Fire Prevention in New York City

Fire Prevention in New York City

Chief Peter C. Spence

FIRE is the most dreaded word in our language. The greatest disasters recorded in history began with a fire. Nero and the burning of Rome, Fire ravaged London for four days in 1666. Chicago suffered from it in 1871, and 100,000 people were made homeless. San Francisco had a terrible experience—an earthquake and fire—the worst in American cities. The City Hall was completely wrecked. The Grand Opera House and other theatres fell to pieces or were consumed by flames. Loss of life reached 1,000 and the property was damaged 250 million dollars’ worth. The earthquake destroyed the water supply and left the city at the mercy of the flames. Earthquakes caused the fire on Tokyo in 1923. The houses were constructed of wood with paper walls and a heavy thatch of straw. From 60,000 to 70,000 people were killed; 25 square miles were burned and over 100,000 persons were driven away.

In England the fire losses are over £12,000,000 annually. In the United States, because wooden and frame houses are more common than in Europe, the losses are over half a billion dollars annually, or approximately five dollars per person.

In 1835 a fire in this city burned 530 buildings, 1,000 mercantile firms lost their places of business, the area burned covered 52 acres, and the loss was 15 million dollars. Ten years later another fire destroyed 300 buildings, 35 deaths occurred and the property damage was seven and a half million dollars.

Conditions That Cause Conflagrations

These were conflagrations. A conflagration is a development of a small fire under supporting conditions. A strong wind, scarcity of water, lack of fire fighting apparatus, defective or combustible construction-all contribute. Even in the absence of natural wind, a large fire produces a disturbance of the atmosphere sufficient to move a super-heated cloud of air and produce air currents which set on fire all that is combustible in its wake. For instance, in the Atlanta conflagration, the second house to ignite was a mile from the original outbreak; the next was a mile off in another direction; and the fourth building to catch on fire was in between. These different blazes united, and spreading over a burned area destroyed hundreds of houses, wiped out the savings of thousand and resulted in many deaths and untold misery.

No outline of fire prevention activity is complete without mentioning the fire of the Triangle Waist Company in the Asch Building in 1911. where 147 lives were lost. The agitation following this loss of life influenced the State Legislature to appoint a Factory Investigating Commission that took testimony and studied the hazards in factories to which workers are exposed, and enacted legislation known as the Labor Law.

Fire Prevention Laws

The Labor Law requires two protected exits for factory workers, interior fire alarms and fire drill, doors opening out, sprinkler protection under certain conditions, and what is termed the Philadelphia fire tower in high buildings, as well as fire resisting and fireproof construction. The result of these laws is that loss of life in factories due to exits and their protection has been reduced to nil. The Hoey Law of 1911 created a Bureau of Fire Prevention in the Fire Department. The purpose was to centralize responsibility for the enforcement of laws relating to Fire Prevention.

By the enactment of Chapter 503 in 1916, the jurisdiction and enforcement of laws (including the Labor Law) relating to the construction, occupancy and use of buildings, was relegated to New York City departments. The Board of Standards and Appeals was created to make, amend and repeal rules for carrying into effect the provisions of ordinances relating to the construction of buildings. This makes for flexibility in the application of laws and encourages advancement in the development of materials and methods of construction.

Fires in 1932

During 1932 there occurred 31,223 fires; 18,908 were in buildings, 142 in vessels, and 12,173 were classed as miscellaneous. This is an average of over 85 fires per day, 365 days of the year. Of greater and more serious concern were the fatalities—117 deaths in the greater city. A much greater number were injured, causing death, and the uniformed fire-fighting force suffered injuries and deaths. Of these fatalities, 74 occurred in tenements or multiple dwellings; 25 were in residences; 2 in public and private garages; 6 in furnished room houses; 4 in sheds, and the balance in miscellaneous occupancies.

New York City covers 201,446 acres, or 315 square miles. It has a population of over 7,000.000, a total of 663,784 buildings. The loss in property for 1932 was nearly 18 million dollars. For each thousand of population there were 4 1-3 fires, and the per capita loss was $2.48.

