Fire Service Progress —Prospect and Retrospect

Fire Service Progress Prospect and Retrospect


The fire which destroyed this plant of the General Motors Co. at Livonia, Mich., in 1953, with losses exceeding $25 million, taught the fallacy of large unstopped areas, lack of full sprinkler coverage and inadequate plant and public fire protection. The question is: Has industry learned the lesson?

The fire service has come a long way in the last fifty years—and if has a long way to go. Where is it headed and how fast is it going?

IT REQUIRES TWO POINTS to determine the direction of a straight line. Thus if we are to visualize the direction the fire service of the nation is headed, it is necessary to make an appraisal of the past and review its status as of today. From these two, the future of the service may be projected.

The first of the two “points” to be considered will be at the turn of the century; the second, 1956. Thus the trend during a half century will point the way for development expected in the future.

Fifty years ago

At the turn of the century there were no industrial plants of vast area as there are today. The assembly line method of manufacturing, requiring large, unobstructed floor space, had not come into being. With but few exceptions industrial plants were of relatively moderate size. There were comparatively few flammable liquids such as found today in most industries. Coal oil (kerosene), alcohol and a relatively small production of gasoline constituted the bulk of these common flammables. There were no huge refineries, tank farms or gasoline distributing centers, and correspondingly limited transportation hazards.

There were, of course, some flammable solvents, lacquers and thinners on the market, but in small supply.

Building construction, in general, presented few hazards to the fire service.

Fire fighting equipment then available was adequate to control all ordinary fires.

Water was practically the only extinguishing agent. Steam fire engines, hose wagons, ladder trucks, water towers and soda and acid chemical engines, all horsedrawn, constituted the equipment commonly employed by the average city fire department.

Fire department communication facilities were confined to fire alarm telegraph systems, and there were few of these, for only in the larger cities were they commonly found.

Personnel of fire departments at that time were on continuous duty, with a 24-hour work day and with but one day off in four, five or six.

Appointments were politically made, and a change in political control of a city frequently meant a major change in department personnel. In many cities firemen had to work for re-election of current political incumbents to insure their jobs.

There were practically no educational requirements for entrance into a fire department. It was at that time that an officer of an eastern fire department facetiously remarked, “The man who makes the best fireman is one with a strong back and weak mind.”

Explosive fires of unexplained origin are increasing. A blast followed by fire on March 28, 1956, wrecked many buildings in Philadelphia with heavy damage and loss of life. Only efficient work by the Philadelphia Fire Department prevented a holocaust

The pay of firemen was low, relatively farther below that of skilled workmen than it is today. And there were few pensions and practically no fringe benefits.

As indicated above, there was no protection of the job, for civil service examinations for entrance and promotion in a department were practically unknown.

Living conditions in fire stations were necessarily poor, for the horses were kept in the station with the men.

Hazards multiply in half-century

With the industrial advance of this nation during the past half-century have come fire hazards in number and size that stagger the imagination.

One development alone—the introduction of the automobile—has created more and greater fire hazards than existed at the turn of the century.

Refineries, tank farms, service stations, garages and transportation of gasoline and other petroleum products are all part of this development.

Then there are a multitude of other commonly employed liquids—over 300— which today add to the burden of the fire service. Among these are such highly volatile flammables as acetone, carbon disulphide, butadiene and many types of alcohol.

Other dangerous chemicals such as the chlorates, nitrates and peroxides, all of which are oxidizing agents and intensify a fire, have come into wide usage. So have hydrocyanic, nitric, sulphuric and nitric acids.

Even in the field of metals, which have commonly been considered as incombustible, there hax’e appeared some which are extremely dangerous, especially when in powdered form. Dust clouds of uranium, uranium hydride and zirconium may ignite at room temperature immediately upon dispersion in the air. Others, such as magnesium and aluminum, may ignite when a source of ignition is provided. Thus such metallicdust clouds in air constitute a severe explosion hazard.

Industrial processes, brought about by the amazing advance in chemical research, have added a myriad of hazards which today’s fire fighters must face. These hazards may involve explosion, fire or personnel injury. Toxic gases from chemical processes, or produced by fire involving them, create a major danger to firemen today.

The danger of explosion in a plant in which complex chemical processes are carried out is a constant threat to those who must work close at hand in controlling fire therein, as well as to the working force of the plant.

Lack of full knowledge of the characteristics and potentialities of a chemical process or product, particularly one of recent development, may result in catastrophe.

