HAMMITT AND YATES ON FIRE PREVENTION
A feature of the conference of mayors at Auburn, N. Y., on June 3. was an address on “Fire Prevention As a Municipal Function,” by Joseph O. Hammitt, chief of the New York Fire Prevention Bureau, and a paper by Chief Henry R. Yates, of the Schenectady, N. Y., fire department, commenting on Mr. Hammitt’s address. Both were listened to with close attention, and commanded much favorable comment.
Chief Hammitt, said in part: “The country buys yearly a quantity of smoke for which it pays a round half billion dollars, which does not include the total loss, for to this must be added the economic loss—loss of employment, disturbance of industry and of financial conditions; and to all this there is the humanitarian viewpoint the most important—the loss of human life which averages in this country about 2,000 persons a year, and the injuries which deprive the sufferers of the capacity to enjoy life or to make their lives fruitful. The number of persons incapacitated at fires in this country each year is about 6,000. Should we count in all our losses, using the actuary’s figures of $5,000 as the economic value of a life, the figures would well run into billions instead of hundreds of millions. Considering the enormous amount of fire waste, is it not clear to the Mayors and other city officials present, that fire prevention as a municipal function can no longer be disregarded or crippled with inadequate appropriations and lack of support? And yet, with all this tremendous fire waste which had been steadily increasing from year to year, we have been spending huge sums of money and losing the lives of firemen in putting out fires, but have developed very little scientific prevention as a governmental function. Our methods of attacking the red plague of fire are as far behind modern methods of attacking the white plague of tuberculoiss as the lance of the mediaeval knight is behind in efficiency the rifle of the American soldier. Two lines of attack are open to the municipality which makes war upon its fire waste, having in view the protection of human life as the principal object, and the preservation of property as a secondary, but very important, consideration. One of these methods of attack is fire prevention in its narrowest sense. The other line of attack is fire prevention in its broader sense and consists of requiring in every building adequate and accessible exits through which all the occupants can pass in a short period of time to a place of safety in case of fire or panic. The principal aim of Fire Prevention as a Municipal Function is the protection of human life. The protection of property against destruction is a secondary, though very important, feature. The New York City Fire Prevention Bureau and its working Chief Hammitt described in detail, and then said: “Among the most important innovations introduced into fire prevention work in New York City are the monthly housekeping inspections by uniformed firemen. It was said by many that this idea was impracticable. However, it worked. Moreover, it has been a great success, and I cannot too strongly recommend that other municipalities follow New York’s example in putting into requisition the uniformed force for making such monthly inspections. More than 100,000 such inspections are now being made each month in New York City. They have resulted in an enormous cleaning up of rubbish piles which are acknowledged to be the principal fire breeders. In the course of a year, these housekeeping inspections should show results in a reduction in the number of fires. Another important feature is the education work. Illustrated lectures on fire prevention are given in the public schools, to civic societies, business associations, Y. M. C. A. meetings, Boy Scout organizations. and wherever suitable audiences can be secured. Several hundred thousand copies of fue prevention warnings in printed forms have been distributed. The Fire Department is co-operating with the Board of Education to introduce a course in fire prevention as a part of the curriculum in the public schools. We are taking up seriously the use of the moving picture theatres for the campaign of education. The Fire Dpartment is co-operating in the preparation of moving picture scenarios that will carry fire prevention warnings to audiences all over the United States. The possibilities of this work are enormous. We have attempted in New York work of special interest to other cities. In some foreign counfries a man on whose premises a fire is started is frequently held responsible for the cost of extinguishing the fire and also for damage to the property of others. I do not know exactly how the laws under which this responsibility is fixed in foreign countries are phrased, but we have in the New York Charter a provision under which we think that if a fire occurs or spreads because of the absence of precautions required by law or by lawful orders of the Fire Commissioner, the owner of the premises or person responsible for the violation is liable for the cost of putting out the fire and injuries to firemen sustained in fighting it. No suit had ever been brought under this