Excerpts from Fire and Water Engineering

Among the significant occurrences of this decade were tragic multiple-casualty fires in clothing factories, focusing even more attention on building construction features and occupant/worker safety issues and providing the fire department with the power to enforce safety regulations.

Also during these years, Fire and Water Engineering marked its 40th anniversary (1917); the New York Fire College opened, offering programs for recruits, department officers, and company members; the campaign for a two-platoon (shift) system for firefighters gained impetus and was the main topic at the first convention of what is today the International Association of Fire Fighters (1918); and the National Board of Fire Underwriters Water System Graded Schedule was introduced.


“With the present number, this journal celebrates the fortieth year of its existence, and naturally, on such an occasion, the subject uppermost in our minds is the period that this term of service covers, and the vast improvement the science of fire fighting has undergone during that time. In the large cities, especially, many new problems have had to be brought about by the changes in the manner of construction and the increased height of the buildings in which fires have to be fought. That the modern skyscraper is a difficult problem from a fireman`s point of view–no matter how great its boasted fire-proof qualities–is a truth no fire-fighter will deny, for, as a writer in this journal put it recently, no building is more fireproof than its contents, and there is always the danger of a blaze in the upper stories of the extremely high buildings getting beyond control and spreading by means of elevator shafts or stair-wells to the other floors, where there will be no means to fight the flames available.

“On the other hand, the improvements in the fire-fighting apparatus of to-day make a much brighter picture. The rapid motorization of the departments of the country, both large and small, and the replacements of the comparatively slow moving horse-drawn apparatus by those of much greater speed propelled by gasoline, has done much, and will do more, toward reducing the fire loss, so great in this country in the past few years.

“Another step forward has been the adoption of the high pressure pumping service in so many of our large cities, by means of which water drawn directly from the rivers or bays can be thrown with such heavy streams upon fires in the congested or high value districts, that the fear of great conflagrations sweeping large areas is practically a thing of the past …. The improvement in fire-fighting apparatus and tools has kept pace with that of propulsion. The use of the chemical engine has continued in favor in all departments, even the smallest ones now can boast of a combined chemical and hose wagon among its equipment. The ladder truck and the water tower of to-day are very different machines from those of forty years ago, and so the improvement goes on all down the line. It inspires the thought as to what vast changes will be chronicled in the anniversary number of Fire and Water Engineering of forty years hence ….” (Nov. 28, 1917)


At least 140 men and women were burned and crushed to death in the Triangle Shirt-Waist Company fire, which occurred on March 25, 1911. The factory, located on the three top floors of the 10-story J. J. Asch Building at Washington Place in New York City, New York, employed from 700 to 1,000 persons (depending on the source). In their panic, workers “stampeded each floor in their eagerness to escape.” The fire was reported to have been started “by a burning cigarette stub thrown into a collection of inflammable material.”

The Asch building, constructed of brick and iron, was “classed as fireproof” and had been inspected “by order of the fire department on October 15, 1910.” It contained two iron stairways and four elevators and “had a telephone connection with departmental headquarters by pneumatic system.” The building was equipped with two four-inch standpipes connected outside with No. 2 siamese (three-inch). An 8- by 10-foot, 5,000-gallon capacity water tank was on the roof, and some 300 buckets were “scattered around the building.” The investigation subsequently showed, however, that no attempt had been made to use the buckets or hose on each floor to put out the fire in its incipiency. It appears also that there was a delay in reporting the fire to the fire department.

Fire Commissioner`s Report

The Fire Commissioner`s report on the Triangle factory tragedy emphasized some of the factors that contributed to the incident and fires in similar-type occupancies, such as the one that occurred at the Binghamton (NY) Clothing Co., discussed below. Among the observations made by the Commissioner were the following.

“… while buildings may be fireproof, the contents are not fireproof …. Therefore, fire escapes and other good and sufficient means of exit should be required in buildings of this character, especially those in which large numbers of persons are assembled for work or other purposes. The means of exit from this building were insufficient. The sole outside iron balcony fire escape was so constructed that when the iron shutters on the window were opened, it was impossible for persons to use it without first closing the shutters, which could not be done if persons were endeavoring to escape from the windows from the lower floors.”

