Checking Up On Unknown Fire Causes

Checking Up On Unknown Fire Causes

A Careful Investigation Would Often Discover the Origin—Need Not Produce Criminal Charge to Make Search for Cause Worth While

INSPECTION, re-inspcction and still more inspection,” is the remedy given in the following paper for the fire conditions that disgrace this country and Canada and cause the enormous losses that are so unnecessary. While written from the Canadian standpoint Commissioner Heath’s article is equally applicable to the United States.

The acts under which fire investigations are conducted set forth the objects of those investigations to be the determining of the cause or origin of fires, but in addition to this, there is a great deal of valuable and interesting information to be learned which does not, strictly speaking, come under these headings, but which is of vital interest to fire prevention.

Experience has shown us that where we can be on the scene of the fire immediately after the alarm is given, we are able to procure much more valuable information, but of necessity this is usually impossible so that complete co-operation between the fire commissioner’s department and the fire brigade is most essential, and since the fire brigade is busy extinguishing the fire, and consequently have not much opportunity of noting important facts till after their own operations are completed, co-operation of the police department is also essential. We have found that since they are also interested in much the same questions as we are, we have no difficulty in obtaining as much co-operation from the fire departments as. and when, their duties will permit, but we have difficulty in interesting the police departments in the questions that lead to successful fire investigations and usually they have the time and the opportunity to collect a great deal of valuable information that would simplify the solution of many of the problems confronting the investigator.

Need Not Necessarily Produce Criminal Charge

There seems to be a popular impression that, if an investigation fails to produce at least a criminal charge in the case of a suspicious lire, the investigation has been of no value; that this is not so has frequently been impressed upon me. I have in mind a rural district, largely occupied by foreigners of various nationalities, where fires resulting in total losses became very popular, and the only suspicious circumstances about them appeared to be their frequency. Three months after one of these fires occurred we received a letter from a foreigner stating that the owner had stripped the buildings of sheeting. windows, doors, etc., and had set lire to them, and that the wind had been from such a direction that it would have been impossible for one building to catch fire from the other one. We instituted a very rigid investigation and secured a great deal of very valuable information which resulted in a charge of arson being laid, which I was convinced would be successful, but a conviction was not obtained; however, not a single fire occurred in that district again for many months, and this form of popular amusement and profit has practically ceased in so far as that district is concerned.

Little Excuse for Leaving Cause Unassigned

All statistics of fires show a very large number of fires from “unknown causes.” Experience has led our department to conclude that there are very few cases where there is any excuse for leaving the cause unassigned. An investigator with ordinary common sense can almost invariably at least arrive at the probable cause by the process of elimination if he will take the trouble to investigate. We find that most of the “unknown causes” occur where the losses are small and the company representative concludes that it is easier and cheaper to pay. with only a casual investigation, than to take the time to arrive at a definite conclusion a> to the cause. “Cause unknown” covers a multitude of sins and 1 am convinced costs the insurance companies a great deal of money which in fact the public pays.

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Lessons From Fire Investigations

The lessons to be learned from fire investigations are innumerable, but by and large there are two outstanding ones:

1—That we are, all of us. particularly on this Continent, an inexcusably careless lot of people; ninety per cent, of all our fires are easily preventable if we realized what our popular pastime is costing us, and if we would take the trouble to think intelligently what the conditions, that we allow to exist all around us, must inevitably lead to. An experienced fire investigator and inspector cannot possibly be surprised at the large number of fires and the enormous cost thereof. What must surprise him is how in the world we get away with it, without frequent conflagrations.

What a Winnipeg Business Man Saw

Take a walk down the lane behind the largest and most valuable business premises in any of our towns and cities, and you will find buildings worth thousands, yes, hundreds of thousands of dollars, filled with hundreds or thousands of employees and containing thousands or even millions of dollars worth of merchandise, controlled by sharp, shrewd, wideawake, business men, and what are the surrounding conditions? Dilapidated old relics of former days that have long since degenerated into serious fire menaces; crates and packing cases filled with excelsior and other highly inflammable packing material, piled high against the hack walls of the expensive building awaiting the exit of the busy errand boy with the carelessly discarded lighted match or cigarette, and then perhaps visualize the miles of blocks of frame buildings with shingle roofs, the majority of which are built within six to ten feet of one another. Those are the conditions which by all the rules of the game should spell conflagration.