The Texas Gity disaster was directly chargeable to ignorance of what ammonium nitrate might do when involved byfire under certain conditions. Explosions imolviug molten salts being used as heating mediums in the heat treatment of various metals and alloys were fairly common until the process was thoroughly understood.

The disastrous Cleveland gas tank explosion resulted from insufficient knowledge of the process employed and the hazards entailed.

Many other potentially hazardous processes and materials have marked the advance of this country industrially. Some of these are: Synthetic and natural rubber processing, plastics. LP gas bulk storage, and natural gas transmission and distribution.

And in addition, we have the growing hazards incidental to the rapidly developing aviation industry.

Finally, the use of atomic power and the growing field of radioactive materials will pose newproblems for those who may be called in to extinguish fires involving generating stations or radioactive materials in storage or transit.

Modern buildings introduce hazards

In the matter of building construction, both industrial and mercantile, the changes over the past half-century have been revolutionary. Today, industrial plants of vast area, possessing no lateral fire stops, are common. Many of these plants, particularly in the metalworking industries, are literally oil-soaked. Absence of firebreaks, or fire walls, is the result of use of assembly line operations. Introduced first in motor car plants, assembly line production, especially where the plant is all on one floor, has grown in application until today most massproduced articles involve the use of assembly lines.

Vast developments in the chemical industry are increasing fire and explosion hazards. An example is the blast followed by fire which wrecked chemical buildings of the Seneca Division, United Refining Co. at Warren, Pa., October 30, 1955, with damage estimated at over $500,000

Many modern industrial buildings are of such vast area that should a fire occur near the center of the structure, it would be beyond the reach of fire streams operated from outside the building. Such was the experience at the big Livonia, Mich., General Motors transmission plant fire, where the loss was in excess of $25 million.

To make matters worse, means of ventilating such structures in the event of fires are frequently not provided.

Industrial plants today account for the largest fires, and for the major part of the nation’s fire loss. An analysis of fire loss figures of the National Board of Fire Underwriters, over a period of ten years, indicates that one-third of 1 per cent of the fires are responsible for over 60 per cent of the losses, and that these are primarily industrial in character.

Another innovation in building design today which will add to the difficulties of fire fighters is the completely enclosed, air-conditioned, artificially illuminated structure. Air ducts tend to spread smoke throughout the structure, while the absence of windows makes the locating and fighting of the fire particularly difficult. And unless the air conditioning system is properly designed and ducts provided with effective cut-offs, there is a likelihood of these ducts actually spreading the fire throughout the building.

The fire service keeps pace

During the past five decades of industrial advance, and within which were created fire hazards appalling in number and severity, the fire service has managed to keep pace with the responsibilities placed upon it.

When better pumping apparatus was needed, it was forthcoming—when better ladder equipment was needed, it was provided.

And where fire extinguishing agents, other than water, were required to control extraordinary fires, they too were developed.

The growing number and size of flammable liquid fires brought forth foam, both chemical and mechanical; then followed fog and fog-foam. Carbon dioxide, too, found an application, both in hand extinguishers and in installed systems, for controlling flammable liquid fires, as did also dry chemical.

For small fires of this type, carbon tetrachloride, chlorobromomethane, “loaded stream” extinguishers, methyl bromide, dry chemical and carbon dioxide proved effective.

Water fog, though nothing more than plain water in finely divided form, is daily finding new applications in fire control.

The introduction of wetting agents into water employed to extinguish fire has proved effective in increasing the penetrativeness of the water. The wetting agent enables water to readily enter materials which woidd shed plain water. Also, “wet water” fog is effective in extinguishing certain petroleum products fires, as well as providing a heat insulating coating to protect exposures.

When magnesium became available in quantity following World War II, the fire service was suddenly faced with the problem of controlling fires involving this metal. Magnesium fires could not be controlled by any of the common fire extinguishing agents. The fire equipment field went quickly to work, and came up with effective agents for this particular task.

Thus for each new fire hazard, as it appeared, the fire service has been given an effective extinguishing agent. Hence the service has been able technically to meet each new problem as it arose.

Fire department personnel marks gains

But the advance of the fire service was not alone a technical advance. Improvement in personnel outstripped that in fire fighting equipment and methods.

The adoption of civil service examinations for entrance into, and promotion in, the fire service practically eliminated politics in fire departments. It encouraged men to study for advancement.

