Duties and Responsibilities of a Fire Commissioner

Duties and Responsibilities of a Fire Commissioner

Must be Informed on Personnel and Apparatus of Department and Must Represent It Before Public and Authorities

THE Commissioner’s responsibilities are manifold and varied, political and practical, exacting and strenuous, personal and impersonal, legislative and administrative, He must represent and protect the citizens and taxpayers, as well as the personnel of the department. He must consider the public to whom he is giving protection and service as a whole, irrespective of influence, political prestige or ownership of property, whether it be improved or unimproved. All property owners and citizens, of whatever class, pay their proportion of the operation and maintenance of the department and are entitled to equal consideration, service and protection.

The Fire Department is a major part of the municipal business, the taxpayers’ capital investment in it being a large one. The annual expense for maintenance and personal service in most cities is. or should be, greater than for any other municipal division.

Functions of the Fire Department

The functions of the Fire Department, in the order of their importance are: First, fire prevention, which includes adequate training, thorough inspection of fire risks, proper enforcement of the fire code, and diligent prosecution of arson cases; second, an adequate water supply, with mains of sufficient capacity and hydrants properly located; third, sufficient apparatus and equipment, including hose of modern design, maintained in the highest state of efficiency; fourth, a fire alarm system that will permit the easiest and fastest communication with the Fire Department in cases of emergency; fifth, personnel with sufficient equipment to provide the maximum protection to property and reduce the losses by fire, smoke and water damage through approved salvage methods.

The three principal functions of a city in the order of their importance are: Fire, Police and Health. Each is dependent upon an ample water supply.

Fire Department Must Have Public Support

The Fire Department that has the business men and property owners solidly behind it is usually the one that produces the best results. Public support in acquiring ample appropriations, in enforcing proper fire codes, in the enactment of laws and ordinances for fire protection, and in enforcing these laws is necessary. Rarely does a city having an efficient, well-manned, well-equipped department suffer from a conflagration.

The Basis of Insurance Rates

Insurance rates, as you know, are made by rating bureaus set up nationally. It is the business of these bureaus to grade cities for the purpose of establishing base rates. They classify cities, after making surveys by competent engineers and analysists, covering many subjects, chiefly adequacy of water supply, topography and general lay-out of the city, building and fire codes and the effectiveness of their enforcement, condition of streets, accessibility of the risks to be covered, completeness of the fire alarm telegraph system, the amount, type, age and condition of apparatus, the number of men, their ages, training and morale, pension systems, the yearly fire losses based on a percapita average and assessed valuation as well as losses paid.

There are also many other matters to be considered, all of which are factors controlling the rating, and finally the base rate for insurance coverage on all types of risks. It is the responsibility of the Commissioner to be well informed on these subjects.

Losses From Disregard of Safety Fundamentals

I am going to call to your attention a few glaring instances of disregard for these fundamentals which were responsible for loss of industries, payrolls, property and lives, and which almost wrecked communities.

An Illinois city reduced the number of men, cut the salaries of the remaining personnel, took out of service needed equipment and allowed the apparatus and hose kept in service to run down. They had a large fire with a loss of $300,000. Four firemen were killed. The payroll was lost, also the taxes from the plant. The city has now restored salaries, brought the personnel up to full strength, and purchased new apparatus and hose, but too late to save this loss.

Procrastination’s Heavy Toll

In an Ohio city, the Chief had pleaded with the City Council for several years for more men and more and better apparatus. He didn’t get them. The principal industry of the city, a million dollar plant, the largest payroll and the biggest taxpayer, had a fire. The entire plant was lost. The Council promised to revamp the department and completely modernize it. They procrastinated, delayed, postponed and didn’t do it. The plant was rebuilt in another city. The payroll was gone, taxes gone, employees moved away, merchants suffered, some gave up, etc. Believe it or not, the yearly loss in taxes alone would have maintained the entire Fire Department. I ask you, was this good business? Was it economy ?

Costly Economy

A West Virginia city cut out fire hydrants, engine companies, laid off firemen and in general trimmed their Fire Department to the bone to save $25,000. The insurance companies made a survey. Rates increased $100,000 in premiums. The same taxpayers paid out $4 in insurance without receiving any fire protection for each dollar saved in the reduced Fire Department. There is no cheap way of providing fire protection. There is no way of avoiding increased insurance rates if losses grow.

An Ohio city was economizing in the purchase of fire hose. They just postponed buying any until most of their hose was too old. A big fire destroyed a large warehouse with a big payroll and large purchasing power, because many sections of hose failed at a critical time. A hose survey in another city indicated that 50 per cent of its hose should be taken out of service. It didn’t do it and economized by not purchasing. A big fire occurred; hose burst in many places, resulting in the plant being lost to the city and a half million dollars assessed valuation taken off the tax roll.