The above is not original: it was the audible musings of a prominent business man of Winnipeg who, being late for a meeting cut down a lane at the rear of one of Winnipeg’s principal thoroughfares and who woke up to certain fire hazard conditions with a bang, and was so astounded that he felt constrained to call me up and tell me about it, and now he is a fire prevention fan and one of his favorite pastimes is to take his unsuspecting friends for walks down back lanes, and he has made another discovery, —that some of them hate to he personally conducted down the lane at the rear of their own premises. You will remember that the ostrich hides his head in the sand when danger approaches; too many of us emulate that otherwise worthy bird.

Inspection and More Inspection Cure

2-—That tlie cure for these deplorable fire hazard conditions, that are all too prevalent all over America, is inspection, re-inspection, and still more inspection, and that is where fire departments can and do perform a signal public service. It seems to me, however, that the public service rendered by fire departments in the way of inspection of premises could be considerably increased with advantage to the efficiency of the departments and with improved service to the public, if every member of a brigade were, as far as possible, required to so inspect the district to which he is required to turn out on a first alarm, that lie will acquire a comprehensive general knowledge of the district and an intimate knowledge of every large building so that he would become familiar with the layout of the buildings, the exits, the fire escapes, and the various standpipes and their connections, and bis life would be much safer when his duty required him to work inside a building during a fire, and a great deal of cleanup work could be accomplished in the way of fire prevention. As it is I understand inspection is usually left to the officers. Might I here suggest that in cities where a fire commissioner’s department exists, fire investigation would be greatly facilitated if members of that department were notified of all second alarms, and as soon as possible, of all fires which appear to be of incendiary origin.

A few examples of actual experiences may here lie of interest and show some of the lessons learned from fire investigations. In an endeavor to ascertain the apparently inexplicable cause of several fires we isolated the stocks that were located at what was supposed to be the starting point of the fires, with no result, until we compared notes on various fires and noticed that an apparently innocent substance, lampblack, was present in them all; we began to suspect lampblack, and when discussing the coincidence with various hardware men we were laughed at; they had handled lampblack for years and were positive that it was absolutely safe.

We had occasion to investigate a rather serious fire reported by all concerned as of undoubtedly incendiary origin. The moral hazard, the financial condition, business depression, and the fire conditions all pointed that way, hut when we found the true starting point of the fire we found two packages of lampblack and the remains of a bottle of coal oil which had been used some months before for marking packing cases; we then submitted the question to the Underwriters’ Laboratory, and the reply was that lampblack was well known to be subject to spontaneous combustion under the proper conditions, being nothing but carbon. Soon afterwards a departmental store reported a case where a package of lampblack which had been used for sign painting was found one morning quietly smouldering away by itself on a window-sill; a steam coil supplied the heat and the moisture and a frosted window supplied the cold; needless to say that departmental store which had stocked lampblack in large quantities for years ceased to carry it, realizing what might have been the result if the combustion had occurred during the night instead of the morning.

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Overheated Steam Pipes and Matches

We have found many cases of fire originating from steam pipes being in contact with wood; the public conception is that this is ridiculous without flame of some kind being present; this is nothing but another case of spontaneous combustion of carbon: during year’s the continual change from heat to cold and from cold to heat liberates the gases in the wood until sufficient carbon is formed, and when the necessary heat, cold and moisture is present under favorable conditions the carbon catches fire, and we have another fire ascribed to electric light or some other “lite.”

We have had a number of very interesting experiences with matches. Some have gone off spontaneously; others have been accidentally dropped; rats have knocked them off high shelving, and others have used them for nesting material, and in many cases the discovery of the true causes has been the means of exploding an apparently certain case of incendiarism. Here I might state that we take as much, if not more, satisfaction in proving that the origin was not incendiarism, as we do in satisfying ourselves that it was incendiarism. I say “ourselves” advisedly, as we have almost ceased to hope to be able to satisfy a jury of a case of incendiarism.

Lessons As to Carelessness Learned From Fires

In fact lessons can be learned from almost every fire which should teach us that we have developed a great many careless and expensive habits; firemen see this every day, but we do not seem yet to have learned how to sufficiently impress the public with this fact. In conclusion let me say that the subject assigned to me is so inexhaustible that I have found great difficulty in deciding how to begin and how to end a discussion of this subject in a paper of this kind.

Those Present at the Meeting of the Chenango County Firemen's Association on September 6

(Excerpts from paper read before the Dominion Associa tion of Fire Chiefs at its annual convention in Vancouver.)

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