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A Retiree's Crusade: No More Falling High-Rises
October 17, 2002

EVEN though the crisp blue commander's uniform now hangs in a closet and his radio and helmet have been turned in, Vincent Dunn is, at heart, still on the job. A firefighter, he says, until the day he dies.

Actually, Mr. Dunn, 67, retired three years ago as a New York City deputy fire chief. He is a nationally known lecturer and fire safety consultant who of late has also become something of a critic, too. That explains, at least partly, how a man who still uses "we" when he talks about "the job" wound up in the center of a campaign calling for fire safety improvements in the city's skyscrapers.

The rest of the story, Mr. Dunn says, has to do with his being not exactly the retiring type, and with a phone call from the mother of a young firefighter who died that day in September when the planes crashed into the World Trade Center.

The mother, Sally Regenhard, wanted an expert to join her in pressing for safety changes in high-rise building codes. Mr. Dunn, having something to say on the subject since he spent 15 of his 42 years on the force battling blazes in some of Manhattan's biggest high-rises, gladly signed on. Together they have been making the rounds, testifying several times before the City Council, talking to relatives of 9/11 victims, politicians and anyone else who will listen.

He is besieged with similar requests, evidence, although he won't admit it, that his knowledge from the front lines of firefighting has made him a prized commodity. "I came to the job with nothing," he said, "a high school dropout, and I left with just about everything there was to learn. Not because I'm smart. I've got a good memory and I work hard."

Mr. Dunn has written three books: "Collapse of Burning Buildings" (1988); "Safety and Survival on the Fireground" (1992); and "Command and Control of Fires and Emergencies" (2001). They are required reading in fire-safety courses around the country.

In the wake of 9/11, a lot of people outside the classroom have started listening to Mr. Dunn on the realities of fighting high-rise fires. "The fire chief, if he wants to keep his job," Mr. Dunn says, "he can't tell you the truth. He isn't going to come out and say that we can't extinguish fires in a lot of these newer buildings with 20, 30,000 square feet of open floor plans. I can tell you because I'm retired."

He says he is also speaking up out of respect for those who died, especially the firefighters, a hundred of whom he knew personally. He can name names if you ask him; of men who, on his last day on the job, gathered for beer and scrawled farewells on a three-foot card that still sits in his living room.

His views on the collapse of the World Trade Center have raised a few eyebrows. "There is no other high-rise office building in New York City that would have pancaked down in 10 seconds," he says. "This was a fragile, unorthodox construction that should have never been allowed. It was a disaster waiting to happen."

Mr. Dunn is full of recommendations of how to make New York City's high-rises safer. See his Web site,, for all of them, but the highlights he reels off sound like a grocery list. Common sense, he calls them.

"We need antennas in all high-rise buildings to enhance radio signals," he says. "There are 2,000 high-rises where our radios don't work. We can't save lives if we can't find out who is in danger."

Equally important, he says, are automatic sprinklers ("Just like this city has a zero tolerance for crime, we need a zero tolerance for nonsprinkler high-rises. No exceptions!") and thicker concrete floors ("The floors are the first to collapse; they're the weak link.").

MORE difficult is the question of who would pay for such changes. He hasn't quite solved that. "Nobody wants the costs, but all you can do is hope somebody will step up and realize that we already have two strikes against us," he says, referring to the World Trade Center's 1993 bombing and then the 2001 attack. "We have to get some of these problems fixed before we have another disaster on our hands."

Not all of Mr. Dunn's days are spent worrying about disasters to come. He and his wife, Patricia, live in Douglaston, Queens, in an English Tudor house purchased, he says proudly, with "her own money" earned as a draftsman. They have two grandchildren, Emily, 4, and Henry, 4 months old, to dote on. And Mr. Dunn has dahlias and impatiens to tend to, along with a passport that's "got a lot of empty pages," save for a trip this summer to Rome, Florence and Venice, arranged by his wife.

"She's the real chief," Mr. Dunn says. And per her request, he cannot say when they married, lest it hint at her age. But he is welcome to tell his stories, to give her credit for standing by him during long nights away from home and for inspiring their children to follow her love of art instead of his love of firefighting.

Listening to mom appears to have paid off, judging from the artwork on the walls of every room in the house, oil paintings and bold graphic illustrations done by their daughter and son, some of which have turned up in magazines like The New Yorker and The Progressive.

Mr. Dunn knows what he is about to say will sound corny to some, but he insists every word is true. "I owe everything I have to the fire service: this house, my children's college educations," he says. "I feel very indebted, very proud. It made me who I am."


© Copyright (c) 2002, NY Times

Sally Regenhard,

P. O. Box 70
Woodlawn Station
Bronx, NY 10470

Monica Gabrielle,

P. O. Box 70
Woodlawn Station
Bronx, NY 10470