Fire Prevention Methods of Volunteer Department

Fire Prevention Methods of Volunteer Department

Authority for the Regulation of Fire Hazards in Reading, Pa., Vested in Fire Prevention Board—Law with “Teeth” Backs Up Its Work

ONE of the few remaining of the larger cities which is still guarded from fire by a volunteer department is Reading, Pa. The following article, written by the fire chief of the city, will therefore take on an added significance, in that it describes a system of fire preventionregulation that has proved successful in practice. The problem of such regulation under the purely volunteer system would ordinarily be a most troublesome one, and the powers-that-be of the Pennsylvania city showed wisdom and forethought in trusting their volunteer fire prevention committee with the authority to enforce laws looking toward the prevention of fire:

Chief John G. Niethammer, Reading, Pa.

In fire matters, Reading is especially noted for three things. It has the oldest volunteer department in the United States, if not in the civilized world. It has a relief association, with a membership of 2,500 and assets amounting to $100,000. It has a prevention service, officially backed by the city, and which is acknowledged by the state fire authorities as being the best in Pennsylvania and which has aroused great interest in other commonwealths. They also give us full credit as being the pioneer in this activity, and have frequently referred to it, with illustrations, in the official bulletins.

It is this prevention service, gratuitously rendered bv the volunteers of my home city, and which has been a model for other communities, which 1 wish to dwell upon. We believe, in fact we know, that it has materially operated in keeping down the fire losses in Reading, which including suburbs, has a population of 120,000, and where, on the average, destruction by flame does not amount to much more than $1 per capita in a year. I am very proud of the accomplishments of our volunteers in this laudable enterprise.

Fire Prevention Practical not Theoretical

With “it is better to be safe than sorry” as our slogan, our fire prevention committee has been w orking for the past decade to convince the public that fire prevention is not theoretical or idealistic but that it is an intensely practical way of reducing the fire waste and will pay great dividends to the community in this respect. By everlastingly preaching this common sense gospel, we made steady progress in our self-imposed obligations to rid the city of hazards and with the co-operation of a large percentage of the residents the. results were most gratifying.

However, as there are always some people who assume a defiant attitude and our powers in such cases were limited, we succeeded in having Council pass an ordinance that defined what constituted violations and vested us with the authority to enter upon premises and prosecute offenders who ignored notices to clean up. We have invoked our prerogatives in several instances and with very salutary results. The obstinate violators, including a clergyman, were brought to terms, and the lesson the prosecutions taught had a very wholesome moral effect.

Creates Fire Prevention Board With Power

The bill provided for the creation of a Fire Prevention Board, consisting of the chief engineer and two assistant engineers, together with one member from each of the 14 fire companies of the city. The existing prevention committee, which was thus constituted, became the board. The duty of the board was set forth as that of keeping supervision over and ex amining all fire risks and for that purpose the members were given authority to enter upon any building and inspect the conditions existing therein, so far as the same refers to fire risks.

“We want to help, not persecute, and we do not expect resistance or defiance of such a character on the part of anyone that will require many prosecutions. We have noted a great improvement in conditions since the bill with ‘teeth’ has been enacted.”

Some Fire Prevention Provisions and Penalties

The ordinance makes it unlawful to handle or maintain any bonfires or other fire in the open unless written permission is obtained from the chief of the fire department; to deposit ashes, smouldering coals or embers, grease or oily substances or other matter liable to spontaneous combustion within 10 feet of any wooden or plastered wall, partition, fence, floor, sidewalk, lumber, hay, shavings, rubbish or other combustible material except in metallic or other noncombustible receptacles; to fail to remove all combustible trash or fragments from premises at the close of each day which is not compactly baled or stacked in an orderly manner or stored in non-combustible receptacles; to store packing boxes, barrels or similar combustible containers except in the open, without obtaining a permit from the chief. Chimneys, furnaces or smoke stacks found defective shall be immediately repaired upon written or printed notice from the chief.

The penalty for neglecting to comply with any order or notice issued, upon the conviction of the offender before any alderman, is the payment of a fine of not less than $25 nor more than $50. together with costs, and in default of payment, the violator shall be imprisoned for a period not exceeding 30 days.

The council furnished each member of the hoard with a metallic badge, similar to a policeman’s, which are under control of the companies and can be recalled at any time if the authority invested in those wearing them is abused. They bear the name and number of the companies, according to the order of the date of their institution. This was done so that the wearers can he properly identified when they call at a place to investigate a hazard.

City Divided Into Zones

The city is divided into nine zones, with one or two members assigned to each, depending on its size. Kach fire patrolman is expected to confine himself to his own zone but in case of a very serious condition, he can notify the one responsible in a district other than his own to remedy the same and then turn the complaint over to the member having jurisdiction in that territory. Citizens in general are invited to cooperate with the committee in reporting hazards, which is a great help in promoting the cause.

Periodical Meetings With City Officials

The committee, together with the city superintendent nf public safety, state factory inspector, city building inspector and the chairman of the prevention committee of the Chamber of Commerce, meets once a month, or oftener, if the occasion demands it. hears the hazard reports and indulge in discussions concerning the activities of the work. These gatheringare profitable and keep the members in thorough touch with the situation. Talks are given by authorities on various pertinent subjects and they are very helpful in the formation of constructive programs. Representatives of civic organizations sometimes attend the sessions and they express agreeable surprise at the scope and the comprehensive character of the labors of the body and the ends sought.

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The committee for years has been advocating a new building code for Reading, for it realizes that the passage of such an ordinance would be of essential aid in its work. The prospects now are better than ever that such legislation will be enacted.

Careful Schooling in Fire Drills

Under the guidance and tutoring of the members of the committee or board, the public and parochial schools, industrial plants, theatres, stores and institutions of Reading are conceded to be the best in the state in the matter of fire drills. Exceptional examples are the high schools. The record at one. where 1,406 pupils were dismissed in one minute and twenty-five seconds, has never been surpassed. The time was officially taken by State Deputy Fire Marshal Morgan on Fire Prevention Day of this year.

Object to Help Not Persecute

The committee was the first of a volunteer department in the state to be recognized as state deputy fire wardens by the state bureau and its members are the only ones who carry credentials from the latter. It also was the first to be officially recognized by any city council of Pennsylvania.

Since the work was systematically launched in 1916, the committee has investigated 5,000 hazards and succeeded in removing practically all of them. The work was originally inaugurated three years before by William W. Wunder. The passage of the bill by council has resulted in the cutting of a lot of red tape and has brought about a much better understanding between the investigators and the business interests. We want to help, not persecute, and we do not expect resistance or defiance of such a character on the part of anyone that will require many prosecutions. We have noted a great improvement in conditions since the bill “with teeth” has been enacted. Residents, manufacturers, merchants and others are beginning to thank us for what we are doing for the municipality in reducing the perils of the “Red Demon” and thereby preserving property and life. With their assistance, we will rid the city of these lurking dangers to the greatest extent possible. The members of the board are not paid for this work. Doing service for the community means more to them than money.

Rural Sections Also Organized

I might say that the rural sections of Berks County, of which Reading is the county seat, also is organized into zones, the companies in which are doing effective work. They are in close touch with the Reading department and the prevention committee and we assist them in every possible way. Whenever I receive a request for help from any rural district in case of a serious fire. I dispatch local companies with apparatus to the scene, no matter how far away. This is an example of how closely the 70 volunteer units of the city and county co-operate in giving battle to flame and smoke.

(From paper read before the annual convention of the Keystone Fire Chiefs’ Association in Philadelphia.)

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