CHIEF CLEARED OF CHARGE OF INCOMPETENT HANDLING OF FIRE
Jay W. Stevens Conducts Investigation Which Exonerates Chief of Salt Lake City Department
FIRE, on May 19, destroyed the Victory Theatre at Salt Lake City, Utah. Shortly after fire fighting forces started operations, the balcony in the theatre collapsed, killing three members of the department.
A special citizens’ committee conducted an investigation of the fire, and submitted a report to the City Commission. The Commission, after reviewing the report, reduced the fire chief to the rank of captain. The report stated that the three firemen who met death in the collapse of the balcony at the theatre lost their lives “due to negligence of superior officers in active charge of combating the fire.”
Mayor Ab. Jenkins did not approve the action of the Commission, and called in Jay W. Stevens to make an independent investigation.
After his investigation, Chief Stevens appeared before the Commission and exonerated the fire department of negligence and incompetence.
This report, which was the result of examining some eighty-five witnesses and conferring with other investigators, in addition to making a thorough study on the ground with all important witnesses, cointained the following conclusions:
“Except for the fact that loss of life occurred, this fire was not unusual and might have occurred in any city. Similar fires are occurring nearly every day in various sections of the country. However, several factors stand out as contributing to the loss of life, as well as the total loss of the building, namely:
- “The alarm was delayed from an hour and half to possibly eight hours.
- “When the fire department arrived, its attention was directed by workmen already on the ground to the fire in the floor, whereas the serious portion of the fire was a blind fire in the space under the balcony floor.
- “Most of the early arriving officers were serving in an ‘acting’ capacity, and all companies were undermanned.
- “The construction of the building was such as to contribute to its collapse. The enormous weight concentrated in the projection room, having for its support only the balcony floor, brought the rear portion down very much sooner than would normally be expected.
Prompt Response to Alarm
“The fire department arrived promptly after the alarm was given; the first streams were properly placed, and considering the size and location of the building, the acting battalion chief made a fairly rapid size-up and ordered a general alarm within nine minutes.
“The inadequate support for the extremely heavy projection room booth was weakened, causing the collapse of the rear portion of the balcony, which resulted in the death of the three firemen, just thirty minutes after the first fire officer reached the fire. After the collapse attention was centered on the rescue, permitting the fire to gain great headway.
Photo by A. Hardy
“Without minute knowledge of the construction of the building, especially the projection booth with its heavy concrete floor, it was reasonable to assume that the balcony would give protection to the firemen, even though the roof should collapse. The testimony bears proof that no officer or fireman at the fire had knowledge of the location, and certainly not the extent of the blind fire in the concealed balcony space, until a very few minutes before the collapse. No one hard warning or suspicion of a collapse.
“While the operation of the fire department at this fire was not perfect, it was as good as could be expected, especially considering present-day conditions which exist in almost every fire department in the country, undermanned as they are, and with a large percentage of new, insufficiently trained and inexperienced personnel. At the time when the training officer was most needed, he was loaned full time to another agency. The pay of firemen, as contrasted to industry, also has its effect upon the present-day fire department, as it has on all other civilian organizations.
“As after every fire when the smoke clears and excitement subsides, a close study discloses facts which if known beforehand would have called for a different strategy, but after examining some eighty-five witnesses and conferring with other investigators, and having made a thorough study of the ruins on the ground with all the important witnesses, it seems certain that neither the fire department as a whole, nor any of its officers in particular, are entitled to special criticism for the handling of this fire.”
Chief Stevens castigated the Commission for their action in demoting the fire chief. He said: “I think the action taken by this body in reducing the chief without charges and without a chance to come before the body and refuting the report was the most cowardly thing I have heard of . . . absolutely unfair . . . and certainly not American.”
Following the report of Chief Stevens, the Commission members, apparently reversing themselves, asserted that their action was not based on the belief that there was negligence on the part of high officers at the Victory Theatre fire.