THE JOURNAL has been the persistent advocate for the appointment in every city and village of a competent person to inquire into the cause of every fire that occurs, who shall be empowered to prosecute suspected cases of incendiarism. In many cities Fire Marshals are already included among the officials of responsibility, and whereever they exist they have rendered invaluable service in reducing the number of fires. From various causes incendiarism is on the increase, until at present insurance men estimate that one half the fires that occur are of incendiary origin. It matters not what leads to this result, the fact that there exists in every community men who are so depraved as to be willing to commit this most dastardly crime, is a constant menace to every propertyowner. He cannot tell at what moment his property may be destroyed by the act of some unprincipled neighbor, who sets fire to his own building to recover the insurance, or for some other cause. No city can predict what moment a conflagration, caused by an incendiary hand, may sweep away its wealth and prosperity, and involve all its citizens in common ruin. Every fire that destroys property increases the burdens borne by other property-owners; it removes from the list so much taxable property, and when the next tax is levied, the remaining property is compelled to make up the deficiency.
The desirability of having an officer or officers designated in every town and city, whose duty it should be to make full investigation into the cause ot any fire, with power to summon witnesses and make arrests whenever suspicious circumstances might appear, has been repeatedly urged. Where there is no one upon whom the law devolves these powers, even the most suspicious cases of fire are too likely to be passed without investigation. If it were imperative upon some designated official in every community to make such investigations, it cannot be doubted that many incendiaries would be caught who now go free, and not a few instances of fraud be unearthed. On this point the Chief Engineer of a Fire Department of a prominent town writes:
“ My idea of suppressing incendiarism is to have the State pass a law obliging every city and town to appoint a Board of Investigation, to consist of the Fire Marshal or Chief Engineer, and one or two others, whose duty it shall be to give every fire, however small, the most thorough investigation, and I am satisfied that if it were known that a full investigation were to be made into the cause of every fire, those of an incendiary origin would decrease fifty per cent.”
Upon the same subject the Chief of the Fire Department of a leading Southern city writes:
“An efficient Police can do more to wipe out incendiary fires than all the rewards. Give them the small assistance suggested («. e. a small secret service fund, appropriated by the city, to cover necessary expenses), a mere trifle, to enable them to investigate thoroughly every suspicious fire, and I am sure a decrease of fires of an incendiary nature will soon follow.”
From the Chief Officer of a Fire Department in another Southern city we have the following:
” There have been fires here, that if I had had the authority, I should have given some men a great deal of trouble about; but we have no Fire Marshal. The law is strong enough if you can prove the facts. Yon do not often catch a person, however, in the act of firing his place, but if I had the power to arrest, I think I could often find out something about fires.”
The Chief Engineer of an Eastern city writes :
•’ The only suggestion I could offer at this time is that all cities and large towns should have a Fire Marshal appointed by the Board of Fire Commissioners, who should be an active officer of the Fire Department, and be charged with the duty of investigating the cause of all fires.”
In his last annual message to the Rhode Island Legislature, Gov, Van Zandt said :
” It would secure greater protection to life and property from destruction or injury by fire, if the General Assembly would enact a law requiring each of the cities and larger towns, by their councils, to elect annually an officer to be called Fire Marshal, whose duty it shall be to investigate minutely the causes and effects of all fires occurring in his precinct, which destroy life and valuable property. The provisions of this act should allow the smaller towns optionally to appoint this officer. The Fire Marshal should have power to summon witnesses, administer oaths and to make legal complaint when he considers it necessary, without giving surety for costs. He should also make stated reports of his doings to the council appointing him, and should receive a reasonable compensation for his services and expenses. A law of this description would not only furnish valuable facts and reliable statistics for general use, but would protect life and property, and lead to the more certain detection and punishment of crime, and enable our citizens to secure insurance upon their property at diminished rates, as the proper observance of the law would decrease incendiarism and increase carefulness In buildings where fire is used for domestic or mechanical purposes.”
Mr. Oliver Pillsbury, Commissioner of Insurance for the State of New Hampshire, in his report of 1879, says :
“Two years ago I suggested the propriety of making it the duty of selectmen to visit the locality of every fire immediately after its occurrence, to make inquisition as to the cause, character of the property, value, amount of insurance, and any other items likely to throw light upon the subject, and report results to this office. This would call attention to the matter, awaken discussion, and be the means of collecting statistics that might afford a basis for some further action. It could hardly fail to put both insurers and insured more on their guard. People do not like to have their negligence or want of care exposed. M assachusetts and Kansas have had similar provisions in operation the past year, and, as I learn, with promising results.”
Upon the subject Chief William Stockell, of the Nashville (Tennessee) Fire Department, says:
•’ I have in my Department five Companies. I have had the City Council pass a law constituting each captain a police, officer, with power to enter all houses, dangerous or otherwise, to inspect the same, and order such changes as may be necessary to the better security of property.
» I have therefore divided the city into five districts, giving each captain a district to examine, and in the business parts, where there arc suspicious characters (as there are in all cities), I require visits to be made to those points more frequently than others. In this way they know we are constantly on the look out, probably at one time directing boxes and straw removed, and things generally straightened up; at other times taking a new man to learn the mode of ingress and egress. In this way, I have no doubt, we deter incendiarism amongst that class who would burn their property tor the insurance.
” Now, what we want is a law passed by the Legislature, requiring city and county towns to appoint a Board of Fire Inspectors, or a Fire Marshal, making it their duty to investigate all fires, and where there is sufficient evidence, circumstantial or otherwise, to arrest the parties and hold them for trial; under oar present system were I to Indict a person and he were tried for the offence, and the jury failed to convict, in nine cases out of ten I would be sued for ten or twenty thousand dollars damages, consequently no one can be found to prosecute, and the guilty frequently go unpunished.”
No one is better qualified to discharge the duties of Fire Marshal than the Chief Engineer oi a city or town. In several places the offices are combined and good results obtained. We commend the subject to Chiefs in the hope that the matter will secure actton by their authorities this winter.