No more important task confronts us than the saving of life and property. With this thought in mind, the Greater New York Charter was amended in 1933, the Governor signing Chapter 764 on April 6, consolidating the personnel and the functions of the Bureau of Fire Prevention with that of the Bureau of Buildings, forming a Department of Buildings in each borough, having in mind that stability of construction is a desideratum to be attained first and foremost.

Fire Regulations in Buildings

Public buildings over 20 feet high where persons are harbored to receive medical, charitable or other care are required to be constructed fireproof. So are buildings over 40 feet high and 5,000 square feet in area where people congregate for civic, political, educational, religious or recreational purposes. This establishes a principle that places of public assembly must be fireproof. Likewise tenement houses or multiple dwellings over 6 stories in height should be so constructed. Every other building over 75 feet high, and every garage, motor vehicle repair shop, or oil selling station exceeding 50 feet in height must be built fireproof.

Provisions as to Sprinkler Protection

The protective value of a sprinkler system is evidenced by that provision, every building within the fire limits exceeding 7,500 square feet on an interior lot, or 12,000 square feet facing two streets, or 15,000 square feet facing three or more streets, need not be fireproof unless the area is double this amount when a sprinkler system is installed. Non-fireproof garages or oil selling stations are required to have the columns and girders and the floor and roof construction protected with fire retarding material. The Board of Standards and Appeals prescribes by rule how this should be done.

The Charter provides how shavings shall be stored by carpenters; regulates the kindling of fires and discourages chimney fires by prescribing a penalty for them.

Hoistways, well holes and iron shutters are required to be closed at the completion of business daily as a protection from exposures. Inasmuch as a frequent cause of fires originates with the lighting, lights are required to be protected.

Fires or open lights on vessels transporting petroleum are prohibited.

The Commissioner of Buildings is required to compel the periodical holding of a fire drill as a practice in the use of exits and buildings where numbers work or congregate.

If the laws for the protection of buildings and their occupants are not complied with and the premises are considered unsafe, application may be made to the Supreme Court for a mandate to vacate. This has been done in several cases.

“Philadelphia” Fire Tower Provided For

All new factory buildings over four stories in height must be built fireproof with two exits on every floor, and when the building exceeds 100 feet in height one of the exits shall be what is known as a Philadelphia fire tower. Before entering this stair, the occupant first enters the open air to avoid danger from smoke and suffocation.

Stairways in all factory buildings over one story in height must he constructed of incombustible materials and enclosed fireproof. A basic principle insists that all exit doors open out.

To prevent the travel of fire from floor to floor, all elevator and dumbwaiter shafts, vent and light shafts, pipe and duct shafts, hoistways, and all other vertical openings shall be enclosed fireproof.

Even in old buildings built before October 1, 1913. where manufacturing is carried on, two exits remote from one another are required.

Number of Persons in Factories Limited

The population of factories is limited to the number that can safely escape by means of the exits. In a new building 14 persons are allowed for every 22 inches of stair; and in an existing one, built before October 1, 1913, 14 persons are allowed lor every 18 inches of stairway. This allowable occupancy may not control if there be not sufficient sanitary accommodations.

In a factory building more than two stories in height, in which more than 25 persons are employed above the ground floor, an interior fire alarm signal system shall be installed, and fire drills are required to be held every month. Where a sprinkler system has been substituted an alarm and drill are not considered necessary.

In factory building over seven stories of 90 feet in height, in which wooden flooring and trim is used and more than 200 people are employed, an automatic sprinkler system is required.

Since combustible clippings and waste accumulate on factory floors and cause fires from discarded smoking materials and in other ways, fireproof receptacles must be provided for safe temporary storage.

Smoking in factories is prohibited, and such is a menace which must be curbed if the fires, fatalities and losses are to be reduced.

Protection of Outside Openings

Every business building over 40 feet high is required to have the window openings protected with iron shutters, fireproof windows or open sprinklers. This is to shut out fires originating in nearby structures. In 1898 the Vanderbilt Building caught on fire from the Nassau Chambers, 40 feet away. The iron shutters hung on nine windows on each story were left open. The need for window protection was emphasized by the Baltimore conflagration. The absence of shutters or fireproof windows permitted the fire to get beyond control.