Although there were “two enclosed fireproof stairs with window doors and jamb, these doors were consumed by the fire and left the stairs open to the flames.” The stairways were wide enough to allow only one person at a time to descend; there were winding steps at the turns. The entrances to the stairs were blocked by partitions.

There were indications that the gates and doors were locked at the time of the fire. A leader in the labor strike that had occurred at the Triangle factory a week before the fire “declared that to her certain knowledge doors on the eighth and ninth floors of the building were locked fast at the time of the fire.”

This fire accelerated attempts to secure legislation that would create a Bureau of Fire Prevention that “would have sufficient legal power to install automatic and auxiliary fire appliances to enforce fire preventive measures and give the department the right to insist on adequate means of escape in case of fire.”

The owner of the building insisted that fire drills were held at the factory regularly.

Delegates from 20 philanthropic organizations and settlement workers met at the Women`s Trade Union League a few days after the fire “to plan a mass meeting to discuss problems suggested by the Triangle Waist Company`s fire.” (Mar. 29, 1911)



What was termed “the worst fire in the city`s history” broke out at 3 p.m. on July 29, 1913, in the Binghamton (NY) Clothing Co. A conservative estimate placed the total number of deaths at about 60. One hundred and twenty-five employees, mostly women and girls, were trapped; 41 escaped, 13 were severely injured; and “16 charred bodies will probably never be identified.” Relatives reported 22 “operatives of the factory” missing. Damages were estimated to be $207,000. The post office was partly burned, and several businesses sustained heavy losses. Three alarms were sounded from various parts of the city between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.

The loss of life was attributed to the fact that the employees believed that the fire alarm was just another of the frequently held fire drills at the factory and “made little effort to flee the building–many returned to the dressing rooms on the upper floors for clothing and pocketbooks and were caught in the fire.”

The scene described was dreadful: “Women and girls, exhausted, dropped on a fire escape at the rear of the building and literally roasted to death, their burning bodies slowly dropping into the furnace below. The entire building, which was of `slow-burning mill construction` and `supposed to be of fairly fireproof construction,` was in flames and the prostrate forms of women huddled together on the fire escapes gave the department the first indication of the terrible loss of life that was to ensue.”

The intense heat prevented firemen from “getting within fighting range of the building”; they could not attempt rescue. “Before the companies had been on the scene a minute, the heat had become so intense that it was almost impossible to get within 150 feet of the building. Bodies came hurtling through the air from the windows of the entire four floors of the building and lay mangled on the ground. Within five minutes after the first alarm had sounded there was not a living being inside or within 200 feet of the Binghamton factory.”

Firefighters slowly began to approach the “smouldering ruins” at about 4 p.m., when the flames had begun to die down. “In a heap on Center street behind what remained of a single wall was a heap of bricks and human flesh, charred and mangled beyond all recognition. Only the trunks of human beings remained, save as here and there an arm or leg, separated from the trunk, could be seen protruding. All attempts at identification were absolutely useless …. before 6 o`clock the remains of 19 persons had been removed to various undertaking establishments.”

Reed B. Freeman, president of the company theorized that “a cigarette butt thrown into a heap of rubbish shortly after the lunch hour was the cause of the conflagration.” Spontaneous combustion was also considered as a possible cause.

The fire started near the stairway in the center of the first floor. Practically all the doors and windows in the building were open at the time, and a strong wind was blowing. The wind and the “almost flue-like condition of the building” turned “what was supposed to be an almost fireproof building into a veritable death trap.” (July 30, 1913)

The consulting engineer of the State Factory Investigating Commission reported that among the violations found was that of storing “considerable quantities of inflammable material” on each of the four floors of the factory. (Aug. 6, 1913)



The following excerpts are from the lecture “Fire Prevention and Fire Protection for Manufacturing Plants,” delivered by F. M. Griswold, general inspector of the Home Insurance Company, to Columbia University`s fourth-year class on manufacturing plant design.

