Communications a Major Factor in Fire Attack and Control

Communications a Major Factor in Fire Attack and Control

Brief Review of Progress Made in the Last 75 Years —and a Peep Into the Communications Future

Editor’s Note: Four years ago (October, 1948, issue of FIRE ENGINEERING), the author of this review presented a critical study of fire service communications in which he questioned whether improved communications facilities were being adopted by the fire services as were other modern fire control improvements. The evidence at that time indicated there was much room for advancement.

The author made no attempt to draw comparisons between fire service communications facilities of, say, the 1880’s and the Gay Nineties, with those of today, but he did point out the increasingly heavy responsibilities placed upon communications as the number and seriousness of the nation’s fires continued to increase.

In keeping with the editorial theme of this special August Anniversary issue, it seems fitting that the same author should briefly review the entire field of fire service communications from the viewpoint of progress made during the 75-year history of this Journal, and as they may relate to the fire control and extinguishment problems that lie ahead.

It is hoped this review will, if nothing else, encourage those enterprising heads of the nation’s fire forces to again survey and overhaul their own individual communications assets and liabilities and, where found wanting, to take necessary steps to bring their communications up-to-date, and ready to meet the demands that are certain to develop in the years ahead.

THERE are four major periods in the life history of every fire. They may be divided thus; (1) The time when the fire is discovered; (2) the period of notifying the fire department of the fire; (3) the period of response by the fire force and (4) the period of extinguishing the fire.

Every fire, big or little, runs much this same cycle—the time period from its inception and discovery (they are not always simultaneous), to the time when firemen are alerted, respond and put out the fire.

Next to preventing the fire itself, about the most important factor in the business of fire control is early discovery of the fire and prompt notification of the fire forces.

We hear a great deal about the “delayed alarm.” It is true that some alarms are delayed in transmission, but what the average person, including fireman, means when he talks about “delayed alarm” is “delayed discovery” of the fire. True, when a watchman, or a plant worker or a housewife delays notifying the fire department about a fire for whatever reason and no matter how severe the fire, it is unquestionably a delayed alarm. Whenever telephone party line users hog a telephone so that the line cannot be used to summon firemen, that is another form of delayed alarm. But regardless of tardiness in attempting to call the fire fighters, the question arises: how much of a delay was there in the discovery of the fire? Why w’asn’t the fire found sooner? Any study of fire service communications—past, present or future, therefore—may well begin wfith this question of fire discovery.

It may be asked, what have communications got to do with discovery of fire? The answer is a great deal today, and they will have even more to do with it tomorrow.

Communications can he so linked with discovery that fire can be made to signal its own origination, its start. They can go further, as we shall see later, and not only announce fire’s propagation, but it can activate the mechanism that will sign fire’s death warrant, while alerting the fire extinguishing forces. The fire service got a great assist with the introduction of the first automatic sprinkler, and waterflow alarm; it received an equally vital boost with the advent of the electronic and the photoelectric “eye.”

Radio control console at Detroit Fire Alarm headquarters. The Detroit Fire Department is 100% radio-equipped. Here's the heart of the system at the central communication office, Hastings and Macomb Streets, with Dispatcher Maurice Roche broadcasting.

Photo courtesy Detroit Police& Fire Arson Squad

Unfortunately, these mechanical means of quick discovery and notification of fire have thus far been limited to certain selected occupancies. It may safely be said, however, that through the broadening of supervisory central station service, and the introduction and growing application of detection systems of moderate cost, mechanical automatic fire detection is becoming more of an actuality every day. In this respect, fire protection and signal engineers have kept abreast of the swelling tide of fire hazards which are party to this chemical and atomic era, with scientific mechanisms that would put Jules Verne to shame. It is only a matter of time when every important business, industrial and multiple dwelling occupancy will enjoy this priceless safeguard.

Can Fire Notification Be Speeded?

Although radical innovations have occurred in fire detection and alarm transmission and in other aspects of fire service communications, progress has been slower in improving the means and methods of calling fire fighters to the fire. Many believe it is not so much a matter of improvement of existing systems, as it is of extending these systems into the vast areas where they do not now exist.

As practically every fireman knows, there are today, and have been for many years, two main instruments for notifiying the fire department of a fire or other emergency. These are the fire alarm telegraph system and the telephone. Tomorrow, another highly revolutionary method may emerge front the blueprint stage: that is the radio fire alarm notification system. At present, however, the nation relies upon wire as the chief carrier facility for its fire notifications.

