City Ordinances in Relation to Fire Prevention
Such Laws Should Supplement and Amplify State Regulations—Various Causes of Fire and Their Control—Strong Building Codes Necessary—Also Personal Liability Laws
I HAVE serious doubts whether I can tell you anything which you do not already know about local ordinances, and their relation to the fire prevention. As representative firemen from all parts of the country, you who are here to attend the twenty-second annual convention of the National Firemen’s Association are up against the fire problem every day of your lives. Some of you have been up against it for years. You have worked under good ordinances and bad ordinances, and some of you perhaps under no ordinances at all. You know from experience the kind of ordinances you ought to have to back you up and make your work effective. You know what you have to contend with when you have good ordinances because of the wire-pulling of the fellows who want to get by.
As a State Fire Marshal, I may perhaps be able to present the matter from a somewhat different viewpoint. Since taking office this subject has been a hobby with me, if such a matter can be called a hobby. I have always contended that permanent results of a far-reaching character cannot be accomplished by a State Fire Marshal without the earnest and hearty co-operation of the local authorities. Effective co-operation of this character involves adequate local regulations, efficiently enforced.
Causes of Fires in 1918
A few weeks ago the National Board of Fire Underwriters published a table showing the detailed losses by fire from all causes in the United States for the year 1918. These are the latest available complete statistics for the entire country. According to this table the total reported losses for 1918 were $283,103,101. Fires of unknown origin caused a loss of $88,035,931. This leaves a balance of $195,067,170 for which the causes were definitely ascertained. Standing out prominently in the list are the following:
Electricity …………………………… $20,780,307
Stoves, furnaces, boilers and their pipes …… 12,234,455
Defective chimneys and flues ………….. 11,985,782
Sparks on roofs ……………………… 6,703,037
Total ……………………………….. $51,703,581
This is 26 per cent. of the total loss from known causes during one year. With the exception of electricity, all fires from these causes are strictly preventable, and those from electricity are largely so.
Seventy-five Per Cent. Preventable
I think it is agreed that 75 per cent. of our fire loss is preventable. Here are four common preventable causes which are directly responsible for 26 per cent., or more than one-third, of the entire preventable loss. It is significant that they are causes which may be easily controlled by local ordinances and are especially the subject of local regulation. Each morning last winter a large pile of fire reports was lying on my desk when I reached the office. It was a little smaller when the weather was moderate, but it never failed to grow larger when there was a cold snap. It was the same story daily from late fall to early spring—sparks on shingle roofs, defective chimneys and defective and overheated stoves, furnaces, boilers and their pipes. It was as if the state was over cast with fire from Galena to Cairo, and the colder the day the redder the glow.
Now is the Time for Stringent Ordinances
Practically all of the fires from defective chimneys, defective heating plants and shingle roofs are in homes. Why people continue to tolerate these conditions year after year, why they will continue to be driven homeless into freezing weather winter after winter, is one of our great American conundrums. They do it and will continue to do it until every city has some very stringent ordinances rigidly enforced, which will stop it. If ever there was a time to have such ordinances it would seem to be now. I will not go into detail as to the housing situation. You know what it is. The important thing is this: With houses almost impossible to secure owing to shortage, and new construction held back by prohibitive prices, we are burning homes at the same old rate and making a critical situation much more so. Sixty-five per cent, of all fires continue to occur in homes. Here would seem to be a fruitful field for some constructive work, yet, aside from those engaged in fire prevention work, it does not seem to have been given a very conspicuous place by the many commissions and others who are trying to get us back to normal conditions.
Shingle Roofs Worst Hazard
Of the hazards mentioned, the worst offender, yet the most easily controlled, is the shingle roof. It is not only a cause of fire, but a cause of conflagration and a conflagration spreader. It has figured prominently in every notable conflagration. It was directly and solely responsible for the proportions assumed by the Nashville conflagration in 1916. After 33 buildings had burned and the firemen had the fire practically under control, burning shingles were carried by the wind, over a clear space of 1,800 feet, where they ignited other shingle roofed frame dwellings. When the last ember was out, 648 buildings were in ashes. In the Atlanta, Ga., conflagration, 80 per cent. of the 1,682 buildings had wooden shingle roofs. At Paris, Texas, 73 per cent of the buildings had combustible roofs. The latest conflagration on record, at Grandview, Texas, March 19, 1920, gives another striking example. (An account of this fire appeared on page 1,044, May 19th ISSUE.—EDITOR.)
