FIRE EXTINGUISHMENT IN EUROPE AND AMERICA.
THE visit of Captain Eyre M. Shaw, Chief of the London Fire Brigade, to this country, has evoked much comment in the daily press upon the different methods employed in Europe and America for extinguishing fires. Captain Shaw’s purpose in visiting this country was to attend the Annual Convention of Chief Engineers at Cincinnati, and to inspect the Fire Departments of the more prominent cities While going about from city to city, he has expressed his opinion freely as to the merits and demerits of our system of fire protection; but, as he has usually been reported by persons who have but a superficial knowledge of fire matters, and who were evidently prejudiced against him, they have contrived to place him in the false light of a chronic fault-finder, who can see no good in anything that is not of English origin. This is scarcely fair to him, for, as a matter of fact, he has seen much to admire in our Fire Departments, and has been free to say so. His criticisms have been directed mainly to the faults in our system, and these are seen and acknowledged by our own intelligent Firemen, who condemn them even more emphatically than Captain Shaw does. Still, as this is a tender point with us, any criticism at the hands of a foreigner is sure to be resented. Nevertheless, we should profit by all criticism that is just, and be thankful that it is made.
The severest criticism Captain Shaw has to make of our Paid Departments—and we believe he has visited none of the Volunteer Departments—is that they are controlled by politicians and used as a means for furthering their political schemes. Under this system incompetent men are appointed to the force, they are changed about at the demand of their political sponsors, and promotion is largely dependent upon the amount of political influence ambitious individuals can bring to bear upon those in authority. Strict discipline is impossible under such a system, and the consequence is that the personnel of the Paid Departments is not so good as it should be. A prominent officer of a Paid Department, commenting on the character of the men employed in his city, remarked that “ their intelligence is not above that of the common laborer; they have no interest in their work, no ambition to excel; all they care for is to get around to pay-day with as little work as possible; yet they are paid wages equal to those received by skilled mechanics ; this is the result of politics: the executive officers of the force, the men who command at fires, have not a word to say as to who shall be appointed to the force or where they shall be employed ; it is in the power of the Commissioners at any time to destroy the efficiency of a Company by transferring its best men to other Companies, and they do this constantly; the Chief protests, but is powerless ; we cannot hope to have an effective Department under such a system.” Every word of this is true, and the magnitude of the fire losses in the city where the officer referred to belongs, is proof that a politically-governed Department is not capable of successfully coping with fires. In nearly every large city politics controls the Fire Departments in a greater or lesser degree. There are a few notable exceptions, and, as a rule, where the Chief is made the supreme power, there is to be found a better class of men in the Fire Service. This subject has been repeatedly discussed in the Conventions of Fire Engineers, and nowhere has political influence in fire matters been more earnestly or forcibly condemned than by the Chiefs. So intelligent and practical a person as Captain Shaw could not fail to discern in a moment that this is a radical defect in our system of fire protection. It has been frequently said that the officer in command at a fire must have all the qualities that go to make up a good general on a field of battle, yet he is expected to battle with an untiring and insidious foe with an army composed of untrained, ignorant, and unambittous men. He may have the best apparatus in the world, but, lacking the men to handle it to the best advantage, he is crippled and his best efforts too frequently rendered useless. No exceptions should be taken to any criticisms of our Fire Service on this ground ; on the contrary, the Chiefs should be thankful for any remarks that are calculated to eliminate politics entirely from the Fire Departments. In the Departments of the old world nothing of the kind is known, but the executive head is held responsible for all appointments, transfers, discharges, etc., of the men upon whom he has to rely for his success in extinguishing fires.