Fire Commissioner Corrigan and Lieutenant Myers of the Chicago Fire Department, trying out the first walkie talkie developed for that department back in 1943.

Photo courtesy Chicago Fire Department

Seventy-live years ago, with the advent of what is now Fire Engineering, the fire alarm telegraph was already in being. It was called even then the most revolutionary development since the inauguration of the paid fire department.

New York City was the first community to attempt to provide the means for announcing by some mechanical and systematic method the locations of fires. The idea was indirectly the outcome of Samuel Morse’s development of the telegraph in the early 1840’s. Along about that time there were demands in New York City and elsewhere for improvments in the alarm system then in vogue for alerting firemen. A special council committee in New York had reported that “if the person who had charge of the public bell on the City Hall had struck it as was his duty, the fire (history doesn’t say which) would have done very little damage. . .

New York has world’s busiest fire alarm centers. Here is the Manhattan Fire Alarm Central Station, tucked away in a remote Central Park area, which handles all fire department communications traffic for the Borouqh of Manhattan. All other New York boroughs have their own fire alarm offices. All are now connected by radio as well as wire.

Photo courtesy R. K. O. Pathe

In 1847, Chief Engineer Anderson of the New York Fire Department recommended the use of a fire alarm telegraph, and the Council authorized Hugh Downing and Royal E. House “to construct a line of telegraph by selling posts in the ground” from Fort Washington to several of the bell towers with which the city was beginning to be equipped. Downing was awarded $500 for the contract. At that time the city was divided into fire districts. A watch tower and bell was provided for each district, and a watchman equipped with telescope was continually on duty (or supposed to be) in each tower. Each district was numbered so that when these numbers were sounded on the tower hells, the volunteer firemen and the general public as well were informed of the section of the city in which the fire existed. This manual operation was a slow, tedious procedure. When a watchman discovered a fire in his district he would strike the district number manually and this would be heard by the watchman on the next tower, who would repeat or relay the signal. If the watchman was uncertain of the location of the fire, it was said he would give the watchman on the next tower a few taps of his telegraph key. The towers were connected by telegraph lines. At night many a fire remained undiscovered until it had announced itself by burning through the roof.

The earliest suggestion of the application of the telegraph to fire alarm signaling actually took place before Chief Anderson’s recommendation. This was in Boston. A William F. Channing wrote an article in the “Boston Advertiser” in 1845 which described his method of transmitting to the watch towers, coded signals from distinctively numbered street stations (sort of phantom boxes?) and automatically striking these signals on the tower bells by means of electro-mechanical bell strikers.

The first practical fire alarm system was the outcome, the installation being made in Boston in 1851, and Moses G. Farmer, who had allied himself with Mr. Channing, became the first fire alarm superintendent in that city. The first actual fire alarm was transmitted over the new system in 1852. Three years later, in 1855, John N. Gamewell of South Carolina became convinced of the possibilities inherent in Boston’s first experimental alarm system and purchased from Channing and Farmer the rights to use their inventions in southern states. Four years later he purchased all their patents and actual manufacturing was begun in 1866, immediately after the close of the Civil War, about the time the volunteers began to give way to the paid fire fighters in the big cities.

From that time on continual improvements were made in the fire alarm telegraph, chief of which was the application or the non-interfering principle; the principle of succession which provided for the consecutive transmission of such alarms; and the automatic grounding feature which provided for correct reception of alarms on either side of a broken or otherwise disabled circuit. Other improvements included automatic reception, announcement and recording, with the exact date and time at the central station, automatic re-transmission of alarms at fire stations, including visual and audible announcements to the fire fighting forces. Still later (about 1883) came “auxiliary” fire alarm systems which reached their peak more recently with the inclusion of the automatic fire detection feature of some fire alarm systems.

A chief's aide stands by at spade handle box at a multiple alarm fire in New York. The modern street fire alarm box permits wire communications between fire ground and fire headquarters, if desired.

About the time this Journal found being, the custom of ringing fire bells throughout the duration of a fire was discontinued. About that time, also, volunteer firemen in the larger cities had been succeeded by paid forces continuously on duty at the fire houses, and signals were passed to all fire companies by telegraph. With the introduction of fire alarm boxes on the streets, the fire towers joined the ranks of other curios and gradually disappeared. Only one, that on Mount Morris. New York City, remains today a monument to that interesting past.

