BURNING UP $250,000,000 A YEAR
It is only in the last two centuries that the world has given much and continued thought to preventing the ills of mankind. Its energy was spent in curing the ill after its ravages destroyed lives or property. The medical profession led the way in the science of prevention, and its best talents have for years been devoted to that phase of medical work. In the early part of the 19th Century, the cotton mills of New England were frequently destroyed by fire, to which this industry in its earlier stages was very susceptible, and the mill owners sought preventative methods which, in time, developed the use of “Mill Construction” for factory building, “automatic sprinklers,” “fire walls” and many devices used to-day in fire extinguishment and fire prevention. Fire extinguishment has occupied a large place in the affairs of men for centuries, but fire prevention is a modern science that calls for the combined services of the architect, the engineer, the builder, the chemist, the lawmaker, the police powers of the State for enforcement of laws, the public schools and press, the lecture room, and all other means of education and publicity. It is none too soon for the American nations to find a remedy for the tremendous fire waste of this Continent, a waste that is most complete, for the lost lives, maimed bodies and property destroyed are never again replaced. It has been estimated that the actual fire loss of the United States and Canada is approximately $250,000,000 each year for many years past and this is deemed a conservative figure. The establishment and upkeep of fire departments, water supplies, and cost of fire insurance have been estimated to equal in value the property destroyed by fire each year—thus these nations have borne an annual tax of not less than $500,000,000 year in and year out, as the price of ignorance and apathy in this matter of fire prevention. Each year the people of these nations have imposed on themselves a tax so great that with it a Panama Canal could be built and paid for. Fire insurance is as necessary to the business world as credit—in fact fire insurance is credit, for the beneficiary of an insurance policy in nearly every case receives payment far in excess of any premiums he mav have paid, and the surplus is a credit received from the vast army of premium payers, through the insurance companies. Thus the enormous tax of the fire waste is so distributed that it is not apparent to the ordinary observer. That fire insurance is also an indirect tax may be seen, for from the time the cotton is picked in the field, through every process of manufacture until sold to the consumer, and even when purchased as clothes and hung up in a closet, it is insured, and the cost of the insurance is added to the costs of production when determining the selling price. So too in the construction and maintenance of a building; it is insured, and the rent is determined by a fair return on the investment plus maintenance and insurance. None can escape this tax. except that the need for it be removed by reduction of the fire losses. From the day that fire extinguishment was made the serious work of a lifetime, rather than the occasional duty of the volunteer, fire prevention has been the handmaiden of fire fighting, for the man who had the serious work of fighting fire as his daily task learned from each fire some lesson to make his future work easier by either preventing similar fires occurring in the future, or limiting the opportunity of fire to spread if it occur from like causes. The words of the earlier fire chiefs were not heard when they spoke of fire prevention measures, as it was deemed that the architect and builder were the men to solve such problems, but this was a mistake, for the architect and builder seldom saw a building wreck after a fire, except to remove it as quickly as possible, for time is money. The fire chiefs “on the job” saw what happened to granite and stone foundations when attacked by fire and then hose streams. It was the fire chief who saw a sevenstory factory, 200 feet square, without a division wall, become a smoking wreck in forty-five minutes, and this in the heart of New York City with a fire department second to none, doing its best to save the building. These are the men who have clamored for better construction changes in building laws to safeguard life and property and reduce the “Ash 1 leap” of the American Continent. In later years a change has come about and in nearly every community having a paid fire department, the chief has a place in the Counsels of the Community when considering the laws and ordinances relative to construction and safeguarding of buildings from fire. European visitors have frequently remarked the excellence of the average fire department in Canada and the United States, and wondered why the western nations excelled the European firemen generally. It was the same reason that made the average man on the plains a better shot than the average man in the city; more practice and greater need. Our faults of building construction and personal carelessness had been counterbalanced in some manner. To-day the progressive Chief of a Fire Department feels the need of fire prevention work to be as great as that of fire extinguishment, for preventing fires means fewer fires, saving of lives, less interruption of business, and fewer homes destroyed.
Campaign of Education for Fire Prevention.
