Excerpts from Fire Engineering


Among the outstanding disasters of this period were the following.

Ohio Penitentiary Fire

A fire at the Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus, on April 21, 1930, claimed the lives of 320 convicts and injured 133.

At about 5:30 p.m., a fire was discovered in the I and K concrete cell block, which was under construction. The work was being done by a group of convicts, who had stopped work at 4 p.m. Reportedly, a guard in the tower on the outside wall a short distance from the building`s north end (where the fire originated) asked someone on the street below to pull the fire alarm. The fire department received the call at 5:39 p.m.

One truck and three engines arrived within two minutes. The heavy iron grilling in the north window of the I and K cell block caused the stream directed at it by the first-arriving company “to be so broken up as to render it ineffective.” The line was eventually cut off. A second pumper carried a line “through the east door of the cell house directly opposite the passageway be- tween G and H [which had recently been completed and whose occupants had been locked in for the night] and I and K cell blocks and directed a stream toward the north end of the building. By this time, the fire was burning fiercely, and the entire roof over I and K blocks had fallen in.”

Additional lines were used to extinguish the fires in the bedding and cell furnishings. Firemen and guards, aided by convicts armed with axes and sledgehammers, knocked bars and locks from the cell doors and removed the dead and dying prisoners from their cells. The prisoners were carried down the stairs or lowered by ropes through holes cut in the outer netting to the floor below, and to the outside.

During operations, some of the prisoners from outside the involved cells, “apparently driven to desperation by the plight of their fellow convicts locked in the cells of G and H blocks, and whom the guards had failed to release, wrested the hose from the firemen and attempted to carry it into the ranges themselves. However, they were finally persuaded to leave the firemen to proceed uninterrupted with their work.”

Four alarms were sounded. Thirteen pumpers and five truck companies responded. The militia, naval reserves, and Columbus police force established a cordon around the outside of the walls to keep back the public and maintain open lanes for the fire apparatus, doctors, nurses, and rescue forces. (May 14, 1930)

Morro Castle Fire

“Fire which broke out at sea from an unknown cause and in an undetermined manner caused a loss of life of over 137 persons on the passenger and crew list of the Ward Liner Morro Castle, September 8, 1934, and completely destroyed the $5,500,000 boat constructed at Newport News, Va., in 1930. As far as ocean liners go it was considered a small boat but nevertheless placed in the deluxe class and believed to be provided with the latest devices for fire prevention.” The boat carried a crew of 240 and 318 passengers.

Fire broke out in a locker at about 12:45 a.m. while off Asbury Park, New Jersey. It was returning from a pleasure cruise to Havana.

“Although considerable wood was used in the interior construction of the boat, it was considered well protected against fire.” Fire doors and screens, however, were never closed by the crew.

“Flames had been making headway for about one-half hour before an engineering crew had knowledge of the fire …. Witnesses testified that the water pressure was poor and the hose in bad condition. Fire spread with great rapidity. It seemed to envelope a large part of the boat at about the same time so that at first the blaze was believed due to incendiaries. This theory has not been substantiated. Intense heat, pungent smoke, and the weakened condition of the passengers, who were troubled by seasickness, prevented many of them from reaching staterooms. Women who were concerned about their flimsy night attire, and returned to their rooms for more clothing never were seen again ….”

Intense heat and blinding smoke made it impossible to launch many of the life boats on the “A” deck, and those that had been lowered were practically empty.

“Evidence gathered at the government inquiry shows a lack of complete training on the part of the crew. Boat drills were not properly attended …. Passengers were not directed to participate in drills nor instructed how to wear a life belt …. Both crew and passengers ran about in a wild and panicky state, neither knowing where they should go. The boat had many passageways, and it was easy to become confused ….” (October 1934)

“The real cause of the disaster was the ship`s construction …. The construction of the ship, or rather defects in construction, were wholly responsible for the spread of the fire and the disaster which resulted. All steel work was concealed behind thin panels and ceilings of plywood, such plywood enclosing concealed channels of from three to twelve inches in depth. These channels were particularly inter-connected over the entire area of each deck, so that fire once starting behind or above the plywood surfaces could travel quickly over the entire area, finding its source of fuel in the plywood …. The locker in which the fire started was located in the writing room …. It was backed by a steel bulkhead, but here too the wood lining of the locker room was placed several inches away from the metal bulkhead and the front side of the locker was made entirely of wood. The inboard side of the locker was within a few inches of a ventilator shaft, constructed of steel. The outboard side was finished entirely in wood with quite a large concealed space, permitting the travel of fire unobstructed into the blind space above the writing room ceiling ….”

The fire was burning in concealed spaces, where streams could not reach. Nothing could check the fire once it had taken hold of the area above the false ceiling, where it spread in all directions. “The presence of steel bulkheads with no openings for the passage of fire would have checked the spread of the fire for a time and probably make it possible for the crew to extinguish it ….”

