AROUND THE FIRE SERVICE–1920-1929

AROUND THE FIRE SERVICE–1920-1929

Excerpts from Fire and Water Engineering and Fire Engineering (as of 1926)

THE “IDEAL” FIREFIGHTER

The image of the “ideal” firefighter during this period was that of a highly trained, skilled, brave, altruistic public servant as dedicated to preventing fires as to extinguishing them. Sentiments such as those below, expressed by Chief Joseph W. Fisher of the Dubuque (IA) Fire Department in his paper “Standard Drills Best for Firemen,” presented at the annual convention of the International City Managers Association, are representative of many others expressed through the pages of the journals of this period.

“Fire fighting has become a highly trained profession calling for highly trained, men, possessed of active minds and bodies and officers who can lead their men in and tell them what to do …. The old system of assigning a man to a station without his first being initiated into the hazardous and highly skillful game of fire fighting was wrong. Under the old system a man might learn six or seven ways of doing the same thing.”

Fisher “analyzed the business of the fire department” as: “First, men; second, training; third, housing conditions and salary”; and he asserted the following: “A department, as well as a city, is not greater than its men ….” (May 16, 1928)

It was evident that training was a priority. “It is encouraging to note the number of cities that have adopted firemen`s training schools. It is only a matter of a short while before the school will become an integral part of the fire department.” (June 17, 1925) Many editorial pages were devoted to firefighters` training and overall education, including the running of serialized features such as the following: “What Every Fire Fighter Should Know,” “Questions and Answers,” “Fire Protection in the Smaller Community From the Viewpoint of an Underwriters` Engineer,” and “Course of Instruction in Fire Protection as given at the University of Illinois” (as a point of information, Installment No. 26 appeared in the issue of January 12, 1927).

“What Constitutes the Ideal Fire Department?”

In a paper read before the Vermont Firemen`s Association on October 10, 1926, Chief Selden R. Allen of Brookline, Massachusetts, put forth some of the components he felt “constituted the ideal fire department.” Several follow.

“Fire fighting is the most serious profession known to man in times of peace. The service rendered by the call firemen of this country can never be measured in terms of dollars and cents ….” u “I have very strong convictions on the elimination of political influence and control from a fire department. With me there is no middle ground ….” u “Practice develops perfection ….” u “Apparatus … should be standardized …. I have very pronounced ideas on standard apparatus.” (Among items cited were “machines should go 25 miles going and 20 returning; chiefs` or deputies` cars should not go at a speed greater than 35 miles an hour.”) u “There seems to be a peculiar sort of opinion about hose, whether it is good or fair …. Hose is either good or bad …. A weak spot in a length of hose today is a leak tomorrow, and the hose line is your conveyor of ammunition ….” u “Ventilation is a big factor in successful fire fighting. The first ladder truck at a fire should throw ladders to the roof ….” u “The activities of any fire department are divided into two parts, fire extinguishment and fire prevention, and fire prevention pays by far the larger dividend ….”

Excellence for Departments of All Sizes

Excellence was an objective for all departments–volunteer or paid, large or small, city or rural. Support for a fire school in smaller departments was emphasized.

“There is no reason why the chief of the small town fire department and his men should not be as thoroughly grounded in the principles of fire fighting as the members of the largest and most efficient fire department …. The fighting of fire in the small city or town is just as much a scientific matter as is that of the larger municipality. It requires relatively as much skill and the exercise of judgment … the quick burning structures which the small town chief has to protect present often a bigger problem than the better constructed buildings of the large city, where there are often excellent fire stops in the nature of brick and concrete structures. This is especially the case where a considerable group of frame residences are built in close proximity to each other and roofed with the inflammable wooden shingle. Naturally, under most circumstances, the small town volunteer chief and his men do not have the opportunity to factual practice that members of the fire department in the larger city have, and therefore, they must rely to a very large extent upon study, drill and the experience of other better informed fire fighters. Thus the importance of the fire school in such departments is very apparent ….” (July 18, 1923)