Today, short of increasing the number of fire alarm signal boxes on streets and in occupancies that require special protection, it is being found almost impossible to further shave seconds from the time consumed in receiving alarms of fire at the fire alarm headquarters, and relaying them to the fire forces. Within fire alarm bureaus (we predict that tomorrow will see the dropping of the name “telegraph”), continual reforms are still being attempted, however, to shorten the time of alarm transmission, and to improve dependability and accuracy. This is particularly true in the handling of telephone alarms which constitute the greatest percentage of calls received for fire or other emergencies.

District of Columbia has one of the Nation's finest plants. Located at McDougal Park, this fire alarm headquarters has received much favorable publicity. Washington is fully radio equipped. In addition, vocal alarm system is used to notify companies. Recorders take down all important messages. Bells are used for confirmation.

Two notable improvements have been made within the last decade in this field. They are the introduction of the public address system (both radio and “wired radio”) and the recording device. The latter now automatically records all messages received and given out at fire alarm headquarters, and the former permits of faster, more accurate transmission of alarms from headquarters to fire stations and other locations which should receive such messages. The “PA” system also permits mass promulgation of general information and instructions from the fire department to all fire fighters in their quarters. The wired bell system, however, is still retained generally, even where the “squawk box” is now in vogue, for its advantages as a double-check, and its recording features.

Communications Hasten Response

As pointed out in the foregoing, improved communications which speed the dispatching of alarm naturally hasten the dispatch of the fire forces to the scene of action. Thus the third period in the time cycle of every fire or emergency is shortened. Not only is response speeded, but through modern communications facilities, the responding forces are better prepared to reach their objectives and, once there, to get to work with greatest efficiency and safety.

Today’s municipal firemen leave their quarters in answer to most calls knowing pretty much what they are going up against, thanks to the vocal or “voice” systems we have described. It is not inconceivable that tomorrow’ they will not only know just what their mission is from the verbal message given them, but they will actually see that mission itself depicted on some electronic scope, or other device on their apparatus.

Already, via television, some municipal fire fighters in their quarters are able to sit back and observe the operations of their fellow firemen in extinguishing a fire or operating at some other emergency. Mobile television sets are presently available for small vehicles. It requires no figment of the imagination to visualize the officer of a responding fire unit being able to see the location for which the unit is headed, and even the face of the officer or dispatcher issuing the instructions and commands to the responding company. In short, a commanding officer at the scene of any incident in the not too remote future will be able to not only talk with responding forces but will be able to see them and their actions, just as they will be able to see and hear him. Fantastic? So would have been television to the fireman of yesteryear.

At least one side of this picture is a reality today: that is two-way voice communication between fire department headquarters and individual units responding to alarms, or at work on the fire ground. No longer need a fire company be “lost” to fire H.Q. after it leaves its individual quarters. Shortwave radio has corrected that old and serious weakness.

But modern communications facilities can accelerate response in other ways. Already the electronic eye and photoelectric cell, such as detect fire, can be used to clear the way for fire apparatus and to make faster and safer response, through traffic congested thoroughfares. Already, as mentioned in last month’s Fire Enigneering’s story about the New Haven Fire Department Training Ground exhibition, electronics will automatically set, or re-set, traffic signals at street intersections in favor of responding apparatus, merely by the reflection of a fire apparatus’ warning signals, picked up by an electronic device which, in turn, activates the traffic lights.

Detroit units are never out of touch with headquarters. Photo shows enclosed-type ladder truck with officer transmitting a message. The transmitter and receiver are installed in the cab.

Photo courtesy Detroit Police & Fire Arson Squad

Communications also can tell the traffic officer, as well as drivers of vehicles in the path of the responding fire forces, about the routes the latter are taking, and their progress. Thus, improved communications, coupled with modern audible and visible warning signal devices. will help to shorten the traveling time between headquarters of the fire forces, and the scene of the emergency.

Fire Attack Is Furthered by Modern Communications

In the early days of this Journal, and of the municipal fire service, communications on the fire ground were limited to the speaking trumpet and the lung power of the officer-in-command. About the only requirement for volunteer officer, in those days, was the ability to “bawl like a bull.”