Testimony revealed that a number of nozzles had been ineffective. In some cases, no water showed at the nozzle. (“What Was the Cause of the Morro Castle Disaster?” July 1936; John Kenlon, former chief of the New York Fire Department, paper presented before the convention of the Eastern Association of Fire Chiefs at Poughkeepsie, N.Y., July 10-11, 1936)

New London, Texas, School Gas Explosion

“An illegal tap made to a gas line from an oil field in New London, Texas, was responsible for an explosion that caused the death of nearly 500 school children and teachers of the Consolidated School. The building was completely wrecked. The explosion occurred at 3:05 p.m. on March 18, 1937. The high school had 730 students enrolled and a faculty of 32 teachers.”

A little over a year old, the school, which was “modern in every respect,” was located in the heart of the East Texas oil field.

“The explosion appeared to have the building rise and then fall back in the same place, pinning the bodies beneath. Cars within a radius of 500 feet were completely wrecked by the blast. Children boarding buses for home were killed outright.” (April 1937)


The first enclosed fire sedan truck built in the United States was recently put in service by the Charlotte (NC) Fire Department. The truck was built by the Mack-International Motor Truck Corporation, on specifications prepared by Chief Hendrix Palmer and his assistants …. The truck had “lengthwise cushioned seats on which 10 firefighters could ride” and carried all “fire-fighting equipment that any other truck has ….” (August 1935)

WITH THE EDITOR (A sampling of the topics covered in this editorial section authored by Fred Shepperd, editor of Fire Engineering) u Sirens for Volunteers: “A volunteer department in the southern part of the country has adopted an innovation which seems to offer possibilities. It is the placing of sirens on the cars of all department members. A deposit of five dollars is required of each member receiving a siren, and when the siren is turned in the money is refunded ….” (January 1936) u Urgent Need for Modernization: “A review of the condition of fire apparatus now in service in nearly 600 cities throughout the country revealed the following: About one half of all motor fire apparatus in service today is ten or more years old. Only 40 per cent of the machines have four wheel brakes and more than 20 percent, solid rubber tires. Much of the apparatus is `admittedly in deplorable condition and, as such, constitutes a severe hazard to the protection of the city` …. There is therefore a rapidly growing need for better fire protection. Obsolete apparatus must be replaced with new machines; departments must be otherwise strengthened. There is no time for dallying.” (July 1936) u A Step Forward: The directors of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, at its annual meeting in New York City last month, “took the initial step in the formation of specialized sections in the Association by authorizing the President to appoint a committee to lay out plans for organizing these groups. Specifically, Fire Department master mechanics, commissioners, fire alarm telegraph men, drillmaster and arson investigators would be grouped in as many affiliated associations. Such a set-up will strengthen the International Association of Fire Chiefs in a marked degree. Having these affiliated associations of specialists working in conjunction with the International will make available to the latter the experience of these capable authorities in their respective fields ….” (February 19


Ahrens-Fox and LeBlond-Schacht Companies Merge: “A merger of The LeBlond-Schacht Truck Company and The Ahrens-Fox Fire Engine Company was ratified by stockholders of the two companies in Cincinnati, Ohio, on March 30. This plan brings under one roof two of the oldest automotive concerns in the country–the fire engine company continuing as a branch of the truck company, maintaining the Ahrens-Fox name …. The Ahrens-Fox Company is the outgrowth of the company which manufactured the first steam fire engine in Cincinnati in 1853 ….” (April 1936 ) u Hose Standardization Spreads: “Seventeen years ago a movement was started to standardize the specifications of fire hose threads according to what is known as the National standard. Today there are 6,400 cities and towns that have changed over their hose threads to this standard.” (April 1936) u White House to Have Automatic Fire Protection: “The White House, Washington, is being equipped with a modern, automatic fire alarm system. The protection is part of extensive repairs being made at the White House and is a result of a recent survey made by the Federal Fire Council, which exposed the existence of serious fire hazards in the nation`s executive mansion. The installation, which is being made by the American District Telegraph Company, will cover every room in the executive mansion and all hazardous areas in the wings, and is the same automatic system used in many other Federal buildings ….” (October 1936) u Fire Department Instructors Conference: “Twenty-seven states were represented at the Fire Department Instructors Conference [FDIC] held at Memphis, Tenn., January 11 to 14. In all, 196 Chiefs, instructors and other Fire Department members registered ….” (February 1938) [Editor`s note: As a point of information and contrast, the FDIC in 1997 drew 10,662 registrants from all 50 of the United States, Canada, and various other countries.] u Fire Service Under the New Deal: “It has been my good fortune for the past


“There are several points to keep in mind when selecting a Volunteer Chief. He should be one who will take an interest in the work, be available to respond to calls for emergencies, command respect and obedience from the members of the department and also the citizens, be one who will give his time and energy to learning the many problems that confront the department, who will prepare and train the members of the department to meet the many emergencies the men are daily being called upon to face, and by one who has the ability to present to the City Council the many requirements and facilities for carrying on the work of the department. He must also study and understand both fire prevention and fire protection, and how to apply the information when occasion demands …. If the Chief will only be left in the office for a year, he cannot possibly begin to acquire much of this knowledge, let alone gain the necessary experience to be able to handle a big emergency which comes to us all sooner or later ….