Regulations for Hotels, Theatres, and Public Buildings

The hazard of panic is present in all buildings of a public character, such as hotels, churches, theatres, restaurants, railroad depots, public halls and other buildings of public assembly, including department stores where large numbers congregate. In such the halls, doors stairs, seats, aisles and lighting are subjects for consideration to afford safe egress in case of fire or accident.

Theatres and other places of amusement accommodating over 300 persons must be constructed and arranged in accordance with provisions of the code. Hose and standpipe are required; the stage must be protected with a sprinkler system. A fire pump and gravity and pressure tanks are required. A feature of every theatre is the metal or asbestos curtain at the proscenium, separating the stage from auditorium.

The Funeral Pyre of Ten Aged Women Inmates Firemen need no description of this building. They can tell from the character of the ruins, the unsafe construction of the building at Brockville, Pa., which housed the Pennsylvania Memorial Home. Fire started in a washroom and spread rapidly. Ten aged women inmates who were bedridden, burned to death, and five others were rescued. Ashes and twisted bed frames are all that were left of the home.

Inasmuch as fire fighters have of necessity to ventilate fires in their work for various reasons, skylights must be constructed over the stage and so arranged as to open automatically, drawing the fire upwards and with the curtain preventing it mushrooming out over the audience. All scenery and drapes are required to be so treated as to be flame-proof.

The Iroquois Theatre Fire in Chicago

In December, 1903, a fire occurred during a matinee in the Iroquois Theatre in Chicago, resulting in the loss of 566 lives. It started on the stage among some drapery. In less than 30 minutes it was extinguished. Loss of life was due to panic. Standees were in the aisles. There was no aisle back of the seats. Those coming down from the balcony had to pass through the lower door in order to exit, instead of by way of a separate and independent stairway. There were no roof vents, the skylights over the stage did not open and the proscenium curtain could not descend. The inside doors opened inward. Many of the outer doors were frozen fast and could not open out.

Standpipes for High Buildings

All buildings over 85 feet in height and 10,000 square feet in area are required to have standpipes, with hose on racks, valves, checks and a gravity tank above the roof with a 20-minute supply of water for immediate use in case of fire. By the time this is exhausted the firemen would have their pumper connected with the Siamese at street level with water supply sufficient until extinction. A standpipe substitutes for the “fire plug” or hydrant at the curb a hose outlet in the staircase on each floor of the building.

Inasmuch as illuminating gas at a fire is a menace to firemen and others in the building an accessible stop cock on the supply pipe is required on the outside of the building to shut the gas off.

The Law as to Inflammable Liquids

Chapter 10 of the Code of Ordinances regulates the refining, distilling, manufacture and storage of fuel oil, volatile inflammable oil (such as gasoline) and illuminating oils (such as kerosene) and lubricating oils. The floors of premises where such are permitted shall be kept clear of waste paper and other inflammable material, and shall have metal cans for sawdust or cotton waste for cleaning and also sand buckets for use in extinguishing fire.

An inflammable mixture is a liquid or substance which emits an inflammable vapor below 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Kerosene oil, a product of petroleum, does not emit an inflammable vapor below 100 degrees Fahrenheit. A combustible mixture is defined as one which emits an inflammable vapor between 100 degrees Fahrenheit and 300 degrees Fahrenheit when tested.

Inflammable mixtures would be dangerous to use as a stove polish or insecticide, so such use is forbidden. With a flash point below 80 degrees Fahrenheit such shall not be used for metal or furniture polish or cleaning fluid. Each bottle, can or container shall contain a warning “Caution, do not use near fire or flame.”

Commercially combustible and inflammable mixtures may be shipped in 5-gallon cans or steel drums of 55 gallons capacity.

Inflammable or combustible mixtures may not be manufactured

  1. within 50 feet of a hospital, theatre, or place of assembly
  2. which is occupied as a tenement house, dwelling or hotel;
  3. which is of wooden construction;
  4. while is artificially lighted by any means other than electricity;
  5. where drugs or tobaccos are kept for sale;
  6. where dry goods or other material of a highly inflammable nature are manufactured, stored or sold;
  7. where matches rosin, hemp, cotton or any explosives are stored or sold.

{To be continued)

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