There are many things to do to make fire prevention a success; the first and greatest is a campaign of education to impress on each individual in a community his or her personal responsibility for a fire occurring as a result of carelessness pure and simple. In almost every building there is some spot where rubbish is piled and where discarded articles are stored in such a way that they form ideal bonfires if a spark touches them. In every large city the number of fires that occur from the careless use of matches, open lights, cigars and cigarettes are enormous, and the acts of carelessness with these articles are legion. The arrangements and use of stoves and heaters too near unprotected woodwork, storage of hot ashes in wooden receptacles, improper use of kerosene and volatile oils. In New York City during the year 1914, more than 8,000 fires occurred from the causes I have here enumerated, and every one of them preventable by using a little care. Carefulness is a moral quality and you can never legislate it into the individual—you must teach it to him. Of course, we can have legislation that will punish the careless one, but we don’t want to wait until every careless act has been punished to bring about our reform of the fire waste. I dwell strongly on the matter of education for several reasons, chief of which is that a careful body of men can operate a powder-mill in a frame building for an indefinite period of time without a fire occurring, if sufficient care is exercised, while on the other hand in the year 1911, in New York City, 146 lives were lost by fire in a building admitted to be of fireproof construction except for the wooden floors and trim, neither of which contributed materially to the origin or spread of the fire. The building had adequate standpipes and hose, and the business carried on was women’s shirtwaists. This fire, like thousands of others, was caused by an act of carelessness, throwing away a lighted cigarette. The fire that destroyed the Equitable Building in New York City where a chief officer lost his life, as well as some of the employees of the building, was caused by someone’s carelessly throwing away a lighted match. Now the means of education arc obviously the schools, the lecture centres, the Boards of Trade, the Manufacturers’ Associations, the Merchants’ Associations, the Public Press, and all means available to bring the matter home to the people. There can be no ceasing in this campaign of education for our people are prone to forget; so much so, that to save their eternal souls they have to be preached to at least once a week, and in some denominations oftener. There are other reasons why the campaign of education is so necessary in the elimination of the fire waste. In New York City a record has been kept monthly and consolidated each year, showing in what class of buildings fires occurred, and at what point in the building the fire started. This report, both monthly and yearly, shows that more than sixty per cent, of all fires occur in the homes of the people. We do not hesitate to enter a store, a factory or hotel and order the removal of rubbish, the safeguarding of a dangerous condition, the providing of fire extinguishing appliances, or the ceasing of a dangerous practice, because these places arc “affected with a public interest,” and the police power of the state unhesitatingly compels obedience. But in the homes of the people we have a different proposition. We have inherited an Anglo-Saxon civilization based on personal liberty and the sacrcdness of a man’s home, and the State pauses on its threshold, and only crossing it, without permission, when a felony has been committed, or pestilence is within. Therefore, the people in their homes may only be reached by education.
Adequate Building Code.
Our next step is to secure adequate Building Codes suitable for the needs of each community, —not too radical, but giving an adequate and reasonable protection. The storage, sale, transportation and use of combustibles and explosive materials has entered largely in the affairs of our cities, and suitable regulations governing these matters are necessary. The scope of such regulations will naturally vary with needs of the different communities. New York City has an elaborate set of ordinances on this subject and well it might, for the daily use of dynamite in that city is many tons, to say nothing of the thousands of gallons of gasoline. The safeguarding of these necessary, but if uncontrolled, destructive materials, taxes the ingenuity of our best men, and new means of controlling or minimizing the dangers accompanying the use of the foregoing articles are welcomed by every Fire Chief. A Fire Prevention Code should have good housekeeping provisions regarding the removal of rubbish; safeguarding lights and fires, prohibition of smoking in factories, the closing of trap doors, elevator doors, iron shutters, etc., after the closing of business each day. A good practice for every business house is to clean up the premises at the close of each day’s work, as such cleaning will result in a complete and minute inspection of the premises at a time when most needed, as most fires occur after closing, together with the removal of what is most liable to cause fire. In some of the largest cities the theatres are the best protected buildings. Theatres need ample exits first; then, if practicable, to be of fireproof construction, with ample means of fighting fire; sprinklers over stage; under stage in shops and dressing rooms; asbestos curtains; automatic skylights over stage. Public buildings generally should have ample exits. In every state and every large city there should be one or more persons whose duty would be to investigate the causes of fires and reasons for their spread; not only for the purpose of detecting fires of criminal origin, but to accumulate the data so necessary for basing a line of action in Fire Prevention work generally. Arson is the crime peculiar to American cities of large size. Its motive is generally gain,—sometimes for revenge, and committed often by the mentally deficient. Where the motive is gain, or where committed by the mentally deficient, it is most difficult to prove, as the evidence is generally destroyed by the fire.
Needs of Communities.
It has been my aim to present to you principles rather than methods, for every community has needs peculiar to itself, and the best method for meeting such needs can be devised on the home ground by the Chief of the Fire Department. The smaller cities and towns do not require the extensive and detailed provisions of law, for their adequate protection, that are required in a metropolis. The Chief of a Fire Department has a man’s sized job, and must combine in his work as a fire fighter some knowledge of building construction, of chemistry, of law. of sound business methods, of the educator and lecturer. He must apply himself constantly to his problems if he hopes to accomplish his share in the reduction of our great annual fire loss. It is not an impossible task, and it sets squarely on the shoulders of each Chief of a Fire Department. For forty-seven years the fire loss of New York City showed a steady and gradual increase until the year 1911, when it totaled $12,500,000. In two years (1913) the fire loss had been brought down to $7,400,000, and there were 2,078 fires less in 1913 than there were in 1912. It demonstrated that, rightly directed, Fire Prevention can prevent fires.