CHIEF MEIER OF AMSTERDAM, ON THE AMERICAN FIRE SERVICE
One of the foreign visitors to the chiefs’ convention at New York last September was Chief J. Meier of Amsterdam, Holland. After his return home, he was interviewed by a local newspaper relative to his American trip and the following is what was said:
The general opinion would be that the “Yankees” are above all practical people and that the American fire service, taking an inspiration from this quality, has introduced all the modern perfections, therby giving a European the opportunity to learn many new things during a stay amongst them. It may astonish a great many persons, but according to President Meier, this is not the case by any manner of means.
“How does this come about?”
“Several reasons must be taken into consideration, but the European fire service, speaking generally, is more modern than that of New York and of other cities of the United States. The Americans, even though they may be practical, have a very high opinion of themselves. They are convinced that no nation exists which surpasses them, none which shines like them in intelligence and inventive ideas, so much that if anyone should discover a new idea in Europe, they would hesitate to apply it in America.
An irrefutable example of this peculiar state of mind consists in the fact that in the American fire department they do not as yet possess any automobiles, whereas in Europe they have been in service in the large cities for more than ten years, especially in Amsterdam, where thy have been in use since 1903. They do have automobile transports, but their number is so small that you need hardly mention them.”
“How is this possible,” we asked of Commandant Meier; “is it because they have no money?”
“Don’t you think any such thing,” was the answer. “Why shouldn’t they have money in America? Wny there is plenty of it in the United States, where they spend on an average five to eight times more per capita than in Europe. New York City, with 5,000,000 inhabitants, spends annually the bagatelle of 50,000,000f. for its Fire Department, almost as much as our war budget. Just think, Amsterdam, with its 600,000 inhabitants, does not even spend l,000,000f. Therefore New York spends fifty times more, and in proportion to its population almost six times more for its fire service.”
“Are the losses caused by fire less over there than here.”
“Not at all, the losses are proportionately much greater, which is caused principally by their being much vaster.”
“Well, how docs this come about?”
“Well, this is again a typical example of my statement that the Americans do not follow modern tendencies in the matter of fire service Up to a few months ago the Americans did absolutely nothing for fire prevention, which with us on the contrary is the principal branch of the service. I have charge of the construction of buildings devoted to dangerous industries, etc., etc. What do you say to all those pamphlets on my desk—every one of them treats of fire prevention. New York has only recently created this service, and it is only after the I. A. F. E. Convention that they are going to take up the organization of the automobile service of which we spoke before, as well as the subject of fire prevention. The reason why this was not done before is due to the enormous fire risks of American cities.
“At this time the insurance companies are occupying themselves actively with the question of fire prevention, for I had occasion to be received among insurance circles and I can affirm that these gentlemen are apt to succeed.” ,
“But they will not have the sanction of the government, will they?”
“That is true, but they succeeded in laying -down the law that if you do not do as they say they will not insure you any more, or they will raise the premium.”
“Is there any way to give us any figures pertaining to the raising of the risk?”
“You can form some idea of this if I tell you that the insurance premiums on houses are practically double of what they are here. The reason that they have not come to change this state of affairs any sooner is probably due to a cause which is allied to the political life of the people, and which you cannot grasp very easily. This concerns the entire organization of the fire department as follows: At the head of the body of firemen of each city are found two men. The first is the fire fighter, his title showing sufficiently what his functions are. He has charge of the extinction of fires and of the technical conduct of the department. The other is the fire commissioner, a more elevated rank than the fire fighter. On him devolve the complet organization, the appointments and the general administration, and it is this organization which is so faulty. The commissioner is not a man of his profession, but a political personage. He is named by the Mayor in his quality of political adherent of the latter. The Mayor is elected by the people as a candidate of a certain party. Naturally the Mayor names a candidate who during the political battle preceding his election has openly entered the fight for the Mayor’s candidacy. In New York you find at the head of the fire service a newspaper man, who knew nothing about fire service, but whose duty it was from time to time to report fires. Heaven only knows how many political articles he must have written before becoming fire commissioner. You will see a most remarkable thing over there, and that is that the fire commissioner recommends in conventions and in the newspapers the candidacy of the Mayor and supports him with a powerful party. If, for example, as was the case lately, by the death of the Mayor of New York, a new election does not take place, then the question arises, who is the candidate who will have the help of the fire commissioner, which is of great importance for his chances of election. Isn’t this a remarkable state of aaffirs? Naturally if the Mayor is re-elected, or if the candidate of the commissioner is elected, this one will be able to remain commissioner. That such a method of procedure cannot be of any good to the fire service is very easy to understand, especially when the fire chief, of whom we spoke before has not enjoyed, in the majority of cases, a scientific education, which we absolutely demand in our larger European cities, and one who does not as a rule possess practical experience.”
“From your deductions then. Commandant, it appears that in a good many instances they are not up to date in America, but, outside of the facts you have stated, is the service well organized?”
“Certainly, it is even excellent. The number of houses, engines and men is very large, and one can only speak in terms of praise of the organization, of the various houses, of the apparatus and of the men. By means of a rapid fire alarm system the most powerful apparatus and a large number of firemen arc brought to the scene of action, within a very short time, and the courage displayed— although sometimes exaggerated and hence the cause of accidents—in fighting the fires, is really very great. If in spite of this enormous and powerful apparatus and the great number of men (New York having about 5.000 firemen) it often happens that in that immense city they have very large fires, this has certainly nothing to do with the manner in which fires are fought, but is due to the tremendous risks, of which we here can have no idea. The fault which is committed,. as I have said before, consists in the toleration of these risks, for up to now they have not concerned themselves sufficiently with fire prevention nor with the correct construction of buildings.”
“How is it that our American colleagues never come to Europe?”
“Up to the present time it has been a very rare exception, but we hope that it will soon become a reality. As you knows we have over here an International Fire Service Council, of which I have the honor to be president, and with which the various fire departments of European countries are affiliated. During my stay in America the chiefs of several of the larger cities joined our association, and they intend to be present at our next congress, which will take place in Copenhagen in 1915, and to visit the principal cities of Europe. They can then convince themselves very effectively that we are more advanced than they are.”
“You were, no doubt, well received?”
“My reception all over was most cordial, and I can only speak of it in the highest praise.”