“Two elements that are absolutely essential to the successful operation of a small town fire department, regardless of any question of apparatus or equipment, are capable officers and trained men, ” maintained Chief W. Stephen, of the Southern Manganese Corporation Fire Department in Anniston, Alabama. “Any one holding an office in a small department, if he acquits himself as a man should and carries out the sacred responsibility that is upon him, will sooner or later arrive at the conclusion that this is a job for a man in the Spartan sense of the word …. To be even a village fire officer means not merely to be able to direct the laying of hose and the playing of water …. It means an ability to instantly realize what any situation demands, in short, to think clearly, act quickly, and take the pipe on in. With reference to the question of having trained men in a small town department there is one answer, and that is–drill ….” (July 18, 1923)

“The fire school, conducted by an officer of the department, a man of long experience, or an outside fire fighter from another department, is therefore a prime necessity to the department which wishes to be up to the highest notch of efficiency,” wrote the editorialist. “This fact is being more and more recognized throughout the country, and it is a splendid sign of the increased usefulness of the American fire department. (December 31, 1924)

Ideally, the fire department would also be free of politics, according to B. Frank Michelsen of New Bedford, Massachusetts, who noted the following: “The tenure of office for the chief should be absolutely sure and there should be no question of his removal from office except for incompetency, disability or malfeasance in office.” (May 23, 1923)

MULTICASUALTY DISASTERS

Many of the major fires of this period involved schools and resorts. The devastating fires that occurred in the nation`s schools gave rise to the question, “Is your schoolhouse safe?” This question was posed by the editorialist after the Camden, South Carolina, school fire, in which 76 persons lost their lives at a school commencement. The editorialist decried the conditions surrounding this tragedy (and other fires involving schools) as follows: “A condemned, two-story frame building, a crowded assembly hall on the second floor, one narrow stairway, no fire escape, flimsy stage draperies and decorations, hanging lamp dropping, is the story of criminal carelessness.” He posed the question, “Who of the 1,700,000 inhabitants of South Carolina or the one hundred million inhabitants of the United States were and are thinking of the thousands of other fire traps, called school buildings, and of means and methods to make them safe?” (July 18, 1923)

“Another Christmas school entertainment horror” occurred on December 24, 1924, at 9:30 p.m., in the 20- 3 36-foot frame school at Babbs Switch, Oklahoma (seven miles from Hobart). The school caught fire while about 200 persons, mostly children, were watching the Christmas exercises. A lighted candle ignited cotton on the Christmas tree around which the children were gathered to receive gifts from Santa Claus. The newly painted building was of highly inflammable construction. Its ceilings and walls were of pine lumber. It burned so rapidly that it collapsed within 12 minutes. To aggravate conditions, the windows were all barred with heavy mesh wire screens, so securely fastened that it was impossible to release them or tear them off in the face of the fast-spreading fire.” The only door opened inwardly. Thirty-three charred bodies were found in the ruins. Among the dead was the school teacher, who perished when she ran back inside to save the children. Forty-three persons were injured, three of whom died a day later. “All the unidentified were buried in one large grave in the Hobart Cemetery.” (June 25, 1926; December 31, 1924)

Among the recommendations for preventing similar tragedies were the following: “Make sure that there are at least two good and convenient exits from every upstairs room and from all upper floors to the ground; that the stairways and fire escapes are in good repair; that a door, instead of a window, leads to the fire escape platform; that all exit doors swing outward and are equipped with anti-panic hardware instead of ordinary locks and bolts; that the fire alarm system is in working order; and [that it is ascertained] whether or not fire drills have been conducted as required by law.” (July 18, 1923)

Resorts/Amusement Parks

“Another huge summer resort hotel, built of wood, dried out by taking in a tropical sun for twenty years, and rendered more inflammable by coat after coat of paint applied during this period ….” (April 1, 1925) There were many warnings that conditions such as those described here harbored the potential for fires in resort/amusement park occupancies. They proved to be almost prophetic when reviewing some of the major fires that occurred during this period.