“It may be said that the most important and basic element in fire prevention is included in the term `shop management` or in more homey terms, `good housekeeping,` which is an essential in fire prevention in every plant, whatever the nature of its occupancy, the character of its building construction or the completeness of its fire protection. Acceptable practice in `good housekeeping` demands strict compliance with the following prime essentials in fire prevention:

“First, the enforcement of rules which will insure cleanliness throughout the plant as a matter of daily practice, not only as a means by which the possibility of fire may be avoided, but as of profit.”

He made numerous recommendations for accomplishing this objective, such as the following: placing all material subject to spontaneous ignition (floor sweepings, greasy lunch papers, oily wiping waste, paint, rags, for example) in suitable “Standard” safety cans and disposing of them “safely” each night; keeping no more than one day`s supply of volatile and inflammable fluids inside the building at any time and placing all unused portions safely outside of the plant at the close of the day`s work; maintaining heating and lighting systems and making sure that steam pipes and other heat-conveying or -producing devices do not contact woodwork or other combustibles; carefully segregating and properly separating, wherever possible, all specially hazardous and dangerous processes or devices that can cause or promote fire from communication with the plant in general and “carefully considering fire extinguishing appliances for the areas in which these hazards exist”; maintaining watchmen`s service at all times when the plant is not in operation and carefully maintaining and reviewing his work record so that there will be no “evasion of duty”; using fire resistive material in construction; constructing fire escapes with fireproof stairways enclosed in brick or fire resistive shafts that rise above the roof; and having outside balcony doors swing outward from the building and inward from the balcony to the stairway escape. (May 17, 1911)



A bill–prepared by the Merchants` Association of New York City, after a conference with the Fire Commissioner–was introduced in the legislature to amend New York City`s charter in relation to fire prevention.

It proposed that “The fire commissioner shall have power to organize the fire department into such bureaus as may be convenient and necessary for the performance of the duties imposed upon him. One bureau shall be charged with the duty of preventing and extinguishing fires and of protecting property from water used at fires, the principal officer of which shall be called the `chief of department.`

“Another bureau shall be charged with the execution of all laws relating to the storage, sale and use of combustible materials, the principal officer of which shall be called `inspector of combustibles` ….

“Another bureau shall be charged with the investigation of the origin and cause of fires, the principal officers of which shall be called `fire marshals.` “

“The department shall have a branch called the `fire bureau,` which, under the direction of the commissioner, shall have charge of the extinguishment of fires and the necessary and incidental protection of property in connection therewith, the head of which shall be the `fire chief`; and a bureau of fire prevention, which under the direction of the commissioner shall perform the duties and exercise the powers devolved upon the commissioner by Sections 774 and 775 of this act, the head of which bureau shall be the `chief` of fire prevention.”

Among the powers listed for the Commissioner were the following:

1. “To direct any officer or employees of the department designated for such purposes to examine and inspect any building, structure, enclosure, vessel, place or premises, or any part thereof, or therein or attached thereto.

2. “Order, in writing, the remedying of any condition found to exist in, on or about any building, structure, enclosure, vessel, place or premises, in violation of any law or ordinance in respect to fires or to the prevention of fires.

3. “Require in writing the installation in any building, structure or enclosure of automatic or other auxiliary fire alarm system or fire-extinguishing equipment and the maintenance and repair thereof, or the construction, as prescribed by any law or ordinance, of adequate and safe means of exit and of adequate and properly secured fire escapes upon buildings or structures.

4. “Require any building or structure which, in the opinion of the commissioner, is inadequately protected against fire perils to be vacated, or to be condemned, and removed.

5. “Cause any order of the department which is not complied with within the time fixed in the order for such compliance, by the personnel to whom the same is ad-dressed, to be enforced and to take proceedings for the enforcement thereof.