Where fire department schools were established, the men had an incentive to attend and to master the subjects presented.

Reduction in working hours from the old system of continuous service to, in some cases, as little as 40 hours per week, and the gradual increase in scale of pay as well as providing pension systems, have attracted a higher class of rookies. Today, while many fire departments require candidates to have a high school education or the equivalent, a great number of those entering the service hold college degrees.

Because of the complexity of fire hazards encountered today by fire fighters, as well as the big variety of fire control media in use, there is real need for these better trained men. Where a fireman has a dozen effective extinguishing agents to work with instead of one, and where many types of fires require a specific type of extinguishing medium, it is apparent that the fireman must be thoroughly informed on the use of those agents and be able to determine on which fires the use of certain extinguishers is indicated.

The qualified fireman of today must have a general knowledge of chemicals and chemical processes, industrial processes, building construction, hydraulics and electricity, and a more complete knowledge of fire apparatus, fire extinguishing agents, salvage and laws and ordinances and rules and regulations, as they affect the fire service.

It must thus be concluded that the improvement in personnel of the fire service has more than kept pace with the advance in fire apparatus, equipment and extinguishing media.

Today, the fire service is a profession rather than just a job. And it is highly encouraging that the public in general is beginning to recognize this fact.

The future

The amazingly rapid industrial advance of this country may be expected to continue, and at an ever accelerated rate. The creation of each new product, or process, opens the door for a whole series of new developments.

The advance may be expected to bring forth hazards of greater complexity and greater potentialities of destruction. New manufacturing processes involving excessively high pressures and temperatures, and involving materials of unknown characteristics may be expected to augment the dangers to be encountered by fire fighting forces.

Research is continually bringing forth processes and materials, some of which are fraught with terrible potentialities. New synthetic products so developed may present fire and explosion possibilities undreamed of today.

The ignition of vapors from ruptured tanks of the East Ohio Gas Co., Cleveland, Ohio, containing liquefied natural gas, on October 20, 1944, killed 133 persons, injured many more, caused property damage of over $6 million and resulted in the revision of many fire prevention and building codes and zoning laws

To further augment the difficulties to be faced by the fire service, still larger industrial plants, equipped with more massive, costlier machinery may be expected.

How are we going to handle these formidable problems?

Of all big businesses, the fire service does the least in the way of research. While a few independent organizations, such as the National Bureau of Standards and the Engineer Research and Development Laboratories of the Army, have done a limited amount of work on extinguishing agents, practically nothing has been done on the phenomena of fire and its extinguishment. That there is an amazing lack of information on the basic effects of fire extinguishing mediums, and how they bring about the extinguishment of fire, is well illustrated by the case of dry chemical. No one knows for certain how this effective agent produces its results. Evidence indicates that it is not by the release of carbon dioxide gas from the sodium bicarbonate, nor is it brought about by smothering or cooling. The same situation exists in the case of certain other chemical extinguishers.

Thus here’s fertile ground for pure research which should produce a healthy crop of valuable information for those concerned with fire control.

There is also plenty of ground for research on fog, and particularly in the phenomena of indirect application. Also, the size of fog droplets for most effective extinguishing effect is a subject worthy of extensive research.

With foam, too, there is still room for research. For example, what are the potentials of foam in covering exposures?

Several new chemical extinguishers have been investigated and tested at the Engineer Research and Development Laboratories at Fort Belvoir, Va. Some show real promise from standpoints of both effectiveness and lack of toxicity. Here again is opportunity for some real research.

Nineteen fire fighters, seven of them members of the Dumas, Tex., Volunteer Fire Department and eight from the Sun Ray Fire Department, with four plant firemen, were killed July 29, 1956, when a small fire ignited vapors from a ruptured tank containing pentane and hexane. Thirty other men were injured

Research in methods of controlling large fires of different types offers possibilities. In each type, basic operations are similar. Through research it may lxpossible to set up basic procedures lor each type, and thus make available to fire departments information which will be invaluable in the event the “big one” does occur. Such research would include the type of extinguishing agent best suited for the task, as well as listing unusual hazards which might be encountered.

In the over-all effort to reduce fire loss, the most important step is to prevent fire from starting; next in importance is the automatic detection and extinguishing of fire, particularly where it is of fastspreading nature; finally, reducing the time between start of fire and its discovery—and transmission ol alarm.