As the height of buildings increased, and as attack strategy often necessitated locating fire units at large fires over wide areas, the problem of maintaining liaison between all fire control forces became increasingly difficult. Not only property, but lives w’ere lost through inability of fire officers to get their orders to their field forces.

Attempts to employ portable telephones were unavailing and it remained for radio to provide the best answer to the problem. A number of leading fire officials urged the adaptation of radio as a possible solution for this problem, once the Army Signal Corps had demonstrated the effectiveness of shortwave walkie talkies.

As far back as 1934, after the Chicago Stock Yards conflagration (May 19, 1934), where fire raged over one-half square mile, a central point of command was recognized as a most essential requirement to setting up adequate fire defense and attack. With that thought in mind, Chicago fire officials went about development of a two-way portable radio set suitable in size and weight and range to enable it to be carried as a back-pack, or slung under the arm, into buildings, or on roofs and. to provide interference-free constant communication betw’een widely separated positions.

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Efforts to adapt the early Xavy 22pound radio telephone to fire department use in Chicago, during the high -calibre stream tests in 1939 in that city, met with failure. However under the direction of Fire Commissioner Corrigan, Chief Fire Marshal Mullaney, Lieutenant Myers, Commander Snell, U. S. Navy, and Mr. Wanderlich of the Motorola Company, a portable model was developed which performed well in tests.

War problems delayed production of this unit, hut it was later used as a pilot model for newer and better Navy units. Still later. Motorola introduced refinements of these military and other models, resulting in the present day portable units such as are being used by the fire service and having the virtue of light weight, wide range for the limited power, excellent reception and other attributes.

While Chicago was experimenting with walkie talkies, the New York Fire Department also was attempting to develop a workable model, under the direction of Fireman, now Lieutenant Harmatuck. A radio laboratory was later set up at the old fire alarm office on 67th Street, and a pack-set ultimately produced which proved very satisfactory. A modification of this set was used successfully at the Empire State Building aircrash fire and in other emergencies. The laboratory was later closed, however, and the New York Fire Department since purchased its first ten sets from a radio manufacturer who followed the specifications set down by thc department. Walkie talkies or portable radio phones are here to stay. They are becoming standard equipment in many large and small fire departments where they are used both to augment car-to-car mobile radio communications and as separate individual facilities. They are employed also in training activities and in Civil Defense.

Increasing Consumer and Industrial Use of Radio Aids Fire Service

There is another phase of modern radio communications which less directly, but nonetheless affects the fire service. That is the use of short-wave radio by government and civic agencies; by industry and business, as well as by professional and other interests, including the nation’s amateurs or “hams.”

In the government field are police, water supply (which is tied-in with public utilities), forestry-conservation and highway. In industry there is petroleum, low-power emergency, motion picture, power, railroad, highway truck and special industrial applications. In business there are taxicab, miscellaneous common carriers, the telephone systems and radiophone networks, including the leased radiophone services now employed by some fire service elements.

Each radio installation in a taxicab, a doctor’s private car, a highway bus or truck, or in a railroad train or tugboat, constitutes a potential asset to the fire service because each is, in effect, a “traveling fire alarm box.” Each can be a powerful adjunct to fire service communications in time of large-scale emergency or disaster. This is particularly true in time of war, when all forms of radio—as well as other communications facilities must be coordinated.

Then there are the commercial radio broadcast stations and networks. These instruments of mass education, information and enlightenment have it in their power to prove a blessing or a bane for the fire service. Blessing in time of trouble—IF their facilities are rightly used; bane, IF for any reason their influence is wrongly applied. Careless broadcasting to the public (and that goes for telecasting as well) of a fire, wreck or other emergency, will create traffic and other conditions that may greatly handicap the response and operation of the fire services. Conversely, proper public broadcasting in the form of supervised newscasting, where the responsible emergency services, such as fire are first consulted before any broadcasting is undertaken, can be of almost limitless aid.

Every fire officer knows today the problem of traffic congestion and crowdcongregating at the scene of emergencies. In most cases the conditions are growing worse and the future looks dark for the fire service. Recognizing this situation, the International Association of Fire Chiefs nationally, and through its Divisions, passed a number of resolutions protesting indiscriminate and careless public broadcasting of fire and other emergencies, which tend to handicap response and fire control operations. Thus far. however, the broadcast interests have ignored these protests. It can only be concluded that, if allowed to continue, a major catastrophe may well bring down upon the broadcast industry the condemnation of the government and public, and further restrictive regulations may be the net lesult.

