Fire Engineering’s 140th Anniversary

Fire Prevention, 1912: Protecting Employees and Property

Although many may think that Fire Prevention Week is relatively new, it has been with us for more than 100 years. In this month’s historical retrospective, we see a 1912 Fire Prevention Day demonstration in New York City that brings together public education, fire protection engineering, and firefighting techniques at a structure that still exists in Manhattan near West 24th Street and Seventh Avenue. Most notably, the mayor and Fire Department of New York chiefs attended the commemoration, held on the anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, October 9. The 1912 event occurred at a clothing factory more than a year after a fatal fire at another clothing factory (Triangle Shirtwaist) killed 145 people on March 25, 1911. Both of these buildings still exist. Citing his concern for the safety of employees and the factory, the company’s president outlined its fire prevention and protection efforts. It wasn’t until 1920 that President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed October 9 as the first Fire Prevention Day; in 1922 President Warren G. Harding officially declared the first Fire Prevention Week. Over the succeeding decades, America’s fire service has embraced this focus on fire prevention and protection, training millions in proper fire safety procedures and behavior. Next October, invite your mayor to speak at your commemoration. Perhaps it will highlight the “utility and practicability” of fire prevention efforts, as Mayor Gaynor observed.

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Fire and Water Engineering, October 16, 1912: Fire Prevention Day in New York.

‘‘Fire prevention day” was formally inaugurated in this city last Wednesday, October 9 …. [At] the National Cloak and Suit Company’s factory, No. 207 West Twenty-fourth street …. [W]hile the visitors were passing through the building a general alarm was sounded, and the half of the building which was supposed to be burning was emptied in less than a minute by the various exits, fire escapes and stairways. This manoeuvre [sic] was highly complimented by the fire officials. After the visitors had been escorted to the street and everything was in readiness, an alarm was turned in to the city fire department … responded to by the big Waterous auto pumper … the new Webb aerial ladder truck, the big water tower … and several other apparatus .…An extension ladder was run up to the fifth floor, and Frank Peterson, of hook and ladder company 16, brought down Fireman Mortimer Addison, illustrating in a practical way the method of rescue. A display of the operations of the water tower was also made. Another … performance was the dropping into the life net from the third story of the building. This was executed by John J. Nicholas, of ladder company No. 10, and O. J. Ryan, of engine company 13. Simultaneously … the building was being emptied of its hundreds of employes [sic], who emerged from two wide street doors. All were in their bare heads and working clothes, as if disturbed from their work by the alarm of fire in the building. The whole was an exceedingly spectacular display of skill and energy on the part of the fire department and the company’s employes.

…. The mayor complimented the cloak company [for setting] a good example for other manufacturers to imitate in constructing factory buildings …. [F]ire prevention now had some meaning, since he had seen a demonstration of its utility and practicability. He gave Fire Commissioner Johnson credit for having inaugurated a new and useful device for saving life and property, praised the fire prevention laws and complimented the fire department for its efficiency ….

(1) Firefighters ascend the aerial ladder at the 1912 Fire Prevention Day demonstration.
(1) Firefighters ascend the aerial ladder at the 1912 Fire Prevention Day demonstration.

[The address of] S. G. Rosenbaum, president of the National Cloak and Suit Company … is worth reading:

‘… We felt very keenly then, as we do now, the responsibility that goes with the housing of over 2,000 employees …. [We asked the fire insurance companies], ‘What must we put in this building to make it a desirable risk from your standpoint?’ … We practically put in what they recommended. [P]ut up a solid and substantial building … in which a fire could with prompt action be confined to one room .… [W]e installed a sprinkler system [that protects] every nook and corner of this building .… This sprinkler system is connected with tanks on the roof and in the basement of these buildings .… Taking a lesson from [the 1904 Baltimore fire], when we put up the first of these buildings we protected the Twenty-fourth street front with a similar water curtain .… [We also] could pour a curtain of water over the entire front …. [We have] 52 lines of fire hose all connected with standpipes, which in turn connect with the city water supply; .… 48 chemical fire extinguishers; over 500 pails of water and sand distributed throughout the building; and an ample supply of fire hooks, fire axes, tarpaulins, etc. All of this apparatus, however, is for the purpose of putting out a fire after it has started ….

‘[In this building] we prohibit … lighted cigars, cigarettes or pipes …. [A] very large percentage of fires have their origin in rubbish in out of the way places, and we endeavor to remove this element of risk …. On each floor, all waste papers, broken boxes and rubbish of every kind is thrown into [dirt] chutes, dropping directly into a brick fireproof room in the basement …. Papers and other inflammable materials must not be placed on, under or near radiators …. Our buildings carefully patroled [sic] at all times, and at night a trained crew of watch-men make half hourly trips ….

(2) Firefighter Frank Peters of Truck 13 rescues Firefighter Mortimer Addison.
(2) Firefighter Frank Peters of Truck 13 rescues Firefighter Mortimer Addison.

‘Much more important [is the] problem of how to take care of our more than 2,000 employes if fire should break out during working hours …. We are fortunate in having two distinct buildings separated by a fire wall and fire doors. In the case of a fire during business hours, the first thing … would be to send in an alarm to the city fire department. At the same time our own brigade would be summoned, and, under their charge, the employes would be marched from the building in which the fire occurred to the connecting building, the fire doors would be closed and the employes marched to the street …. [Experts say] that this … constitutes the greatest measure of protection to our employes ….

‘We have endeavored to take care of the almost impossible contingency of a fire breaking out simultaneously in both buildings. [Each floor has] four exits to fireproof stairways (each at a considerable distance from the other); two exits to outside enclosed fire escapes 120 feet apart, and six exits to elevators. These fire escapes are not the usual narrow dangerous affairs, but … safe and comfortable … and amply wide for two people to walk abreast ….

‘At least once a week a fire drill is held. A call is sent in from any one of the house fire alarm boxes and 21 men, composing our fire brigade, respond …. Each man is trained to handle certain apparatus and take a definite position ready for immediate action. Six other brigades … a total of about 98 men, see that the exits are kept open and direct employes down the stairways and fire escapes in proper order ….

(3) The water tower in an elevated position.
(3) The water tower in an elevated position.

‘[Some ask], ‘Does it pay?’ Our answer is: ‘It certainly does pay … in the peace of mind it gives you to know that your employes and property are safe, and it pays in lower insurance rates.’ Before we moved into these buildings we paid in a well constructed loft building as high as $1.30 per $100 for fire insurance. In these buildings our fire insurance averages less than 10 cents per $100 per annum. Intelligent business men know, however, that fire insurance does not cover the loss which an active business sustains in case of a fire. Your insurance does not repay you for the interruption to your business, nor for what is most serious to your employes, the loss of employment. If our business men would realize that they are themselves paying for fire losses due to flimsy construction and careless methods, there would very soon be a substantial reduction in insurance rates. Every one of us to-day is paying for losses that occurred in the Baltimore [1904] and San Francisco [1906] fires, and we will continue to pay for them for years to come. If we could appreciate the benefits that accrue to us, every man who pays a fire insurance premium, would at once adopt methods that would result in fire prevention.

‘I want to give you some interesting figures in the way of comparison between the fire loss in the United States and other countries, and New York and foreign cities. For the year 1911 the fire loss in the United States was $2.31 per capita, as against 81 cents in France, 51 cents in England, and 21 cents in Germany. The fire loss in New York City per capita last year was $2.45, against 60 cents in Paris, 31 cents in London, and 18 cents in Hamburg ….

‘These figures speak for themselves, and if we wish to overcome this tremendous inequality it will be necessary for us to build better and pay more attention to fire prevention.’

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