The Breakers in Palm Beach, Florida–said to be one of the largest frame structures in the world–went up in smoke in the afternoon of March 18. A smaller hotel, the Palm Beach, was also de-stroyed. The fire leaped over the Beach Club and other large wooden buildings separating it from the Breakers. The cause of the fire was un-known. Fortunately, only a few guests were present when the fire occurred, and there were no casualties. The loss was estimated at about $5 million. (April 1, 1925)

A number of these fires occurred in Atlantic City, New Jersey, alone. In the burning of the Hotel Bothwell in that city on November 17, 1924, two lives were lost in a fire that started about 9 p.m. near the kitchen. A bellboy discovered the fire, which spread rapidly. The fire “ate its way to the upper floors and soon the whole rear of the building was a mass of flames” before the fire department arrived. “At 11 o`clock the firemen practically abandoned their efforts on the Hotel Bothwell and turned their energies to saving surrounding buildings …. Sparks, swept by the high wind, showered down on the Steel Pier, setting the part of the structure facing the boardwalk ablaze and menacing the whole structure ….”

An eighty-year-old invalid man was rescued from the fourth floor but died shortly after his admittance to a hospital. His nurse, found unconscious on the floor, was carried out by a policeman. A woman perished when she fell back into the fire while waiting to be rescued. Several members of the fire department and a number of Bothwell guests were burned and otherwise injured. (December 17, 1924)

Other Atlantic City fires included a two-alarm fire at the 45-year-old Peoples Market, located in the mercantile district. Seven firemen were injured, a number were overcome, and 12 buildings were damaged. The building was a “roaring furnace” when the fire department arrived. The fire spread to nearby buildings. (March 9, 1927) “On July 6th a block on the boardwalk between Columbia Place and Arkansas Avenue at Atlantic City was almost entirely destroyed and about 60 persons and a half dozen amusement places were homeless.” The fire, di-rectly opposite the Million Dollar Pier, destroyed four small frame hotels and damaged additional hotels and eight other boardwalk con-cessions. (“Big Crop of Amusement Park Fires,” July 27, 1927) The Iroquois Hotel on South Carolina Avenue was destroyed when a fire that started in the kitchen of the seven-story frame-and-brick building spread quickly. One person died. Eight people were injured. Firemen were unable to raise their ladders because of the flames shooting out from windows. Five firemen were injured when the upper three stories of the hotel crashed down. The front wall buckled and fell into the street. (May 16, 1928)

On October 9, flames caused $300,000 worth of damage at the Nautical Gardens in Revere Beach, Massachusetts. The fire was discovered at 4:30 a.m. in the large frame-and-stucco building that contained a dance hall on the upper floor, check rooms on the mezzanine floor, and “The Pit” on the street floor. The flames, fanned by a high wind, left only a few crumbling sections of wall. Fourteen other amusement concessions were damaged. There were no serious injuries at this fire. The building was erected in 1919 to replace an old structure that had burned down in 1918. Three firefighters died in that fire. (October 19, 1927)

124 Perish in Cleveland (OH) Clinic Fire

Some 124 men and women died as a result of an explosion that occurred in a room in the basement of the Cleveland Clinic, where X-ray films were stored. A postinvestigative report revealed that heat from a defective steam pipe in the room “decomposed the film and caused explosive gases to be given off. A spark from some X-ray apparatus was at first believed to have exploded the gas. The rapid decomposition of the film liberated vast quantities of poisonous, yellow fumes. Immense volumes of fumes were sucked up throughout the building`s modern ventilating system, bringing the effects of the explosion to remote sections of the hospital.” The fire door in the film room failed to operate. The explosion occurred at 11:30 a.m.; several hundred persons were in the clinic. “The `deafening detonation` shook the building and immediately caused a stampede toward doors, windows, and elevator shafts. Firemen were forced to turn back due to suffocating gases …. Once entrance was gained, firemen and others began to bring victims out so fast that doctors and first aid workers on the lawn could not cope with the situation. One policeman died after successfully taking out 21 persons from the gas-filled clinic. An investigation by the chief of the Chemical Warfare Service army division concluded that nitrogen dioxide was formed by the decomposition of the X-ray films and that the gas was responsible for most of the deaths ….” (March 6, 1929)

