­ism and tragedy.

And close shaves.

He was among those bat­tling a blaze at the multistory Nor­mandy Hotel at 36th and Chest­nut streets in 1968, he said. 

“We res­cued 363 people,” he said. Be­fore the hotel burned to the ground, “We were in­side look­ing for fire,” LeP­re said, “when we were ordered out.

“The hotel had a grand stair­well, and I’m on the mezzan­ine when an el­ev­at­or crashed down,” LeP­re said in an Aug. 1 in­ter­view.  

He blinked and he was out of the build­ing and across the street.

“I could move in those days,” he said.

A HALF-CEN­TURY AGO

When the 23-year-old LeP­re star­ted on the job five years be­fore that fire, the av­er­age Amer­ic­an home cost $12,650. The av­er­age in­come was about $5,800. A loaf of bread was 22 cents, and gas­ol­ine was 29 cents per gal­lon.

Jim Tate was may­or. Six oth­er men would be elec­ted the city’s chief ex­ec­ut­ive as LeP­re’s ca­reer ad­vanced from fire­fight­er to bat­talion chief. He’s served un­der eight fire com­mis­sion­ers.

In oth­er words, LeP­re has a lot of fire­fight­ing ex­per­i­ence.

“He knows what he’s do­ing,” said Joe Schulle, pres­id­ent of Loc­al 22 of the In­ter­na­tion­al As­so­ci­ation of Fire Fight­ers. “He has the air of con­fid­ence and know-how.”

Schulle, a bat­talion chief, said he has known LeP­re more than 20 years, al­most his en­tire ca­reer. “I worked for him. He was a bat­talion chief and I was a lieu­ten­ant” in the late 1990s, Schulle said in a phone in­ter­view Monday.

There might be a few oth­er fire­fight­ers in the last 100 years who have stayed on the job for a half-cen­tury, Schulle said. “But not many. The job beats you up. Most guys are think­ing about re­tir­ing when they’re in their 50s.”

Over the years, LeP­re has seen train­ing in­crease and equip­ment grow soph­ist­ic­ated. The de­part­ment has spe­cial­ized units to handle dif­fi­cult fires and haz­ard­ous res­cues. There are now high-tech listen­ing devices that can be wormed through debris to find people bur­ied un­der­neath.

And bumpy streets used to be prob­lems, the Tor­res­dale res­id­ent said.

“We used to stand on the rear step of an en­gine,” he said, “and hold onto a handle­bar as we went to a fire.” 

The de­part­ment now has a pub­lic ad­dress sys­tem to dir­ect its men and wo­men to fires. It used to be sig­nal bells that tapped out loc­a­tions, he said. 

LeP­re has seen pub­lic fire alarms dis­ap­pear from city street corners.

“There aren’t any left,” he said.

Dur­ing the late 1960s, when build­ings were be­ing razed in and around North­ern Liber­ties and Fishtown to make room for In­ter­state 95, there were two gangs who had chal­lenged each oth­er to see who could set the biggest fires, LeP­re said. Po­lice star­ted a spe­cial unit to in­vest­ig­ate the fires. They iden­ti­fied the cul­prits and ar­res­ted them. 

The Fire De­part­ment it­self has de­veloped spe­cial units to fight blazes and to in­vest­ig­ate them. The Ar­son Task Force com­posed of fire­fight­ers, cops and fed­er­al agents has ex­is­ted since 1990 and has been highly suc­cess­ful in­vest­ig­at­ing fires and catch­ing ar­son­ists.

As a mem­ber of the fire mar­shal’s of­fice, LeP­re has been in­volved in the in­vest­ig­a­tion of some of the city’s most in­fam­ous blazes.

Some he can talk about. Some he can’t.

For ex­ample, he can’t go in­to the April 9, 2012, fire that killed Capt. Robert Neary and fire­fight­er Daniel Sweeney be­cause it is still be­ing in­vest­ig­ated.

However, he said, in the less­er-known case of ar­son at the Cali­for­nia Tan­ning Salon on the 6500 block of Roosevelt Blvd. five years ago that did $200,000 in dam­ages, in­vest­ig­at­ors found the fire was set with gas­ol­ine. Their work led them to two sus­pects. One fled to Vi­et­nam. The oth­er was taken in­to cus­tody. He had served two years when he was sen­tenced Ju­ly 30 to an ad­di­tion­al 15 months and five years pro­ba­tion.

The Ar­son Task Force cur­rently is in­vest­ig­at­ing a fire that burned sev­er­al cars on Sand­mey­er Lane in Somer­ton, LeP­re said. It’s the third case of auto ar­son on the in­dus­tri­al road, he said. In the first case, one car was burned. Nine were torched in the second. The third ar­son, which took place Ju­ly 30, burned 24 cars.

His ca­reer circled him back to his high school. LeP­re gradu­ated from North­east High in 1957. He was a mem­ber of the last class to gradu­ate from the school’s 7th Street and Le­high Av­en­ue loc­a­tion. The build­ing later con­tin­ued as Edis­on High and then Ju­lia De Bur­gos Middle Mag­net School. In 2011, LeP­re was back at the site to in­vest­ig­ate a fire that des­troyed the then-un­used castle-like struc­ture.   

THE REAL WORK

Most people prob­ably don’t have full un­der­stand­ings of what fire­fight­ers do, LeP­re said. “Every­body thinks we run around and spray wa­ter and break win­dows.” 

Not a true pic­ture.

“We’re very or­gan­ized. We have tac­tics. We use strategy,” he said.

Part of fight­ing fires — and com­ing home safely — is pre­de­ter­min­ing where each en­gine and lad­der com­pany will be.

The first com­pany to ar­rive at a fire goes to the front of the build­ing, he said. “The second goes to the rear.” If more com­pan­ies are needed, they go to the sides as they ar­rive.

“We try to con­fine a fire,” LeP­re said.

Blazes in high rises re­quire dif­fer­ent tac­tics, he said. The first com­pany on the scene goes to the floor be­low the fire and charges pipes with wa­ter. Fire­fight­ers then use a stair­well to take hoses up to at­tack the blaze. They use the stair­well as shel­ter. Oth­er fire­fight­ers go up through the build­ing to search for and res­cue oc­cu­pants.

“Ac­count­ab­il­ity is so im­port­ant,” LeP­re said. “We have to know where our people are, know that they’re safe and get them out if we have to.”

Team­work is es­sen­tial.

“You have to have a sense you’re do­ing something all to­geth­er,” he said. “You can know you can go in­to a burn­ing build­ing and get out safely.”

Fire­fight­ers have to know when to go, and they do, LeP­re said.

“When the sig­nal comes to evac­u­ate, you don’t ques­tion it,” he said.

One change that has cut ci­vil­ian fire fatal­it­ies is use of smoke de­tect­ors. The de­part­ment really pushes their use and gives them to res­id­ents. In the past 15 years, Phil­adelphia’s an­nu­al fire death toll has dropped from more than 100 to about 30, LeP­re said.

“And we study the 20 to 30 deaths,” he said, to fig­ure out why they oc­curred and how they could have been pre­ven­ted.

One thing hasn’t changed in all the years LeP­re has been with the PFD. Care­less smoking, he said, still is the lead­ing cause of fires. ••

You can reach at jloftus@bsmphilly.com.

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