There are a thousand and one causes of fires but they may all be grouped reasonably, into about fortyfive or fifty general classes. Detailed reports on cards should recite the circumstances surrounding each fire so that in going over the fires by groups, further subdivisions may be made. There is now little uniformity in fire-cause records and it seems as though each city must work out its own salvation, gaining by experience. Without something definite for a base of operations it may be found necessary to change the record card half a dozen times in as many years in order to get at the right method. This has been the experience of nearly all cities although the technical papers have made suggestions from time to time. In line with the expressed intention of this book to give beginners an opportunity of profiting by the experience of others, the following list of causes of fire is submitted:
While ascertaining the cause of the fire it is an easy matter to secure other statistics for the records. The conscientious official wants to know how many frame buildings were burned, how many brick buildings were visited by fire, how many persons were injured, how many factory and how many dwelling house fires there had been and all the other interesting details. There must be room on a practical fire card for all this information. And in order not to divorce the fire prevention bureau from the fire extinguishing department it is just as easy to combine the records by providing space on the card for the number of apparatus in action, the length of hose used, the time spent in fighting the fire and all the other informaion needed. One feature of this combination card is that it lends itself to double filing. Made out in duplicate at headquarters one set may be kept by street and number and the other set by name, serving as a cross index which will make possible the instant accessibility of any fire record. The usual chronological record is always available in every company headquarters, so that a three-way system of records becomes available.
In cities where fire prevention has not yet taken hold the present system undoubtedly is inadequate in that there is not a sufficiency of detail in the records. In some communities the experts have gone beyond ordinary lengths. In this as in other lines something is needed between these two extremes. The following sample card is therefore submitted:
Progress City Fire Department
Given the information demanded by these cards it is a simple matter to prepare monthly statements which will include the following items:
The “occupancy” record will, of course, include a statement as to the number of fires in factories, in dwellings, stores, theatres, schools, stables, garages, apartments, hospitals and in places other than buildings.
All this is such interesting work and the information secured is so valuable that it carries its own reward. How simple and how complete and yet not one city in a hundred, except cities of the first class can show such records and even here we find the system is in its infancy.
And what is the good of all these records? Let’s see. The records show twenty fires from ashes. Fifteen of these twenty ash fires come from putting ashes in wooden boxes, perhaps while the ashes are still warm. The box takes fire and smoulders and no one notices it until smoke issues from the cellar and indicates the fact that firemen are needed in a hurry. The ash box has communicated its fire to other combustible materials and a merry fire is in progress. If this happens at night there is always the danger of loss of life. If the fire gets beyond control because of its not being discovered in time and the building is consumed it goes down on the records as “unknown.” But this is not the answer perhaps, to the query as to the value of records. True enough, but the answer is found in the knowledge that such things actually occur. The inspecting officer who finds ashes in a wooden box or against a wooden partition in the cellar or piled against a wooden fence or the side of a wooden house calls attention to the fact that there were twenty fires from this cause in his particular city during the preceding year.
Why do ashes start fires? Because there is always enough carbon left in the ashes to support a fire. If the ashes get wet, heat is generated. That’s enough to start any fire. And when the fire chief knows that ashes start fires and that he has had twenty fires from this cause in one year he is very apt to say, in fact, he ought to say to his sub-ordinates, “Let us see that there are less fires this year from ashes.” And careful inspection and educational work will result in a reduction of fires from this cause.
The second item in the tentative list of causes submitted calls attention to bonfires, a subject which, perhaps, has never been given proper consideration of even serious thought. In fact, on election night or on the occasion of any celebration, everybody from the Mayor down has sort of looked for these bonfires as part of the jollification. It brightens things up generally. But as the city grows in population and children are allowed to build bonfires and to play with fire in the streets, the records, if carefully kept, will show an increasing number of fires due to bonfires or from sparks from bonfires or from bonfires that have grown too big for the boys and girls to handle, necessitating the calling out of the fire department.
And. saddest of all, who has ever read of the burning to death of a child at a bonfire without feeling at heart as though this were an entirely useless sacrifice? For the sake of the childrens’ lives bonfires should be absolutely prohibited. They do no one any good but they often work incalculable harm. In one city of the United States, and probably in many more, ten or twelve children were annually burned to death at street bonfires. Then came an order prohibiting bonfires and the number of fatal burnings of this kind instantly shrunk to three or four a year. The work is not yet fully underway.
