Bill Brosnan, Chief Extraordinary
An Introduction to the Life Work of a Man Who Has Demonstrated That Fire Prevention Can Be Practised Each Day of the Year
IT is the philosophy of Dennis W. Brosnan, Fire Chief Extraordinary, that efficiency doesn’t just happen.
In Albany, Ga., where the Rotary Club made him its President in 1936, he is “Bill” to hundreds of friends, and he still is “Bill” at annual conventions of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, of which he was President in 1931-32.
Albany is known in national fireprevention and fire insurance circles as the “fireless city.” It is not a big city; the 1940 census probably will shows its population under 25,000, yet it is big enough to have won more national fire awards than any other city, large or small, in the United States. It won five class awards and two grand awards given by the Chamber of Commerce of the United States, finally withdrawing from competion “lest we seem hoggish,” as Chief Brosnan put it.
But progress in fire prevention in Albany did not stop with withdrawal from contests for Chamber of Commerce of the United States trophies, as witness the fact that Albany’s finest year’s record in fire prevention was made in 1936. Total insurance carried on buildings and contents in Albany in that year ran into many millions, but the total fire loss was only $2,485. That bettered a continuous record of improvement which began nearly 20 years ago.
It was in 1911 that Dennis Brosnan became Chief of the Albany Fire Department. Before that he had been ordinary fireman and Assistant Chief, and had been in Uncle Sam’s railway mail service.
Nobody seemed very much interested when the new Chief announced that if it was a Fire Department’s business to pour water on fires to prevent them from spreading, it was a much more important duty to keep them from starting.
“The fire that never starts will never get out of control,” he told his firemen. “From now on we’re going to fight fires before they’re born. I believe with all my heart in that sort of birth control.”
Reprinted from “The Rotarian”
He went to the local press, to the schools, to the Chamber of Commerce, to the merchants’ associations, to the civic clubs, to the insurance agents, to the churches, and to the fraternal orders.
“We have too many fires,” he told a hundred audiences. “They are expensive, and a reflection on our intelligence. Fires not only destroy property; they also endanger human life. They are public enemies—a hazard we ought to control!”
Progress was slow at first. Albany’s fire loss in the 10-year period from 1915 to 1925 was $3.40 per capita, but from 1925 to 1935 it dropped to 70 cents, ft continues to drop—it was a measly 14 cents last year.
Albany Reaps Profits
Today Albany enjoys the lowest fire insurance rates in the Southeast, and they are justified by the underwriters’ experience. Progressive reduction of rates represents an annual saving to property owners amounting to several times the cost of maintaining the Fire Department.
What does “fire prevention” mean? To “Bill” Brosnan it means thinking ahead, being “hardboiled,” playing no favorites, never allowing to wear off the novelty of stopping fires before they start, never taking for granted that a fire cannot start anywhere. Every hour of every night in the year a fireman in uniform makes the rounds of the Albany business district. He flashes his light through the glass doors of stores and shops. He has keys which admit him to cotton warehouses, and these he patrols “with his nose in the air” for the smell of fire. Time and again has this watchfulness been rewarded by the “smelling out” of a bale of cotton with fire smoldering within. It may be necessary to move 50 bales in order to reach the one bale that threatens a $100,000 blaze, but such things are all in the night’s work in this “fireless” town’s business section.
That sort of alertness also discourages incendiarism. While any kind of a fire, no matter what its origin, hurts Chief Brosnan’s pride, an incendiary blaze makes him fighting mad.
“If I get suspicious of some fellow who seems to want a fire, I keep watch on his place of business, and manage to let him know I’m watching. I do that as much for his own protection, as for the sake of other property owners and the insurance companies. I’d hate to be responsible for his being sent to the penitentiary.” So says this Chief, who believes that a job well done must be thoroughly done.
But it is only fair to mention the Chief’s tribute to his home town’s citizenship.
“Today,” he said recently in addressing a local gathering, “Albany people are definitely fire prevention minded. They really stand guard over their own and their neighbor’s property. They are proud of their community’s fire record, and the fact that there is such a record is evidence of fine citizenship. You can’t make a velvet purse out of a sow’s ear, and you can’t have a fireless town without a high-minded citizenship.”
Years ago Chief Brosnan asked the City Commission to make him building inspector and give him a stricter building code—not because he wanted another job, but because improperly constructed buildings are apt to become fire hazards. He personally issues all building permits and inspects all construction.
Fire drills in Albany schools are always in order, and greater emphasis is placed on protection of life than on protection of property. In all the years of the Brosnan crusade to make a burning building a novelty in his town, no life has been lost as the result of a fire, and not in years has a blaze originating in one building reached another building.
Of course, Albany maintains a model Fire Department. The municipal water supply is adequate, trucks, and pumping machinery are of the best, the telegraph alarm system covers the entire city, and firemen are put through rigorous training. The City Commission will elect no firemen not nominated by the Chief, and many members of the organization have years of service behind them.
(Concluded on page 548)
Brosnan, Chief Extraordinary
(Continued from page 543)
What “Bill” Brosnan has demonstrated in Albany is that one man with unlimited enthusiam can galvanize an entire community into zealous cooperation. For 20 years he has been a crusader for fewer and less costly fires. Every year the firstgrade children in the public schools are introduced to the fire-prevention program, which is as enthusiastically carried on today as it was two decades ago. And “Bill” Brosnan gives freely of his time to spreading the gospel of fire prevention in other communities—from Philadelphia to the Pacific, in Canada, Mexico, Cuba. He has participated in and conducted fire schools in half a dozen States.
Infectious enthusiasm is the impressive thing about this fire fighter, who believes in stopping fires before they start, and who, presently, will be asking the fire insurance companies why Albany’s rates should not be still further reduced.
“A crank on the subject of not having fires” is Chief Brosnan. He admits that. But when a fire does break out. he is on the job with the courage and energy of a tiger.
Last February, flames broke out in an Albany cold storage plant. Brosnan led four men carrying a hose into a room—where, one by one, they collapsed due to carbon monoxide and chlorine. The men were dragged to an elevator where Brosnan. though choked by gas, managed to operate the lift. Eventually, the fire was extinguished with little loss other than by smoke. The Chief was on the job until the flames were under control, then submitted to being taken to a hospital.
That’s “Bill” Brosnan prouder of the fact that in the quarter of a century of his fire chieftainship no life has been lost and no citizen has been injured in an Albany fire, than he is of the bronze trophies his work has brought to his city or his medals. They would cover his chest —if he ever would wear them.