Of the three, the last-named has the greatest impact on the fire service. When fire starts and gets out of hand, its control then becomes the sole responsibility of the fire department.

As stated previously, over 60 per cent of the fire losses of the nation are made up by one-third of one per cent of the fires. Thus it is up to the fire service to make the greatest cut in losses by checking fires before they become large.

Automatic detection and extinguishment

Automatic detection of fire and transmission of alarms have made major advances in the past few years. But there still remains a lot to be done. Electronic developments have speeded up the spotting of a fire, but automatic transmission of alarms lags in that still too many properties have not the facilities therefor available. The time may come when all major buildings in a city are equipped with automatic alarm systems which are directly or indirectly connected to the fire alarm headquarters. When such time arrises, there should be a marked reduction in the number of larger fires.

Progress in the automatic extinguishment of fire is being maintained, all proven extinguishing agents contributing to the over-all picture.

The widening application of foam, carbon dioxide, dry chemical and water spray for special hazards is indicated. Other agents, particularly chemical, are finding increased usage, especially in guarding against smaller hazards.

Not many major changes are anticipated in municipal fire fighting apparatus and equipment in the next few years. Present fire apparatus has the necessary power and pump capacity to meet all current needs. The future, however, may hold one revolutionary change in fire apparatus power plants: Great studies are being made in perfecting turbojet engines, and it may not be many years before these find their way into fire apparatus. Delivering approximately one horsepower for each pound of weight, their adoption would make available additional load capacity of a fire truck. Incidentally, the rapidly growing use of turbo engines on commercial aircraft, where weight reduction is such an important factor, is evidence of their advanced state of development.

If large industrial plant fires are to be avoided in the future, certain safeguards must be incorporated in structural design. Fire resistive construction must include roof and flooring as well as walls. Excessively large floor areas must be subdivided by fire walls. No part of floor area should be beyond the reach of fire streams directed from doorways or windows. Provision should be made for prompt venting to facilitate fire control operations. The General Motors fire at Livonia, Mich., well illustrated the soundness of these suggestions.

Training of personnel

Over the past decade great progress has been made in training fire department personnel. State, county and municipal fire schools have done an outstanding job in bringing training to the rank and file as well as to officers in both paid and volunteer departments. But much still remains to be done.

New products, new processes are continually being developed by industry, and many introduce new fire and life hazards. Thus training of personnel must be a continuous activity.

Most fire schools fail to train the student in actual fire fighting.

A mechanic working in a machine shop gets in the neighborhood ol 40 hours of experience a week or 2,000 hours a year. A fireman in a busy fire company, working under the two-platoon system would, on the average, get less than 100 hours a year of fire fighting experience. And yet he is expected to become thoroughly proficient within a couple of years.

If efficient fire fighters are to be developed in fire schools, these schools must also include “learning by doing”—actual fire fighting.

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The effectiveness of this method of teaching fire fighting was well illustrated during World War II when Captain H. J. Burke, USNR (later Chief of the New York City Fire Department), set up schools to instruct sailors in fire fighting. Before these trainees were supplied to carriers and other warships, many cralt, including various types of combat ships had been victims of raging fires. After the fire-trained sailors had been supplied to all Navy ships, not one was lost to fire. Though fires of tremendous proportion occurred in the carriers Franklin, Bunker Hill, Intrepid, Saratoga, Enterprise, Hancock and others, fire was controlled in each case and all reached port safely.

Other developments which may be looked for in the fire service in the future include wider use of respiratory protective equipment. Today, no fire officer knows what lethal fumes he may encounter even in the smaller factory fire. The complexity of chemical processes today and the rapidly growing host of chemical compounds will make mandatory complete protection of fire fighters.

Also, the detection of dangerous gases as well as radioactive substances at fires may become a common procedure with tomorrow’s firemen.

Company inspection of buildings, using radio to keep in contact with fire headquarters, will continue to gain in the coming years. It has proven itself.

Following the successful use of lightweight portable television cameras at the recent San Francisco political convention, we may expect to find growing interest in this new development by the fire service. It is not hard to visualize the tremendous help it would be to a fire chief if he could, by the flick of a switch, see what was taking place on all sides of, and within a fire building.

Finally, mutual aid setups, though near perfect in some parts of the country, will be even further improved. Better coordination of fire departments will come with experience. The time is near when every community in the country will have added protection against disastrous fires and major emergencies provided by mutual aid organizations.

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