SHORT TAKES …

Chief John C. Moran of the Hartford (CT) Fire Department conducted a series of experiments in the use of the wireless telephone. Messages were successfully transmitted from the home of a department member who had rigged up a portable wireless telephone to the chief`s car. The chief and the members of his department were able to receive messages in any part of the city while the car was in motion. There was enthusiasm “over the possibilities of the apparatus in conjunction with fire fighting.” (July 6, 1921) u “The average fire fighter is not skilled in the art of expressing himself fluently in writing. For this reason the type of examination–known as the free answer form–is not always a fair test of the ability of the man taking the examination …. In order to avoid such a difficulty, a short answer form of examination has been devised by the Bureau of Public Personnel Administration, Washington, D.C. …, established in 1922 to serve public personnel administrators in the United States and Canada …. It is independently supported and has no connection with any governmental body.” (“Here`s the Last Word in Examinations,” May 30, 1928) u “A growing tendency, especially among volunteer fire departments, but also, in lesser degree, in the paid units, is the indiscriminate use of apparatus and men in civic and organization parades … the indiscriminate use of the fire department and its apparatus for ordinary parades is certainly an evil that should be frowned upon and discouraged.” (“Fire Apparatus in Parades,” May 27, 1925) u “…. These masks [all-purpose gas masks], it is claimed, are ideally suited to the requirements of fire fighting and are said to be a type that is absolutely foolproof for conditions both in warfare and fire fighting and can furthermore be used in atmospheres in which the deadly carbon monoxide gas is present, which has been the great stumbling block heretofore in the use of this device.” (Introduction to article by Major A. Gibson, Chemi



“Babbs Switch community`s Christmas. From these ashes thirty-three bodies were taken.”



The burning of The Breakers at Palm Beach, Florida. (Top) The building is half- gone. (Bottom) The fire is at its height.


“Blaze in Steel Pier at Atlantic City, caused by sparks from the burning Hotel Bothwell.”


“The long, straight corridors in hospitals act as flues for the rapid propagation of flames in heated gases, when fires start.”

EVOLUTION OF FIRE PREVENTION WEEK

“Fire Prevention Day was observed on October 9. For the first time in history, the day and that which it stands for has become the subject of a presidential proclamation. In a strongly worded message to the people of the United States, President Wilson bids them stop and consider what the appalling and unnecessary loss of life and waste of material by fire means to them individually and collectively ….” (October 6, 1920)

“Reports reaching Fire and Water Engineering indicate that the period embracing October 2 to 9 has been almost universally observed as Fire Prevention Week. This custom, which originated in the setting apart of a certain day for the consideration of the country`s huge fire losses and of taking means to prevent them, has gradually been extended into a week`s observation.

“In the setting apart of a day devoted to Fire Prevention, the minds of the originators naturally turned to the anniversary of the country`s greatest fire caused by carelessness, and the date of the Chicago conflagration of 1871–October 9–was chosen by the pioneers in this work. From this beginning the custom has gradually spread to other states and finally the time was extended to a period covering the week preceding or including October 9.

