False Alarms Among Topics At Philadelphia Seminar V
False alarms, arson investigation in schools and high-rise building fire safety were among the subjects discussed at Seminar V, the annual fire prevention program presented by the Philadelphia Fire Department and its Citizens Committee for Fire Prevention.
During a panel discussion at the seminar last June 13-15 at the Philadelphia College of Textiles and Sciences, Robert Jones, Temple University fire marshal, told how false alarms in high-rise dormitories were reduced to nearly zero by complete evacuation of the building. Safety officers went from room to room to see that everyone left the dormitory before any occupants were allowed to return. At one time, the false alarm rate was about one a week, Jones said, but now it is one in six months.
False alarms in schools
James McCabe, fire marshal for the Philadelphia schools, described the use of dyes on fire boxes. Although students had learned in some measure to get around this with handkerchiefs, gloves, etc., the district reduced false alarm incidents by about 50 percent, and increased apprehensions markedly, McCabe said.
False alarms are not a major problem in hospitals, except in mental health instutions, remarked W. Frank Esposito, president of the Hospital Fire Marshals Association.
Fire fighters at the seminar expressed interest in the fact that Philadelphia has shown a sharp reduction in its false alarm rate thus far this year and asked how this had been accomplished.
Deputy Chief James M. Miller, chief of the fire prevention division, attributed this to a massive advertising campaign about the hazards of false alarms that was organized and directed by the Philadelphia Fire Department’s Citizens Committee for Fire Prevention, public relations people, artists, film-making studios and others that culminated in saturation exposure on radio and TV stations. Also, printed fliers in both English and Spanish were distributed in high-incidence areas.
Silent alarm response
On the operational side, an interesting procedure described was what Philadelphia terms a “silent alarm.” Miller explained that if a street box has had false alarms several times in a short period, the dispatcher may send out the box the next time as a silent alarm. When responding to a silent alarm, companies shut off all warning lights and sirens three blocks from the box location. This takes the thrill out of seeing shiny red fire engines with flashing lights and screaming sirens pull up at a corner, and the field forces feel that this has been a significant factor in the false alarm reduction.
Miller also told of assigning an unmarked surveillance car, manned by a fire fighter and a policeman, to a box with a significant pull record. This, he said, has resulted in a number of arrests on false alarm charges.
Firemen Hugh J. Owens and Angelo Zaccagnini presented a slide show of Philadelphia’s training program for high-rise building management. An attempt is made to set up a plan in all apartment buildings, hold a drill, actually sound the house alarms, evacuate floor to floor, and stress to tenants that “to know your way out is most important.”
Arson in schools
In discussing the investigation of arson in schools, Fire Marshal Edward Stevens, Jr., of the Philadelphia Fire Department stated that school fires are started mostly by boys. At the ages of 6 to 8, he said, curiosity about matches increases. He added that most fires are in lavatories and waste cans.
Among the first questions Stevens said an investigator should ask when he enters a school are: Who was out of class when the fire started? Who was in the building after school? Who is having a problem with a teacher?
Watch out for the mild-mannered, quiet loner, Stevens cautioned. “The fidgety, nervous person can almost be eliminated as the offender because the real culprit usually will remain almost motionless. When questioned, it’s not the surly, “no” that arouses suspicion. It’s the “no sir,” from the too-nice guy that does.
Fires in schools continue into the upper junior high grades and then around the age of 14, boys find sex more interesting than fires and turn their attention to girls, Stevens remarked. An interesting observation he made was that juveniles seldom come back as an adult arson offenders.
Electrified railroad lines
The hazards of fire fighting and rescue operations around electrified railroad lines were discussed by F.L. Manganaro, H.W. Clark and W.J. Carlin of the Penn Central Railroad.
“On a derailment in electrified territory,” Manganaro said, “everything comes down. In a derailment of 100 cars, 20 may be tankers. The railroad tries to separate tankers and keep them apart, but this is not always possible. If the wire breaks and comes down on a tank car, usually there is an arc and a resultant fire.
“If you are the chief or man in charge, go to the caboose, contact the conductor and get the manifest,” Manganaro continued. “Find out what is involved. If you don’t know the answers, get in touch with the carrier —quickly—or call Chemtrec.”
Violations of the National Electrical Code are found most frequently by inspectors for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and fire extinguisher violations are second in frequency, said Nathan Richmond, OSHA assistant regional administrator for technical support. The extinguishers mostly are improperly tested, not tagged, the wrong type, improperly spaced, in the wrong location and insufficient in numbers.
Cooperating with the fire department and its citizens committee in presenting Seminar V were the International Association of Fire Chiefs, Philadelphia Fire Officers Union, City Firefighters Association and Philadelphia Hospital Fire Marshals Association.