6. “The commissioner or any authorized officer or employee of the department may enter, at any reasonable hour, any building, structure, vessel, or place, or any part thereof, to make inspections or in furtherance of the purpose of any provision of this chapter ….” (May 13, 1911)


Relative to the two-platoon system for firefighters, the editorialist observed (Sept. 3, 1913) that “it is a noticeable fact that not one approves, as a whole, the system. The consensus of opinion is that it decreases efficiency, destroys discipline, creates friction and keeps down wages, at the same time adding to the burden of taxation. The chiefs of the Omaha and Kansas City fire departments, where the system is in force, are outspoken in its condemnation.” On the other hand, he also noted, “At the same time one believes that it is the coming basis upon which fire departments will be conducted.”

Four years later (Oct. 31, 1917), it was reported that some progress was being made in that area. “The general disposition of city auditors and officials connected with the fire service was and is to try and ameliorate the conditions of the men, but they were unable to do so owing to the financial conditions then existing in the places where the proposition was seriously considered. Continuing the agitation for two-platoon service has resulted in its adoption in a score of cities in different parts of the country, and from the impetus thus given the movement it seems likely that other places will soon be following in the same way.” Support for the system came from city councilmen and the public, who approved ordinances advocating it.

The writer concluded: “With the determined effort now being made to extend the two platoons to all full paid departments, the results show that the plan meets with favor in certain communities [Ed. note: Philadelphia had recently adopted the system]. How quickly it will extend depends upon the localities asking for it and the action of the citizens in voting the necessary funds to pay the increased cost of maintaining the fire service.” (Oct. 31, 1917)

In 1918, at the first annual convention of the International Association of Fire Fighters at the American Federation of Labor in Washington, D.C., in 1918–where the IAFF “formulated its constitution and by-laws during the afternoon session”–speakers urged that the two-platoon system be adopted throughout the country. Frank Morrison, Federation secretary, reported that there were 66 local firefighter unions in the country, representing a membership of 5,450, and that the “two-platoon system was in force in the most of these cities.” His argument was that “eight hours a day work should apply to firemen as well as other laboring men.” (Fireman`s Herald, March 9, 1918)

According to the IAFF, in 1918, only 34 American cities maintained two shifts of firefighters, with one on duty while the other was off. “The most common practice was `continuous duty` requiring firefighters to live constantly in the fire house, except for meals and an occasional day off”…. (Draft “Welcome to the IAFF,” Apr. 2, 1997) EVOLUTION OF THE INTERNATIONAL


Paid firefighters began organizing themselves into clubs and associations in the mid-19th century. By the beginning of the 20th Century, professional firefighters were beginning to organize themselves into local unions.

The Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, union was the first union to be chartered by the American Federation of Labor (AFL). It still holds the designation of “IAFF Local 1.”

By the end of 1916, there were 17 AFL-chartered local firefighter unions in the United States and one in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

In 1917, more than 40 local unions were chartered by the AFL.

Feb. 28, 1918, the International Association of Fire Fighters was founded and chartered by the AFL. “Advocacy of the two-platoon system was a primary issue for firefighters of the day.”

That same year, Boston police went out on strike, which created a “public outrage” that had a disastrous effect on most public employee unions, including the IAFF. In the wake of the strike, many public employees were forbidden to belong to unions, and many city governments required IAFF locals to give up their charters in return for pay raises.

1919–There were almost 25,000 IAFF members in August 1919; 5,000 were lost over the next year, due to the strike. The 1919 convention endorsed the eight-hour work day, called for universal health insurance, and urged “its speedy enactment with provision for adequate medical and financial benefits, free choice of physician, active preventive work, and democratic management.” (Draft “Welcome to the IAFF,” April 2, 1997)


The New York Fire College opened on East 67th Street in New York City on January 3, 1911. It consisted of four schools: probationary, officer, engineer, and company. All of the instructors, chosen “for their practical qualifications,” had been in “actual” service for a minimum of 18 years; most were in the department for 25 years. It was especially noted that “not mere lecturing will constitute the curriculum. Actual demonstration will be the main thing.”

Forty-eight firefighters were in the first probationary class. The course of instruction covered 30 working days; the men were assigned to regular engine house work at night.