section of our City Charter till the present Fire Commissioner went into office. Other states have made some progress in fire prevention work. In more than forty states there are now State Fire Marshals whose authority has been recently enlarged by the Legislature to include distinct fire prevention work. Most of the fires may be attributed simply to carelessness and bad housekeeping. It has been estimated by experts, and it seems to be a reasonable approximation, that carelessness will account for not less than 60 per cent, of our fires. There are two kinds of carelessness: carelessness in creating the conditions which lead to fires, such as allowing the accumulation of rubbish and waste, failing to remove clippings from the floor, neglect of common precautions against fire, faulty building construction and similar very simple ways of exhibiting lack of thought. The second form of carelessness is actually making the fires after establishing the conditions which lead to them. This consists in the doing of overt acts which directly cause fires, such as throwing away lighted matches, cigars and cigarettes; using naptha and other explosive substances too close to open flames; looking for gas leaks with lighted matches or candles; allowing sparks to fly from unprotected motors near accumulation of inflammable material—in fact, doing or permitting to be done a hundred and one things which could be avoided. The ‘human element* enters largely into the creation of our scandalous fire loss. An extensive campaign of education throughout the country showing people what they are actually being taxed each year -that each family is paying about $27.00 a year for smoke— would probably awaken the public conscience concerning the supreme importance of fire prevention. More than half of our fires could positively be prevented. This would save the country millions of dollars each year. If more money were spent on fire prevention, if efficient fire prevention bureaus were established in every municipality in this country, and if thse bureaus were given the proper support by public-spirited citizens, the problem would in part be solved.”
Comment by Chief Yates
Chief Yates, in discussing Chief Hammitt’s address, said in part: “I feel that this valuable amount of information not only should reach the ears of you gentlemen, but it should be published in every newspaper in this State, so that every one would have the opportunity of thoroughly reading it. I am also of the opinion that the principals of our public schools should have such a paper read before the pupils of certain grades. The red plague, so called by Mr. Hammitt, and unquestionably conceded as its proper name, has been greatly neglected throughout the state, especially in the rural districts. It is said that 2,000 persons a year are sacrificed from the red plague; 6,000 firemen incapacitated at fires. Officials of cities and villages know that such is the case, and still no endeavor is made to relieve such conditions. A few years ago the sad news was spread over the land of the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire. Funds were raised by people to temporarily relieve its sufferers. Shortly after, business was at a standstill, owing to the scarcity of money. The business man experienced trouble when he endeavored to cash a bank draft. Railroads paid their employes by checks. It was thought a wonderful act when the Secretary of the Treasury and Mr. Morgan relieved the New York banking conditions with a loan of seventy-five millions of dollars. But little did we consider what caused the money stringency. It was the San Francisco fire. Insurance concerns were compelled to pay in cash two hundred and forty millions. It was necessary for them to draw from banks and similar institutions a great portion of their earnings. Of course, we cannot lay the San Francisco fire to the lack of “Fire Prevention”; it was an act of the Almighty. And, still the tremendous fire waste, which has been steadily increasing, amounting to two billions of dollars for the past ten years, would prompt one to ask if Fire Prevention’ does actually prevent? We only find encouragement in the fact that the character of buildings throughout the country is improving and that the amount of fire waste remains almost stationary front year to year, on account of the progress that is being made toward correcting housekeeping defects, which have been largely responsible for many fires. As far back as 1835 lacariah Allen inaugurated in New England the first ‘Fire Prevention’ movement in this country, by introducing into his cotton factories what is known to-day as Mill Construction. I will give you a few figures at the time Mr. Allen was paying for insurance, and the reason lie so constructed his cotton mills, whjch might be called ‘Fire Prevention,’ which meant business economy to him: The old insurance rates on his mills were four per cent., or $40 on each $1,000 invested. He then started to insuie his own mills under the mutual insurance plan. This was the beginning of what is known as the ‘Factory Mutal System.’ At the present time the factory mutual system represents over two billions of dollars’ worth of property insured at a cost of 60 cents a thousand. This is where Fire Prevention comes in for business economy. When a firm or corporation intends entering the mutual field it is necessary to make application, and a thorough inspection is made. The owners are compelled to install such apparatus that is considered necessary, reconstruct buildings, and to provide every means to prevent fire, and to have adequate protection in case of fire. In many cases the expense for such changes and equipment is enormous, but when such required improvements are completed they are regularly inspected. In reference to underwriters’ insurance: the underwriters will insure gun cotton above ground or pig iron under water, it being immaterial as each building is classed separately and in many instances policies are written and accepted when the agent or writer really knows but little pertaining to what he is writing. His thought is the premium out of which his percentage comes. The number of fires would greatly decrease if the law would compel a thorough inspection, except on private residents, be made of each building insured before a policy is delivered. We all feel proud to know that New York City has such a splendid fire prevention bureau, and Mr. Hammitt’s paper should cause you gentlemen, who repreesnt your city and its Mayor, when you return home to get busy on this subject. Irrespective as to the size of your city, organize a bureau of fire prevention. Appoint sufficient help. Cause to be made a thorough inspection of evey building in your city. Establish a card system with a filing case, so that you will have the construction of every building, including the number of people occupying it, and for what purpose, the kind of power used for heat and light, and a general description of everything. Don’t let this proposition hang fire. Compel your building department to furnish you with a copy of every new building. Start this movement and improve your building code. If you will give this your personal attention and inaugurate such a system there is no doubt but what the loss of human life will decrease. Injuries to firemen will be less, the enormous amount of money blown away in smoke will decrease, and we can feel ourselves paying less taxes for fire departments’ maintenance and equipment. My city inaugurated a fire inspection bureau fifteen years ago. The Chief of the fire department has full jurisdiction over inspections of buildings. He has a uniformed deputy fire marshal, whose whole time is occupied in inspecting mercantile business places. Once each year a uniformed fireman from each of the nine stations is assigned for thirty-day inspection of every building including private residences. A regular system of reports is made to the company captains each day, and the captains report them on regular forms to the chief. The public cooperates with the department. Instead of applying for a warrant for the arrest of any one refusing to comply, I merely hand to the Police Court the person’s name, the nature of the violation, and the judge sends an officer for said person, stating to him my report, and informs him if he does not immediately comply with such notice that he will issue a warrant. The proper action immediately follows. Any person can call at my office and ascertain the owner, the occupant or occupants, name of each piece of property in the city, including full details of each and every building, whether business, factory or private residence. Before the Mayor can grant a theatre license, it is necessary for the chief to furnish him with a complete detailed report of such theatre making application for license. And, if the chief can see any reason where in any way the State or local laws are being violated, his report contains such information. The chief also notifies the Mayor of such violations and recommends that the license be revoked. When matters are quiet in the department a general inspection of yards is ordered. Each captain details a man for a few hours daily, until his district is completed. The regulation of explosives, gasoline, etc., are under the fire department. Not one tank containing such material is above the ground in Schenectady; excepting the materials used at the General Electric and the American Locomotive Company plants. In these two cases no danger can be done only to their own property, which they are wholly liable for. We feel such precaution has paid us well. Our insurance rates are among the lowest in the country. It is a pleasure to know that Mr. Hammitt indorses the State fire marshal department. I feel that it is the opinion of every chief in this State that the State fire marshal’s department has accomplished a great deal, and by all means should be continued: But, free from the mighty arm of politics and politicians. In conclusion I will compare two cities of nearly the same population. In Glasgow, Scotland, they have 23 pieces of fire apparatus, all motor propelled. Cost of maintenance, 1913— $125,000; fire loss 1913—$375,000. In Boston. Mass., they have 97 pieces of apparatus. Cost of maintenance, $2,000,000. Fire loss, between three and four millions.