In view of the strong appeal which President Wilson, in his Fire Prevention Day Proclamation, has made to the public to conserve property, a recent discussion of the extent of electrical fires is timely. In his work as chief inspector for the local department of the Continental Insurance Company, W. J. Tallamy was impiessed with certain serious defects in the co-operation which should exist between agencies making electrical inspections and those making fire rates. This subject was brought to the attention of the New York Fire Exchange, which makes the rates, and the New York Board of Fire Underwriters, which makes inspections, with the result that the last-named organization has increased its force of inspectors and made the reinspection of old equipment more systematic. While different cities have different systems of making inspections and of making rates, some of the defects to which Mr. Tallamy called attention may exist elsewhere and his discussion of them is therefore valuable.
In a report to an executive officer of the Continental Mr. Tallamy takes the position that the time, effort and money expended each year in the interest of fire prevention along educational lines are not bringing adequate returns and that those responsible for preventable fires are either not being reached by the educational efforts or are grossly indifferent. He contends that “more drastic measures must sooner or later be taken if our fire waste is to be kept within reasonable bounds,” and that until corrective legislation penalizing those responsible for preventable fires can be secured “we must use to the utmost the available means of fire hazard elimination now at our disposal.”
Extent of Electrical Fires
It is estimated that 10 per cent of the fire loss is due to electrical defects and that 90 per cent of the electrical fires are the result of unapproved conditions. “The full meaning of this,” Mr. Tallamy says, “will be better appreciated when we pause to realize that electrical hazards are almost entirely under the possible control of fire insurance organizations. The public in general knows very little about electrical fire hazards. It dedepends laregly upon the judgment of fire insurance inspection organizations for the safety of electrical equipment as is indicated by the fact that a large proportion of the contracts for the installation of electrical equipment are made subject to the approval of the Underwriters’ Association having jurisdiction.”
Illustrating the lack of co-operation between electrical inspection and fire rating organizations, Mr. Tallamy cited a case in Brooklyn where the electrical To Prevent Fire Loss equipment of the first floor, installed some years ago, had been inspected eight times, while that of the second floor, occupied by another tenant, had been installed after October 1, 1917, and had never been inspected, though the risk has been rated in April, 1919. A fire started in the second floor from an electrical defect.
Unapproved Changes Cause Fires
Electrical light and power companies are desirous of safe conditions in properties which they furnish with electricity, and they want to avoid the possibility of subrogation claims, and courts have upheld them in demands for a certificate from the underwriters before they turn on the current. Mr. Tallamy pointed out that some time ago electrical inspections were largely confined to new work and made at the request of contractors whose contracts required that the installations be made in accord with the underwriters’ requirements. At that time there was a serious want to reinspections.
“The analysis of electrical fire causes,” says Mr. Tallamy, “indicates that a large proportion of the fires of electrical origin are directly due to unapproved changes in previously approved equipments, said changes having been made without the knowledge or consent of the electrical inspection department having jurisdiction. These changes are frequently made by boys, students, janitors, porters, mechanics and engineers who have had little or no experience in electrical matters, know nothing of electrical fire hazards or the present approved electrical standards, and are therefore totally unqualified for such work.
“In the absence of any organized system of electrical reinspecting work dangerous electrical conditions brought about in this manner are allowed to exist unnoticed until they make their presence known by causing a fire, which almost invariably results in loss to fire insurance companies, for it is seldom possible to fix the responsibility with the assured in such cases.”
“In view of existing conditions as herein outlined,” he continues, “the followng recommendatons are made:
- Every effort should be made to bring about a closer form of co-operation and more friendly business relations between the electric light and power supply companies and the electrical underwriters’ inspection departments with a view to having all new and changed electrical equipment comply with the present code of standards, without exception, before the current is turned on.
- All electrical contracts should have incorporated in their form a requirement for special permits before any change is made in the equipments, and any infraction of this rule should be properly penalized.
- That electrical inspection work be more general and not entirely dependent upon the requests of electrical contractors, and that a system of periodic electrical reinspection work be adopted with the view of detecting unauthorized changes in previously approved equipments correcting unsafe conditions that may have developed to constant service and gradually bringing all old and obsolete equipment up to the present standards of safety.
- Much benefit would be likely to follow if the rating exchange were to make it a point to confer with the electrical inspection department in connection with electrically equipped risks in all instances before applying the final rate. If no inspection has been made, one should be insisted upon.
“In view of the millions of dollars in fire loss suffered annually, directly due to detectable electrical defects, 1 think it would be an excellent investment to materially broaden electrical inspection work at the same time striving for the closest application of friendly co-operation between all of the available fire reducing agencies. 1 venture to say that at the present time comparatively few risks, electrically equipped, are entirely free from electrical defect.”