Not until all of our cities have outlawed the wooden shingle will they be safe from this danger of conflagration. To date 97 cities in the United States have taken this action, and I am pleased to say that Springfield and Bloomington, Ill., are among them. We are trying to bring about similar action in other cities. Most of the ordinances cover the entire city. A very few apply to the fire limits only or do not take in certain areas. These ordinances fix a date ten to twelve years distant as that on which all existing shingle roofs must be removed and limit repairs on such roofs in the meantime to a certain percentage. You should beware of jokers in this type of ordinance. A clause permitting 100 per cent. repairs seriously weakens the ordinance and should never be permitted. Even 25 per cent. repairs tends to prolong the existence of wooden roofs. It is also unwise to fail to specify the amount of repair permitted, as this leaves the final decision to the city building officials, which opens the way to varying interpretations and leads to possible unjust rulings.
The Chimney and Heating Plant
The chimney and heating plant cannot, of course, be legislated out of existence, nor is that necessary to overcome the hazard. There are certain standards of construction which make them perfectly safe and such standards should be enacted into law in every community. Such regulations, if enforced, together with an annual inspection of every building in the city to detect defects due to wear and tear, ought to control the hazards. (See page 1,035, May 19th, and page 1,080, May 26th issues.—EDITOR.)
My department recently issued a general order setting forth the specifications required for hot air furnaces. We are receiving splendid co-operation from leading furnace manufacturers. We are seeking to have requirements along these lines adopted by the cities of the state, for we realize that this is necessary for effective and widespread results.
Electricity Most Complicated Cause
Electricity is probably the most complicated cause of fire we have to contend with, as well as one of the most serious. In the 1918 figures I referred to at the beginning of this paper, electricity outstripped all other causes as to size of the loss, excepting only exposure and conflagrations. It wiped out property of a value of $20,780,307. This is almost $2,000,000 more than the loss from defective heating plants and sparks on roofs combined. In the four years from 1915 to 1918, inclusive, an increase of $9,643,377 in losses due to electrical fires was shown. This despite the fact that electricity probably has more safeguards thrown around it than any other hazard. During the week of January 12, 1918, an analysis was made by experts of the National Board of Fire Underwriters of all electrical fire causes as the reports were received. A total of 540 reports were received. The results showed that 252, or 46 and two-thirds per cent., of the electrical fires reported during that period were from careless use of electric irons. Eighty-two, or 15.2 per cent. were due to use of flexible cords for extensions. The remaining 206 fires, or 38 per cent., were due to all other electrical hazards combined.
My own experience would indicate that the number of fires due to electric irons ran far above normal for this particular period, but the especial point brought out by the analysis is that the increasing electrical losses are due to two causes which installation under the best of city ordinances does not control. They are: First, increasing use of electrical appliances. Second, misuse of flexible cords for extensions, overfusing of circuits by amateurs and similar practices.
The first cause is a matter of education. The second can be corrected only by persistent inspections. The temptation is great to the amateur electrician and ordinary householder to make extensions with flexible cord and to replace blown fuses with fuses of higher amperage, or, worst of all, to improvise fuses of copper wire, pennies, etc. Such violations of proper practices are not found when you make inspections of new equipment, but are very common in those which have been in use any length of time.
To have a good electrical ordinance is not enough. In addition to the inspection made when the job is passed upon, regular inspections should be made at fairly frequent intervals.
Some Special Hazards Requiring Attention
I now wish to take up for a few moments some of the special hazards which require very particular attention— the public garage, the dry cleaning establishment and the motion picture house. These hazards have developed fast in the last few years, much faster than the regulations designed to safeguard them. As a result we have in almost every city, in addition to the high-class, up-to-date establishments, a large number of such enterprises which have been established and arc conducted with scarcely any regard for the elemental principles of safety. They have located wherever they could find locations. Garages, automobile repair shops and dry cleaning plants are scattered in the various neighborhoods of most cities. They are housed in every conceivable kind of structure, from mere shacks to first-class structures. The growth of these businesses has been accompanied by a woeful lack of knowledge of the very great hazard involved to life and property, and consequently by failure to provide the correct safeguards. Some of the worst of these hazards are often found under apartments housing numbers of people or in the midst of valuable business property. They are like so much dynamite, waiting to be touched off when conditions are just right for an explosion. Likewise we find small movie shows crowding into halls of all sizes and descriptions, with and without proper exit facilities, some of them so constructed that it is practically impossible to provide adequate exits. We still find a variety of booths in these places, although in Illinois, and I think most of the states, the standard booth requirements are being pretty thoroughly complied with. The local requirements with regard to these special hazards should be very specific and should be rigidly inforced.
