Fires in Incinerators
The Little Known but Frequent Story of
BANNERS galore are carried by children, dressed in white, in the many Fire Prevention Week parades that are held throughout the country. They carry such legends as “Keep your cellars and halls free from rubbish and reduce the fire loss.” The people become excited.
That is why the parades are held, so that the public might become excited. The onlookers are excited into action and there are cleanups for a week. Then all is forgotten until the next display of fire apparatus and the white clad children in parades. That is, every one forgets hut the Tenement House Department inspectors, who continue their work.
What have these inspectors found? They have tabulated, for example, that there are still 66,000 old law tenements in New York City which may burn up overnight. That is a serious matter, for in that number of beehives, there are nearly 2,000.000 persons. While the buildings themselves are of flammable construction. the laws require that the halls and stairs be of fire-retardent construction. and the cellar ceilings, covered with a fire-retarding material to minimize the fire hazard.
Fires in these old time tenements are being gradually reduced because of the watchfulness of the Housing Department, and the work of the insurance companies. In some areas policies will not be written, and therelore the owners of the buildings take every precaution to keep their properties free from fire. The public is told of the decrease in the number of old law tenement fires. The public applauds.
But the public seems to slight the new tenement houses that have been built in the past thirty-five years and which have been proven fairly safe from fire. During that period, not one life was lost in a fire dvie to construction.
Spreading Use of Incinerators
However, in the past ten years some of the most modern appliances have been introduced, even in the moderate priced multiple dwellings. Of the many improvements, one of the outstanding is the device to eliminate the carting of garbage and refuse from the buildings. Normally, the refuse cans were stored on the sidewalk in front of the building until the Department of Sanitation cart or truck came along to remove the contents. As an added convenience for the tenant, builders have been installing incinerators in the multiple type dwellings.
Now instead of humoring a garbage can, the tenant deposits the waste material into a chute. This does away with the janitor and the tenants’ charges that the garbage is not removed as promptly as it should have been. The plan has its good points, for it does away with the unsightly garbage wagons and the awful stench that is left behind.
But actually the operation of the incinerators has not been very satisfactory. Complaints have been made about the odors resulting from the burning of the waste. Many fires have resulted, how many will not be known until the Fire Department makes a separate report.
Ironically, fires are supposed to originate in incinerators, for without a fire there would not be an incinerator. Basically, an incinerator is nothing more than a chute constructed of brick and lined with clay. The chute is open to the air at the top, and this opening is covered with a metal screen to prevent incandescent material from the fire box at the bottom of the chute flying out into the open. At the various floors, there are openings in this chute into which the tenants empty their wastes.
At first, when incinerators were constructed, a fire was maintained at the bottom at all hours, and the waste was burned as it landed down the chute from the many floors. But in the name of economy, the owners did away with this practice as being wasteful. Now the waste is permitted to collect, and when the chute is well filled, a fire is started about midnight. The fire, however, creates sufficient draft to carry burning particles to the top of the incinerator where it is forced against the screen. Flames and burning particles coming from the chute, when viewed from a distance, resemble a miniature Vesuvius. Passersbv have often sent in calls for the Fire Department in their excitement.
Many Fires in Brooklyn
In the Flatbush section of the Borough of Brooklyn, where some of New York City’s finest homes are located, there have been a number of serious incinerator fires. Undoubtedly these fires are caused by openings that form in the incinerator walls as the result of some unknown mechanical or chemical action.
Some serious fires have started in the hanging ceilings. Since there is always a current of air in an open space, the flame is dragged along until it burns through the roof and down through the apartments. Damage is caused by the fire, but much more by water, and the tearing down of walls to reach the flames.
Your guess as to why the openings form after the incinerator has been in use is as good as mine. Possibly, the cause may be faulty construction, or from some action resulting from the hot air from the bottom of the incinerator meeting the cold air from the top. It is now up to engineers to devise a better masonry joint.
While there have been chimney fires before, few have penetrated buildings—smoke, occasionally, yes, but not fire. This may be due to the fact that there is less heat in a chimney than there is in an incinerator. The matter is very serious. The incinerator has become an essential utility.
Cheap Coal a Hazard
Aside from the incinerator, another prolific cause for fires in dwellings, is cheap coal. To keep down the cost of heating in the lower rental tenements, “coal-dirt” is used. To get a better draft for this material, a blower is started, and this sudden heat is often sufficient to fuse the bricks.
Now for a summary. While inspectors may remove rubbish in cellars and halls and thus eliminate some of the fire hazards, no amount of inspection will determine any defects in the incinerator, or in a chimney provided with a blower, until there is a blaze. One of two things may be required—more rigid supervision of the construction of such chutes and chimneys, or amending the Building Code so that a letter class of material will be used.