Carelessness May Arise from Good Record

A good experience record, with low loss ratios, made possible by an efficient department, which has brought about reduced and low insurance rates, is most likely to encourage taxpayers to advocate a reduction in Fire Department budgets and grow lax in fire prevention practices. Inevitably, the results are large property losses, lower assessed valuations, property taken off of tax rolls; payrolls lost, merchants suffer, insurance rates go up, and the last and saddest part of the story is the loss of life. It is the responsibility of the Commissioner to see that these things do not happen.

Select Good Chief and Back Him +o the Limit

An important responsibility of a Commissioner to all elements, including the personnel of the department, is to select the best man in the department for Chief and the best material available for his administrative and executive personnel, and then back and support him to the limit. The Chief should be a Chief in fact, as well as in name, and it is the Commissioner’s responsibility to make him so and to see that he conducts himself before the public and the men of the department so that they will accept and respect him as such.

Leave Administration Functions to Chief

When a Commissioner assumes the responsibility of directing the routine administrative functions of the department and appropriates to himself the prerogatives of the Chief in administrative. disciplinary and enforcement matters, he is heading for a lot of trouble. The Commissioner must hold the Chief responsible for the conduct of the department and assist him in every way possible. This conduet should be such that the Commissioner can always defend and protect the department against unjust criticism from the public. Under no circumstances should a Commissioner permit his department’s weaknesses to become open public gossip. He should always be in a position to defend his Chief and his men before the public.

Should Keep Well Informed as to Personnel

In the matter of selection of men, their prerequisites and assignments, a Commissioner should keep well informed. He should accept the counsel of the Chief and be in a position to know his men, their duties, background and experience, so as to properl represent them in public matters, before City Councils, civil service boards, tax leagues and similar public and quasi-public bodies.

The Commissioner should be properly informed on all phases of firefighting technique and fire hazards so that he may be in a position at all times to promote proper legislation and public policies in order to give the men of the department the maximum protection.

School Children Learn How to Turn in Box Alarm Children of the various schools in Schenectady, N. Y., were instructed how to turn in a fire alarm from the city fire alarm boxes, as part of the city’s fire prevention activities. Photograph shows Chief James J. Higgins explaining operation of a BOX to a school traffic monitor.

It is the duty of the Commissioner to assist in the preparation of the budget and to have sufficient working knowledge of the plant, property, physical and personnel affairs of the department so that he can properly defend the budget requests before the budget directors, comptrollers, councils and the public. It is then his duty to the public to exercise the maximum control over the expenditures authorized by the budget. In the purchase of supplies, equipment, apparatus, and all capital investments, the Commissioner is responsible to the public and must see that there is no waste, collusion, malfeasance, misappropriation, graft, or other intolerable corrupt practices.

The Commissioner must not yield to pressure groups of any character, in the matter of proper distribution and location of apparatus, fire boats, towers, ladders, pumpers, hose, salvage and other service units. To obtain the most strategic locations possible, all phases of topography, congestion, traffic, building values, occupancy, water, physical conditions of all types, and the general lay-out of the community, are the principal factors to be considered.

Must Represent Department in Legislative Matters

The Commissioner naturally must represent the Chief and the department in all legislative matters and it is his duty to see that the interests of the department are protected in zoning matters, building, electrical, housing, and fire codes, and related subjects. It is then necessary that he follow through to see that these codes are properly enforced.

On behalf of the public the Commissioner must see that there are properly planned and supervised training programs and schools provided for both in-service and out-of-service employes and citizens. Fire prevention programs for the education of all classes of the public and public demonstrations of a proper type should be constantly promoted by the Commissioner. The good will, welfare, and education of the public are all the Commissioner’s responsibility.

In the matter of fire alarm telegraph and communication systems and the relationship with the utilities, the Commissioner should be very active to see that the interests of the people and the department are equally safeguarded.

Should Direct Disaster Preparedness Program

It is the direct responsibility of the Commissioner to have developed and to coordinate and direct a major disaster preparedness program, bringing into the organization all public and private facilities for the protection of life and property, such as transportation, communication, utilities. public works, health, policing, sanitation and water supply.

The Commissioner should be fully informed on all matters pertaining to the function and responsibilities of the insurance companies, underwriter agencies, and rating bureaus, and it is his duty to represent the department, the municipality, and the people before these groups.

Summation of Commissioner’s Responsibilities

In closing, probably I could have covered my subject in one brief paragraph, had I said that the responsibility of a good Fire Commissioner rests in the selection of a responsible, capable, efficient, honest, sincere Chief, Fire Marshal, and executive and administrative officers, giving them full authority and backing them up in all matters, especially in the handling of personnel, and lastly, in knowing his own limitations and attending strictly to his own business, that of protecting the interests of the community which he represents.

(From an address before the annual convention of the Pacific Coast Association of Fire Chiefs.)

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