Importance of Good Building Code
All of what I have alluded to leads up, of course, to the matter of a good building code. I was interested in the article of Chief R. O. Mesnar of Canton, Ohio, in a recent issue of FIRE AND WATER ENGINEERING. After describing the very efficient system of inspection his department maintains and his troubles in connection with it, he states:
We have a building commission and also a building inspector, but it seems there is no building code. At the present time not much attention is paid to building construction on part of the city, and as long as such is the case buildings with unsafe conditions will be erected. With such (proper) regulations put into a building code and the building inspector instructed to see that they are carried out, things will be much safer.
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City Ordinances on Fire Prevention
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There you have the crux of the situation, if you will also add a good electrical ordinance. The hazards I have mentioned are almost entirely a matter of correct construction and installation. Every city can control them by laying down the proper requirements and enforcing them when the permit is applied for and when the job is passed upon for final approval. In connection with this, there should be persistent inspections by members of the fire department for the detection of violations, structural defects and the scores of common hazards which cause fires. I have been especially impressed with results in cities where this plan has been carried out. The larger cities, of course, do this through their fire prevention bureaus. Many cities are securing excellent results by the fire chief, building commissioner and city electrician working together on this work. Every city, large or small, ought to provide for some efficient system of inspection, by ordinance or otherwise. Business and manufacturing property should be inspected at frequent intervals, and residence property at least once a year.
I do not want you to understand that I am minimizing the importance of state regulations. I am a firm believer in a strong state building code, setting forth fundamentals of construction and leaving cities to work out the details. I am also a firm believer in a strong state fire marshal law. But no state fire marshal can exercise the intimate control over matters of this sort which the local authorities can. Furthermore, the home rule idea is strong in our various states, especially Illinois. Where local regulations are in force, those regulations govern. You can readily see why as state fire marshal, I am anxious to have the best possible local regulations. I know it is an uphill fight to get the kind of ordinances you ought to have, and often an uphill fight to enforce them after you have them. Every time it is proposed to enact a drastic measure some influential interests are usually on the job to defeat it. After it is enacted you have a continuous struggle on your hands because of the political wire-pulling of the fellows who are always trying to “get by.”
I want to cite what a fire chief in an eastern state, who was having troubles along this line, did. After much persuasion he induced his commissioner of public safety to attend a convention of the International Association of Fire Engineers. This commissioner was very much impressed and enlightened by the discussions he heard. He saw the fire prevention problem the way his chief of the fire department did, and he pledged himself to go the limit for the chief in future matters pertaining to the fire department. I am passing the suggestion on for what it is worth. Some chiefs are getting some very effective co-operation from their Chambers of Commerce and newspapers.
Need of Personal Liability Laws
There is one more point and I am through. If we had the best building regulations in the world we would still have a tremendous preventable fire loss. The real explanation back of our great fire loss is carelessness and negligence. Supplementing our regulatory statutes in every state I would like to see a strong personal liability law. Under its provisions every person who has a fire through his own carelessness or because of failure to comply with statutory requirements or an order issued under the statute, would be obliged to pay to the city the cost of extinguishing the fire. If adjoining property or property of another was destroyed in the fire, he would be obliged to reimburse the owner of such property for his loss.
I would like to see our cities enact ordinances along the same lines. Such ordinances are in force in some cities and the first suit instituted under such an ordinance is pending. The city of Portland, Oregon, is suing for the recovery of $229.79, the cost of extinguishing a fire in a cooperage shop, caused by failure to comply with a written notice to remedy an unsafe condition. New York has put through cases somewhat similar under provisions of its charter, but I believe the Portland case is the first on record where a city has attempted to collect the cost of extinguishment under the powers conferred in the personal liability ordinance. The case, therefore, assumes considerable importance and the result will be awaited with a great deal of interest.
A Maryland youth, 15 years old, has confessed that he set the forest fires that raged on Chestnut Ridge early this month, destroying five square miles of timber, valued at $50,000. The boy, according to the warden, placed letters demanding $500 under rocks, and later started two fires. The letters were signed “Champion Firebug.” The criminal belongs to a prominent family, it is said.