“A volunteer Chief today has to handle the same class of fires as does the city man. He has under his control the lives of his firemen as well as the safety of others and millions of dollars worth of property. In most cases, he has the control and handling of expensive equipment, therefore it is imperative that the Volunteer Chief gain all the knowledge he possibly can to do his job efficiently and intelligently. To that end there are many ways he can study his job in addition to the knowledge he gains by experience. There are many schools to assist him, text books, journals, firemen`s training courses, and the assistance of the many big-hearted Chiefs of city departments, as well as several intentional organizations ….” [Allen H. Clark, chief of the Lakefield (Ont.) Fire Department, June 1939] n


A fire that started in the executive office in the White House, Washington, D.C., caused damages of about $60,000. Note the holes in the roof made by firefighters. (January 22, 1930)

First closed body fire truck placed in service in Charlotte, N.C.


The German Zeppelin Hindenburg burned, taking the lives of 11 passengers and 21 crew members. Twenty-eight passengers and 49 of the crew escaped. “No one seemed to know just how the fire started, and there were many conflicting accounts.”

“The ship was in the command of Captain Max Pruss, who had worked with Count von Zeppelin in 1911 and had made 170 flights ….

“As the boat reached the station at Lakehurst [New Jersey], a sharp thunderstorm came up. At 7:20 p.m., two lines were dropped from the bow of the ship to the ground crew, consisting of a crew of trained naval men and one of trained civilians. The engines were put in reverse to prevent the ship from over-shooting the mooring mast. The port motor backfired. Suddenly flames broke out from the port stern gondola. In an instant the rear half of the ship was aflame, and the fire spread with amazing rapidity through the hydrogen filled bag. The steel framework buckled and the flaming monster settled to earth. As it did, passengers started jumping from the windows. Little could be saved ….” (June 1937)

The ground crew rushes toward the Hindenburg as it crashes to earth in Lakehurst, New Jersey, on May 6, 1937.



“A tower 180 feet high and 450 feet above the level of San Francisco Bay has been erected atop Telegraph Hill, San Francisco, Cal., by the estate of the late Lillian Hitchcock Coit in memory of the volunteer firemen of that city. It is called the Coit Memorial.

“The City Planning Committee is preparing an ordinance to limit the height of buildings on all sides of Telegraph Hill so that the tower may be seen and the view from the balcony unblocked. Ground for the tower was broken on January 23, 1933, during appropriate ceremonies. The base structure is seventy-three feet square. The tower is forty feet in diameter at the base and 2.5 feet in diameter at the top. It was erected at a cost of $125,000. It will be illuminated by floodlights so that the tower may be visible miles out at sea at night. The tower will also serve as a beacon for flyers ….” (C. W. Geiger, January 1934)


The new one-hour oxygen breathing apparatus for firefighting and rescue work, manufactured by Bishinger-Koehler Manufacturing Company in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is available in two styles. One is a mouth-breathing type with nose clip and mouth piece; the other is a face-piece type, similar in most respects to a gas mask face-piece, for face protection. The device, which weighs less than 25 pounds, contains a new reducing valve mechanism, invented by F. W. Koehler, and has only four moving parts. (November 1935)



“In my mind Fire Departments are comparable to armies and when at rest or off the field of battle, it is incumbent upon the board of strategy to propound hypothetical fire-fighting maneuvers, so that the enemy–Fire–may be well met and thoroughly defeated. Soldiers do not sharpen their swords when the battle is raging; neither can Fire Departments repair their equipment or train their personnel while the fire is in progress.” [“Spending the Time Between Fires,” Anthony J. Mullany, deputy chief fire marshal, Chicago (IL) Fire Department, January 1938]


“Men have been badly scalded by wearing asbestos suits over wet clothing. Intense heat causes steam; the wetter the clothes, the more steam there is.” (Fire Facts, Otis Smith, July 1937)


The theme of Anthony J. Mullany, deputy chief/fire marshal, Chicago (IL) Fire Department, was that “members of the fire department may engage in many useful activities to fill in waiting [“between fire alarms”] time.” These activities, he suggested, would have fire department officers and men spend this time in “mutual improvement and in preparation for more useful service to the community of which they form a part.”

