But it was perhaps the 2 July 1961 edition of Arthur Radebaugh’s Sunday comic strip Closer Than We Think that took the idea of sky-high firefighters to an optimistic extreme. The comic took the idea of helicopters and doused it with that unique brand of flashy optimism that mid-century American designers did so well. A bright red fire engine in the sky emblazoned with NYFD (New York Fire Department) is seen hovering as it shoots water from its pressure tank. A young girl and her mother look on excitedly from an adjacent building.
The text reads: “Tomorrow’s firefighters, as a leading helicopter technician has predicted, may actually travel in airborne united, powered by “dynaprop” fans. Great advantages will be derived from the ability to hover beside conflagrations, regardless of whether the blaze is high in a skyscraper or simply smouldering in a farmer’s barn. Firefighting direction will improve, rescue work will be far more efficient than with ladders, and radio instructions from aloft will speed the subduing of flames.”
As we now know, most of these ideas have remained firmly on the drawing board. But the fear of skyscraper fires has left its mark in some cities we see today. Take Sydney, in Australia, for example. It passed an act in 1912 to limit new buildings to just 50m (150ft) tall, within reach of the fire fighting technologies of the day. As a result, Sydney became a city that spread outward rather than upward until the mid 1950s.
Other cities, like Los Angeles, have also been shaped by this fear. Its 1974 city fire code explicitly states that every building needed flat roofs to allow for helicopters landing there in case of fire. As a result, all of LA’s towers are rectangular monoliths, leading some to to describe the city as “bland” and as “stuck with high and tights, not liberty spikes”. The city is currently revisiting the code and some indications suggest that there may be a change, allowing more ornate tops to some of its buildings.
If and when they do, let’s hope they take the advice from the final lines of Towering Inferno, when O'Hallorhan is once again with the architect of the building.
“You know we were pretty lucky tonight, body count's less then 200,” he says. “You know, one of these days, you're gonna kill 10,000 in one of these firetraps, and I'm gonna keep eating smoke and carrying out bodies until someone asks us... how to build them.”