What ot the Future?

Reviewing the progress picture of fire service communications, it is apparent that although major advances have been made during the history of this Journal, there remains much to be done.

The outstanding progress, of course, has been in the field of electronic communications, both in fire detection and fire service communications. It is in this field, also, that there is to be found greatest prospect of future improvements.

The fact is that very few fire departments are today making anywhere near the fullest possible use of the modern communications facilities that are available. Too many are relying entirely upon their old signal systems, with insufficient street fire alarm signal boxes, and auxiliary and building alarm installations.

There is ample evidence available to prove that many municipal fire departments are today relying upon fire alarm “plants” which are long out-of-date and which, because of obsolescence, constitute a definite menace to their communities, and their fire departments. The question naturally arises: how can these municipalities hope to provide their citizens even the minimum of safeguards against fire under these adverse conditions?

As far back as the first issue of this Journal, firemen were handicapped by overhead wires, both power and telephone. Succeeding storms destroyed these overhead fire alarm circuits, jeopardizing large areas by wrecking fire alarm facilities. Yet after nearly every such storm, the poles and wire were replaced, to await the next hurricane or sleet storm. Fortunate indeed the city that has its fire alarm circuits 100 per cent underground.

Four years ago this Journal reminded its readers that fire alarm buildings were generally outmoded, poorly equipped for their purpose and in some cases, open to easy destruction by fire or sabotage. Progress in replacement or rehabilitation of these essentials to fire protection has been slow. The hazards of all-out war, and enemy attack, still remain and the warning that communications centers should be safely and suitably located and adequately staffed and provided for, is again in order.

Once more it should be stressed that the business of fire suppression continues to grow and expand. There are more fires, more emergency calls, more demands upon the fire departments of big and little cities, generally. Yet the facilities for meeting these increasing demands have not been expanded accordingly. There is real shortage of manpower and mechanical resources throughout the entire fire communications field.

One of the greatest potential avenues of better fire protection has hardly more than been explored. This is automatic fire detection and alarm transmission. Such advance as has been made, largely through the enterprise of a limited number of companies specializing in proprietary, auxiliary and local systems working with municipal fire chiefs, has been of necessity limited to the larger cities and communities. But population and industry and business are moving away from the crowded areas into the suburbs and country, where central station service is not always so readily available.

Fire, officers in the future will give more serious consideration to the installation of the type of service and/or protective systems which will afford the greatest measure of protection against the start and spread of fire, and will most effectively detect its origin, and not only notify the nearest fire forces, but will get to work to quell or confine the fire.

The fire service of tomorrow will continue to broaden its use of radio, not only for alerting firemen and speeding them to the right location where they are needed, and facilitating their attack upon the fire, but also for fire inspection and prevention. To the great majority of fire departments, large and small in this nation, the possibilities of radio communications (all types) are as yet unplumbcd. It is perhaps too bad that the fire officer of today cannot project his vision ahead the next fifty or 75 years to see what further advances will be made in this one detail.

Today, recording and voice amplifying systems should be the rule, not the exception, which they still are. And another asset of which too little is known, is the teletype. Here is another product that offers possibilities for improving fire communications.

Changes in methods as well as mechanical facilities, some of them perhaps startling measured by present day progress. may be expected throughout fire service communications in the years ahead. Already the “acoustics” of fire communications are under study, and the old, loud-sounding, nerve-shattering electro-magnetic fire station gongs are reported on the way out. Experimentso with chimes, squawkers and other sound-makers, are under way to determine the most effective and least harmful method of alerting firemen.

It must be remembered that a revolutionary change in any one branch of fire communications may materially affect other phases of communications if not of fire attack methods generally. A better method of summoning volunteer firemen, for example, by means of “wired radio” and getting them to the scene of an emergency without a public notification, may well necessitate revision of the entire local strategy of attack. That is why it is so essential that fire communications be maintained at highest efficiency.

The business of administering a modern fire service communication system calls for specialists of a high order; for only the best of equipment, and for fullest possible cooperation between fire fighting forces and the communications services. The fire chief who does not encourage this cooperation and does not set a good example himself, cannot hope for the best possible results now or in the years to come.

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