Captain Shaw expresses the opinion that the apparatus used in this country is too heavy and cumbersome, and the streams employed altogether too large. In London he depends largely upon light handengines and small streams, very rarely using a jet of water an inch in diameter. This style of apparatus may do for London, but it certainly would not do for any of the large cities of this country. Captain Shaw has unquestionably been remarkably successful in extinguishing fires in his city, but we believe the fire losses would have been decidedly less if he had more steamers, larger streams and greater celerity in getting to work at fires. London covers an area of 121 square miles, within which it is estimated there are $6,000,000,000 worth of property. The losses by fire are reported to be equal to only about five cents per annum on each $100 of this valuation. In keeping losses at this low ratio Captain Shaw must be credited with having been a most successful Fireman. But the conditions there are much more favorable to the successful control of fires than in any American cityi In the first place the buildings are much more substantially constructed, hard wood to a large extent doing duty where pine is employed in our buildings; most of the roofs are covered with slate; there are fewer elevators and other openings to convey flames from floor to floor ; the walls are more substantial, and in every way the buildings are of a better character. Of course, there are localities where old frame buildings predominate, as in all American cities, but these are not here regarded as especially dangerous, for they are neither high nor large, and when they take fire can be readily reached. But the point wherein London has the greatest advantage is in the aqueous condition of the atmosphere resulting from their constant fogs, which serves to keep the buildings constantly moist. In this condition they resist fire a long time. Here, on the contrary, our hot sun and high winds combine to extract all moisture from all kinds of building material, and to render it inflammable in the highest degree. The pine wood used in our buildings inside and outside readily ignites from heat, whether approached by conduction or radiation, and when once on fire the flames spread with the greatest rapidity. Travelers know that it is the boast generally throughout Europe that their buildings are of the most enduring kind, and they also bear testimony to the perpetually moist condition of the atmosphere in London, where an umbrella is a constant and inseparable companion. Under these conditions it is possible to fight fire with less powerful appliances than in our cities, but we are, nevertheless, of the opinion that they could be handled even more successfully than they now are by machinery of greater capacity, moving with greater celerity.
During the past few years effort has been directed in this country to obtaining large, powerful streams, and to gaining time in reaching fires. As a consequence, 1 and two-inch streams are obtained that can be handled as readily as a one-inch stream, and when an alarm is turned in, at a street box, an engine is due there within three or four minutes, to be followed immediately by others. By this celerity of movement, that is not approached in London, hundreds of incipient fires are extinguished that would have become serious conflagrations if given five minutes more headway. But when a fire does get well started in one of our modern combustible structures it is very difficult to control, for the reason that it is almost immediately a seething mass of fire from cellar to roof, the heat from which is so intense as to render it unapproachable at close range. Small jets of water thrown into such a mass of heat and flame would do no service whatever; they would not break through the wall of intense heat that surrounds the point of combustion, but would be vaporized at once and disappear. To reach the seat of fire under such conditions, large and powerful streams are required, propelled with sufficient velocity to penetrate the ascending column of heat. To get these, powerful engines are required, and, indeed, it is often found necessary to concentrate the power of several into a single stream to secure the requisite volume and velocity. In the army, when it is found necessary to use artillery at long range, or to batter down fortifications, they bring up the big guns, charge them with a great quantity of powder and roll in a monstrously heavy shot on top, and set it off. By this means great momentum is given to a large body, and it becomes irresistible within its natural limitations. So it is with a stream of water ; if it is required to penetrate a formidable wall of heat and flame, it must have both volume and velocity. The general character of the fires in this country that roll up our unequalled losses every year, is made up under the conditions to which we have alluded. Our building construction is against us as well as the atmospheric conditions. Captain Shaw says that he formerly used larger engines and streams, but that he finds the hand engines and small streams better suited to his purposes. We can retort by saying that we used hand engines and small streams in this country, until they were found to be wholly inadequate to contend with fires in our large, badly constructed and highly inflammable buildings. If we had nothing else to use in the present condition of our cities, Chicago conflagrations would be of frequent occurrence.
Upon one point Captain Shaw is mistaken. He says we use the same size streams to extinguish a fire in a lady’s boudoir that we would in a manufacturing establishment. It is true that we use the same engines, but upon these engines are relief valves, which permits the use of controlling nozzles, whereby the pipeman may regulate the size of the stream to be used, graduating it from a small spray to a 1‘/% inch solid stream, and may shut it off entirely at his pleasure while the engine is still working. These are appliances that, we believe, aie unknown in the London Department. It is as much the duty and the desire of our Firemen to prevent loss by water as it is by fire, and the pipemen are thoroughly instructed in this respect. Nevertheless, our losses by water are inevitably great, for the reason that our inflammable buildings are stored with goods of immense value, the entire destruction of which is threatened by the flames. To prevent the spread of fires in these dangerous buildings a liberal use of water is necessary, it often being required to drown out a building on fire at any cost because of its dangerous proximity to others, and to thereby prevent a conflagration. But water is judiciously used by our Firemen, as a general rule, and no greater amount thrown upon a fire than is absolutely required. They are taught to penetrate through smoke and flame to the very seat of combustion, whenever possible, before opening the nozzle at all, and there is no class of men who take more risks than our Firemen in carrying out these instructions.
While Captain Shaw is evidently a firm believer in the superiority of his system, he does not press his claim in any offensive manner. We do not believe, however, that he fully appreciates the difference in the conditions surrounding London and American cities, and the necessity for machinery of greater capacity than his, We are glad he came among us, and trust that his criticisms of our service, and the information he has imparted, will tend to bring about some desired improvements in our management of Fire Departments.