“Of course, such a general observance of Fire Prevention Week is bound to have considerable influence on the fire losses of the country. It will, in the nature of the case, make many persons think seriously on the subject who have heretofore never given the matter of Fire Prevention any consideration. But unless this temporary influence is consistently followed up by constant Fire Prevention propaganda, the good accomplished by Fire Prevention Week will be at least partly lost. The keeping eternally at it is the only secret of success in the reduction of the country`s enormous and unnecessary fire loss.” (October 4, 1922)

THE DISAPPEARANCE OF THE HORSE

“In both the fire and water departments this influence [the gasoline internal combustion engine] has been strongly felt in many ways. The effect in the fire department has been especially marked. It has resulted in a great saving of expense through the introduction of the motor fire apparatus and the elimination of the expensive up-keep of the horse. But it has also resulted in greater efficiency in fire fighting in every respect ….” (January 11, 1922)

SALVAGE BY FIRE DEPARTMENTS

“The work of salvage at fires is gradually going to be recognized as an important part of the fire department`s duties. Time was, and still is in many instances, where the damage by water often exceeded that by actual fire. This is sometimes necessarily the case when a fire has gained considerable headway and requires large quantities of water for a quick extinguishment to save the structure involved. But on the other hand, in a great many other cases, much of the damage by water is avoidable ….” (May 13, 1925)

OIL IN THE RIVER FUELS PIER FIRE IN HOBOKEN

Land companies and fire boats fought the fire that destroyed the pier owned by the Lachine Railroad, and the Seneca, operated by the Clyde Line. Many nearby boats were endangered. Property damage was estimated to be around $1 million. The fire reportedly started with an oil explosion, but the cause was undetermined. Railroad officials say that men working on the Seneca said the boat was completely surrounded by oil at the time of the fire. The oil, said to have been removed from the keel of the boat, was the cause of the fire`s spread. The New York City fire chief said that captains had been warned many times about pouring oil into the river, but they failed to cooperate. Levying fines didn`t appear to have any effect, he added. (January 25, 1928)

“OUR FIFTIETH BIRTHDAY”: LOOKING BACK ON THE PROGRESS OF FIRE ENGINEERING AND THE FIRE SERVICE

November 17, 1927, marked the 50th birthday of Fire Engineering. During those years, it had gone through the following evolution:

November 1877 to January 4, 1879: National Fireman`s Journal.

In 1886, Federick W. Shepperd took the helm, which he held for 33 years. He secured control of the journal in November. The name was changed to Fire and Water.

January 2, 1904: The name was changed to Fire and Water Engineering, “to better dignify the professions of fire engineering and water works engineering.”

November 1918: Due to failing health, Shepperd severed his connections with the journal. He died on February 8, 1921.

January 1926: Fire and Water Engineering was separated into two publications–Fire Engineering and Water Works Engineering. This separation also included a consolidation of The Fire Engineer, the leading monthly fire journal with Fire Engineering.

December 1925: “Present organization was formed.”

November 17, 1927: 50th anniversary. (December 14, 1927)

An editorial of December 14, 1927, noted the following: “All in all, progress in the past half-century has been marvelous. What the next equal period will bring forth is beyond conjecture.”

The following were listed among the “tremendous” changes that occurred during the journal`s 50 years of existence:

The replacing of volunteer departments with paid departments.

The progression from “hand- to horse-drawn to motor apparatus.”

“The steady growth and progress of the fire-fighting profession, and with the achievements accomplished in the sister science of fire prevention. These two have gone forward hand in hand. The fire-fighter has, through a process of slow evolution, become the fire-preventionist. The chief and his men have not only mastered the art of extinguishing the actual blaze–they have become proficient in the science of fighting the fire before it has occurred.”

“Great strides have been made in rendering these fire-fighting necessities [hose, tools, and appliances] better and more efficient. Many new tools have been perfected, and practically all of the old standard types have been greatly improved in form and material.”

Improvement of the fire service “from the angle of personnel.”

“The housing of the men and apparatus has also greatly advanced. The modern firehouse is no longer an unsightly and, only too often, a crowded and unsanitary structure. The abolition of the horse has added immensely to the betterment of conditions from a sanitary standpoint. The adoption of the bungalow type of fire house of residential sections has had a great influence toward the improvement, from an esthetic viewpoint, of the present day fire house, and has incidentally removed much of the objection to the location of fire houses in such sections ….”

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