It is eminently proper therefore, that the chief of the fire department issue an order directing that no more bonfires be permitted. Of course, he has a right to issue an order to this effect. Let him take his people into his confidence and tell them why bonfires are to be forbidden, that children are apt to he burned to death, and he will find everyone ready to cooperate with him. It should be suggested that rubbish may be burned in old ash cans or other containers. Such burning does not come within the classification of careless bonfires.
The fire chief may be unable to do much toward reducing the number of alarms due to backfires in automobiles but the mere publication, in his list, of such fires may stir some inventive genius into a desire to patent some device making backfires in automobiles impossible.
Candle fires are a serious nuisance. Everybody has to burn candles at some time or other and it is absolutely impossible to educate everybody up to a high standard of carefulness in their use. There is no sense, either, in trying to put laws on the books concerning the use of candles. This may seem one of the causes that are mighty difficult to eradicate. It is. And yet, even here, may be found room for work. It is well to prohibit the carrying of candles in stables and barns or other places where hay is stored, or in establishments Where volatile oils are used or factories where celluloid, lacquer or similar materials are used.
Chimneys. What a world of meaning in this simple word! What a lot of work! What a mine for the man who wants to be a real fire prevention chief!
In some countries, members of the fire department are employed in keeping chimneys clean. I hey visit all the houses in their districts regularly and clean the chimneys. And for this work they are paid. That is the law. It is absurd in this country, of course it is. The fire department is not responsible, the owner of the building is responsible and he ought to be fined if he has a chimney fire. In some cities there is a provision in the ordinances imposing a penalty on the owner of a building where fire occurs because of soot in a chimney. But such an ordinance is unpopular, hard of enforcement and tends to bring the entire fire prevention campaign into discredit. We have not yet progressed that far along these lines. In fact we haven’t even started on this great work and that is one reason for this publication. If insurance could be withheld on chimney fire losses our National total of fire waste would be immediately reduced ten million dollars a year.
Chimney fires are often due to faulty construction. Careless masons are responsible but who ever heard of tracing a chimney fire hack to the mason and blaming him for the consequences? Not yet. But the building inspector has jurisdiction and every such case should be referred to the building department. Frequently one chimney fire in a row of houses will reveal faulty construction in every one of the buildings.
When soot collects in a chimney there is no telling what may happen. If soot, which is almost pure carbon, gets damp or wet it acts just like coal ashes under similar circumstances. It starts to burn. And it there is any crevice or crack or any little defect in the chimney where the heat can get out and fasten to a wooden beam, then and there we have the makings of a good fire. It may be a smouldering fire, simmering away for hours and hours before it finally breaks through. There have been instances in dwelling houses where smoke has been perceptible for twenty-four hours before its origin could be located. And there have been cases—oh, the pity of it—so many cases, where chimney fires in educational or charitable institutions have smouldered away undetected until in the dead of night when all were asleep there has been the sudden outburst of long-confined dame, the startling cry of fire and the death by burning of one or more of the inmates. You never can tell about a chimney fire. You never can be too careful.
And how easy it is for the fire chief to get up a little card or circular letter in which he may recite briefly the great danger of neglected chimneys. And how simple to send out such a circular or cause it to be distributed by members of his department, say in October every year, telling housekeepers and caretakers and manufacturers that just about this time is a mighty good time to spend a few moments in looking after the chimney rather than risk being burned to death. Here is a sample of a card that may be sent out in this way:
Progress City Fire Department NOTICE
More than a third of all the fires in Progress City last year were due to neglect of heating arrangements. The records show great loss of life and property throughout the country because of fires from this cause.
It is urgently recommended that every building of which you are the owner or the custodian be closely inspected at this season of the year. All heating arrangements should be looked after carefully and faults remedied. Every chimney should be cleaned out so that it will be free from soot. The carbon which collects inside a chimney forms one of the most serious of all fire hazards.
One of the easiest methods of cleaning a chimney is to pour a pail of coal down the chimney. As the coal rattles down the flue pipe it strikes from side to side and loosens all the soot which sticks to the sides. This soot falls down upon the throat plate and so does the coal. This plate can easily be removed and the soot taken out. The coal is retrieved and there is no loss nor cost.
(To be continued.)