FIRE ALARM SYSTEM OF NEW YORK.
WITH the dismissal of Fire Marshal Mitchel from his bureau and of Supt. Smith from that of the fire alarm telegraph in this city, Fire Commissioner Scannell has purged the fire department of two officials who were not the right men in the right place. They were reinstated, despite the protests of the healthier portion of the community, the one through a legal technicality ; the other through the incompetency of the then board of fire commissioners of New York, of whom one was overruled by a tyrannous majority. Of that majority one was notoriously opposed to everything and anything proposed by the president, Gen. La Grange, while the other was a new comer—the successor to the late Commissioner Ford—who was willing to be as wax in the hands of Commissioner, afterwards President Sheffield, and to take on faith the latter’s views on the subject of Supt. Smith’s fitness or unfitness for the position he was filling,
It will be remembered that in 1896 Supt. Smith was suspended from duty as head of the city’s fire alarm telegraph bureau on accusations originating from a number of managers of theatres and others in New York, that he charged them too high for special fire alarm service furnished by a private company in which, rightly or wrongly, it was alleged Mr. Smith had an interest. This led to an investigation of the whole fire alarm system of the city, in which it was conclusively shown by figures that it was absolutely rotten and not to be relied upon in case of emergency. It was further shown that Mr. Smith did not appear to have done his best, even with the means at his disposal—yet all his demands seem to have been met promptly and ungrudgingly by the board—but (as was said in FIRE AND WATER of November 7, 1898 p. 519), whether from ignorance or apathetic carelessness, he failed to understand that New York’s system of fire alarm telegraph is not only antiquated and obsolete, but also unreliable, because of its inherent defects, which he either did not or could not discover or remedy. A study of the evidence shows that Supt. Smith seems to have placed himself (doubtless with the best intentions) in the hands of Mr. Frederic Pearce, so far as concerned the supplying of fire alarm boxes and appliances, and of Mr. George L. Wiley, the manager of the Standard Company, so far as concerned the installation of an underground cable system.
Hut, as Gen. La Grange pointed out,
in all financial dealings the interests of Pearce and Wiley were adverse to the interests of the city, which appears to have been without a qualified representative in these transactions. If the superintendent did as well as he could do, he did not do as well as ought to have been done for the city. We dare not let any other subordinate do as he is proven to have done in buying for his bureau.
It was shown in evidence (1) that the fire alarm telegraph was unreliable; (2) that the fire alarm signal boxes were all of the old 1869 pattern in use nowhere else in the United States during the last fifteen years; and (3) that in New York, with its 1,259 boxes.there were 102 failures in giving 4,874 alarms, whereas the 2,092 boxes in Brooklyn, Boston, Pittsburgh, and Newark, giving a total of 4.509 alarms, had only two failures That is to say: Out of every thirteen boxes in the city, one failed, the same being the average out of every forty-eight alarms. In eighteen other cities, on the contrary, there was but one failure for every 350 boxes and one for every 673 alarms—the ratio of defects in periods of the same number of months to the number of boxes as ascertained by tests being in New York twenty-three per cent, to three-tenths of one per cent, in other cities.
The underground cables were likewise a source of great trouble. In the New York of that period there were 409 miles of overhead wires and 906 of underground. In eighteen other cities there were 8,851 miles and 2,452 respectively—a total in each case of 9,620 and 3.359 miles. Of defective boxes arising from damaged overhead circuits there were 125 in New York against 108 in eighteen other cities; from underground circuits 250 cable defects in this city against twenty-one else where—showing a great inferiority on the par’, of New York As was pointed out in FIRE AND WATER at the time (FIRE AND WATER. September 19, 1896, p. 47), the work of placing the fire Harm wires in underground conduits was done under Mr. Smith’s supervision, and the question has arisen as to whether it was done as well as it might have been done. If not, whether the defective work was due to Mr. Smith’s incompetency.
* * * Mr. Smith certainly had the power of dispensing the department’s money pretty much as he pleased, and the charge was made that in so doing he discriminated unfairly against certain firms and in favor of others. How far this is true and how far Mr.Smith has been the victim of loose methods prevailing in the fire department and how far the malfeasance (if proven) has been on his side was the object of the trial just concluded. * * * [The fire commissioners’] chief anxiety has probably been to find out to what extent New York’s fire alarm system is behind that of other cities in efficiency—a most important point to clear up. * * * On this point the records are certainly against Mr. Smith’s theory that the New York fire alarm system is perfect—the most perfect of any on this continent.
To the minds of all but two of the reform fire commission ers the evidence against Mr. Smith was overwhelming; it was that of experts in the highest sense of the word— of men who like Capt. Brophy, of Boston, or Mr. Carty, of New York had made the fire alarm telegraph system their life study That which was produced in his defence was that of men who could not be looked upon as altogether unbiased or that of of those who, though insurance agents, could make no claims to being experts. These did not think that the two or three failures out of every one hundred alarms from the obsolete and insufficient boxes might be just those for disastrous and fatal fires, which might have been quenched in their incipiency, instead of being allowed to gain some minutes’, even some seconds’ headway through the defective alarm boxes. As the late Commissioner Ford said,in adverting to a destructive and fatal fire in 1896 where the alarm had not responded when the box was pulled: “It is well to remember tha* no readier assistance in calamity can be had than bv pulling the hook within the fire alarm box.” Just as the hearing of the case had been been completed. Commissioner Foid died and by what turned out to bean unfortunate arrangement between Commissioners La Grange and Sheffield it was agreed that the trial should not be repeated, but that the whole evidence should be placed before the new fire commissioner to study. Mr. Sturgis was Mayor Strongs’ appointee, and, instead of that gentleman trusting to whatever intellectual faculty he had been endowed with, he simply took’.Mr. Sheffield as his infallible guide Mr. Sheffield, however, for reasons best understood by himself— one certainly, was his open jealousy of, and pronounced antagonism to Gen. La Grange, tofill whose position was his chief ambition—so bamboozled Mr. Sturgis as to make him believe black was white, and that not only was New York’s fire alarm system not altogether behind the age. but also that, if it were, Mr. Smith was not responsible for such a condition of affairs—in fact, that he was as perfect as the fire alarm system itself. The upshot was that he was reinstated in his office, nd the fire alarm system remained as it was. FIRE AND WATER at the time severely criticized the conduct of the fire commissioners, and called for an act of the legislature for their abolition and the substitution of a single commissioner, such as we have now—the chief of the fire department to be alone responsible for the working of his department, including the operation and supervision of the fire alarm telegraph bureau. Fire Commissioner Scanned has adopted this suggestion, and now there is every hope that the fire alarm telegraph system, instead of being the weakest part of the fire department— made so by the action of the late board of fire commissioners, will be placed on the same plane of excellence as the other branches of the department.
In the issue of FIRE AND WATER for November 14, 1S96, under the caption “Should New York’s Fire Commissioners Be Abolished ?” it was pointed out that
the plain duty of the fire commissioners of the city of New York, in the case of Supt. Smith, of the fire alarm bureau,was to fill his position with a man of progressive ideas. * * * The present board of fire commissioners ought to go and the department be placed in charge of one fearless, responsible head.
Fire Commissioner Scanned has already proved himself a “fearless, responsible head;” he has intrusted Chief Bonner, a “man of progressive ideas.” with the superintendency of the fire alarm telegraph bureau, and the latter, in his turn, will have immediately under him in that department, as an overseer of the bureau in the boroughs of Manhattan and The Bronx, a man of ripe experience in everything pertaining to the office and its mechanical operations.