To Mullany, the question should be, How can a fire department, taken either as a whole or as individuals, give even greater service to the citizens and taxpayers who, by taxation, maintain these departments?

Among the activities he suggested, in order of his priority, were the following:

“Drill, execute and practice evolutions which are now considered standard by the various Fire Departments throughout the country. These evolutions should include hose drills, fire extinguisher and hand pump drills, ladder raising and climbing, placing the pumper in service at hydrant, well, cistern, lake, pond or river. Extension drill in the proper use of the axe is of great value.”

“Special study should be made of the necessities and mistakes of all types of ventilation, including cross ventilation, roof ventilation, basement ventilation and ventilation assisted by such mechanical devices as the smoke ejector and gas mask.” “A detailed practical and regular course of study in building construction ….”

“Study water flow through the various types of fire hose used in actual service of fighting fire. Of all the factors entering into the activities of a Fire Department, here, perhaps, is found the greatest lack of knowledge ….”

“… first aid. Here too, a course of daily instruction and drill should be outlined and then zealously complied with ….”

“Study causes of explosions of all types and the conditions under which they occur. In this category come explosions of illuminating gas, flammable vapors, dust of all kinds including chocolate, sugar, corn starch, flour, grain, soy bean; refrigerating gas, wood dust, aluminum and bronze powders, and so on down the long list of materials and by-products that have, in recent years, caused many mystifying disasters which have taken a heavy toll of life and property.”

“… fire prevention: a study program of several years` duration can easily be laid out. Here, again, the value of a regularly timed and well arranged program of study is obvious.”

“Valuable and interesting, indeed, is the subject of perfecting the fireman`s knowledge of electricity from a fire department viewpoint, with special emphasis on the handling of charged wires of various voltages during fires and at other times, when live wires endanger life and property.”

“… the study, discussion and formation of a comprehensive plan of aid which the fire department can render during the time of great public disasters, such as floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, epidemics, civil riot, commotion, earthquakes or even when food or water supplies are cut off.”

“Inspections of homes, public buildings, schools, churches, theatres, hospitals, institutions and factories is another valuable study …” (preventing and controlling fire and resultant loss of life and familiarization with the physical arrangements of such buildings, so that in event of fire, department members may have first hand knowledge of the contents, construction, processes carried on within the premises, locations of stairs, fire escapes, elevators, sprinkling systems, standpipes, fire pumps and gravity tanks).

“Officers might well study opinions handed down by local and state courts toward the end of learning why certain fire prevention and building regulations have been invalidated while others were upheld.”

“Chemistry, the modern gasoline engine, types of pumps used by fire departments, fire drills, watchmen`s school, fire prevention for school children, layout of private fire departments, fire detecting systems, fire alarm systems and many other like topics.” (“Many Useful Activities That the Members of the Fire Department May Engage in to Fill in Waiting Time,” January 1938)



“This fall FIRE ENGINEERING celebrates its sixtieth birthday. And what a revolutionary period those sixty years have proven to be in the fire service! The rise and decline of the steam fire engine occurred within that period. The introduction of motor apparatus and the complete motorization of the fire service, too, came within those years, as well as the birth of the closed body fire truck and the advent of power raised aerial ladders and of metal aerial ladders ….

“On this, our Sixtieth Anniversary, we take pleasure in rededicating ourselves to continued im-provement of the fire service and all it represents.” (Fred. Shepperd, With the Editor, October 1937)


“That the Fire Department is especially fitted, both in equipment and trained personnel, to serve in emergencies where human life is at stake cannot be questioned. The daily routine of operations is such as to develop in the firemen the skill and the self reliance to work calmly and efficiently under stress.

“The Fire Department alone is provided with the necessary equipment to perform rescue work, whether it be in connection with fire fighting, wrecks, building collapse or other accidents. Its men alone are trained in the operation of its equipment …. Rescue work should remain under control of the Fire Department, where it belongs!” (June 1937)


“Rescue squads, or companies, in Fire Departments whose principal duties are those pertaining to rescue work, are found in practically all of our large cities today, but there are comparatively few such squads or companies maintained in the Fire or Police Departments of our smaller cities, towns, and villages …. Since it is true that unexpected accidents, often resulting fatally, do happen in small as well as in large cities, to me it is axiomatic that all cities, small as well as large, should provide arrangements and facilities to prevent, in as great degree as possible, these accidents from resulting fatally …. The call and need for rescue work is just as urgent, though not as frequent, in our small cities, towns, and villages as it is in our largest cities ….” (“Rescue Squads in Small Cities,” Edward T. Miles, chief of fire department, Newport, Kentucky, April 1932)

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