All department officers, except those who were members of the Fire College, and all engineers and firemen eligible for promotion to the rank of assistant foreman were required to attend the officers` school. All companies were required to attend the company school … “at such time and place as the board may direct.” The department was run as a summer school because, it was explained, “the companies cannot be spared from active service in the winter.” (Jan. 11, 1911)




The following is excerpted from a paper read by A. M. Schoen, chief engineer, at a meeting of the Southeastern Underwriters` Association.

“The standard schedule for grading cities and towns of the United States, with reference to their fire defense and physical conditions as formulated by the National Board of Fire Underwriters, is based on the plan of assigning a certain number of points to each feature of fire defense, or fire prevention, the number of points depending upon the relative value of each feature as affecting the fire hazard. The total number of points assigned for all the features considered is 5,000, sub-divided as follows: Water supply, 1,700; fire department, 1,500; fire alarm system, 550; police department, 50; building laws and their enforcement, 200; laws for the control of hazards and their enforcement according to conditions, 300; structural conditions, 700. Total, 5,000.

“There are ten classes, each class corresponding to a sum of 500 points of deficiency charged against all the features considered. Or, in other words, if the sum of the points charged against all the features is less than 500 points, the city would grade first class; if between 500 and 1000 points, second class; if between 1,000 and 1,500 points, third class, and so on.

” In determining the number of points of deficiency to be charged, a graduated scale is used in which a less increment of deficiency is used for the first 30 per cent deficiency than for the remainder, for it is recognized that a deficiency of 10 per cent in good, or moderately good conditions, has less actual effect upon the different features than the same differential when conditions are poor. Depending upon the importance of the item under consideration, either the full scale, a multiple or a fractional part thereof is used.

“To the water supply is assigned 1,700 points. This is more than is assigned to any other feature, as the water supply is considered of more importance and in the general plans for city improvements it should receive the fullest consideration, special care being taken to see that mains are of ample size, well grid-ironed and properly gated before paving is done. For grading, this important subject is divided into thirty-two items, and to each item is assigned a certain number of points depending upon the relative importance it bears to the whole; the sum of the number of points, determines the grading of the water works system….” ( May 9, 1917)


A recent fire in Hot Springs, Arkansas, caused several millions of dollars in property losses and nearly 3,000 persons to become homeless. The flames, driven by a 40-mile-an-hour gale, destroyed 52 blocks. The city had no lights for a month; there was no power for street lines and factories. The fire started in a cabin on Church Street, four blocks east of the government reservation and near the Army and Navy Hospital. The direction of the fire shifted as the direction of the wind shifted. “Sixty blocks of residences, many of them the most palatial in the State, and five business blocks were destroyed.” Also lost to the fire were the Ozark Sanitarium, the high school building, and the Garland County courthouse. “Dynamite was used time and again.” Four persons were injured, none seriously. The loss was estimated to be between $6 and $8 million. (Sept. 24, 1913)


[The following description of the incident was taken from Fire in America by Paul R. Lyons (National Fire Protection Association, 1976).]

Early Sunday morning on July 30, 1916, explosions and fire rocked Black Tom Wharf in Jersey City, New Jersey. The force of the explosions … was felt in New Jersey, New York City, and Long Island. Many windows were shattered on the lower part of Manhattan Island. Warehouses, cars, and barges containing ammunition, and oil tank boats for the Entente Allies were destroyed. Six persons were killed, and “nearly sixty people are known to have been direct sufferers.” Damage was estimated to be between $10 and $20 million, varying with the information source.

Fire Headquarters in Jersey City received an alarm via the American District Telegraph Company at 12:45 a.m. The report was for “some rubbish burning on Black Tom Pier, which juts into New York harbor south of Communipaw Avenue [Jersey City]. For more than a year, the pier had been a principal shipping center for war munitions going to the Entente Allies.”

The Jersey City fire chief responded with five companies. Descending from his automobile about half way down the half-mile-long pier, he saw “that several freight cars of the Lehigh Valley Railroad Company on the end of the structure, two barges that nestled beside it and one of the two long brick buildings that houses eighteen warehouses of the National Docks and Storage Company were aflame. So hot was the neighborhood that the firemen couldn`t get within 1,000 feet of the `rubbish heap.` They were getting to work to wet down the reachable parts of the pier and building and the 150 barges and canal boats crowded into a basin along the pier when every man was thrown flat on his face by the concussion of the first of the big explosions that occurred. It was followed twenty-five minutes later by a still bigger one. Thousands of tons of dynamite, nitroglycerine, nitrocellulite, lyddite and trinitrotoluene joined in two great upheavals. The shock was felt twenty miles around. The New York fire department sent assistance to the scene. Fireboats pushed endangered vessels out into the stream. There was a succession of explosions of war munitions.”

According to a postincident analysis of the disaster in Fire and Water Engineering, the cause of the explosion/fire was “a matter of controversy … the real facts will probably not come to public knowledge until an official investigation is made by the Interstate Commerce Commission.”

The report noted the following:

There seems to have been a considerable delay in informing the Jersey City Fire Department of the outbreak of the fire. “In the official statement issued by the department on the day of the disaster, it was announced that the battalion chief in charge of the fire engines dispatched to the scene on the first call found the fire already a large one, and that he experienced difficulty in getting his engines within striking distance. Moreover, water could not be obtained from the railroad standpipes ….”

A number of shell explosions occurred the day after the fire and “the fire chief of Jersey City was reported to have expressed the opinion that the ruins would continue to smoulder for a week.”

“The fire actually burned for fully two weeks before it was quenched.” (Aug. 2, 1916)


An opinion handed down by Judge Murasky of San Francisco asserted that “the power of appointing men on the certified civil service list to positions in the fire department rests with the Board of Fire Commissioners, and not with the Board of Civil Service Commissioners.” …. In his decision, the judge said, “It is undoubtedly the intention that the appointing board shall have the right of selection from among those found, upon examination, to be qualified to serve. Such is the spirt of civil service reform …. But the method pursued by the defendants [the Civil Service Board] would make them the appointing body, and take from the Fire Commissioners the authority expressly vested in it by the charter. The duties of the Civil Service Commission are limited to the examination of applicants and the certification to the proper board of the names of those who have been found to be eligible.” (July 2, 1913) n

(Above) View of fire in three upper stories of Asch building. (Top right) Section of three upper floors of Asch building, showing location of elevator and fire escape. (Bottom right) The eighth story of Asch building, showing debris and condition of supports and cross beams after fire.

(Left) Ruins of Binghamton factory fire where about 60 lives were lost. (Right) Hunting for bodies.


“H ow many people can safely be accommodated on the floors of a factory or mercantile establishment, in relation to making a safe and quick exit in case of a fire?” This question, according to Fire and Water Engineering, had been under study by “fire underwriters and constructing engineers ever since the plan of placing one story upon another, or, as H. F. J. Porter, M. E., expresses it, in another column, `piling one factory upon another,` until five, ten or more stories are thus superimposed.”

Engineers of the Factory Investigating Commission of New York State recommended “a remedy so simple that the only wonder is that it has not been adopted long ago.” Their recommendation? That a horizontal exit be created “through a fire wall dividing one half of a building into a zone of safety, whereby the occupants, by passing quickly through a door in the wall to the side not affected by the fire, can thereafter descend with comparative ease and calmness to the street.”

The journal noted the following: “Many buildings had dividing walls of brick …, which, … could be converted into these fire walls, thus dividing the building from cellar to roof, virtually into two zones of safety, separated by fireproof doors in the openings on each floor.” And, the writer added, the expense for doing this would be minimal. (Nov. 7, 1917)


T he Agency of the Forestry Ser- vice “are convinced that many of these [timbered land] fires for which they cannot account are started by the focusing of the sun`s rays upon bottles or broken glass, which act as a `burning glass,` igniting dry leaves or grass …. The heavy glass cast into a bundle of dry leaves will catch the rays of the sun and start a fire just as John Smith, I believe it was, started, one for the Indians with his pocket magnifying glass ….” Washington Post (July 2, 1913)

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