HOME FIRE INSPECTIONS . . . Past, Present,—and Future

HOME FIRE INSPECTIONS . . . Past, Present,—and Future


Briefing by officer before men start calls is one step in Los Angeles County field radio home inspection program

—L. A. County F. D. photo

Following briefing, men start inspections while driver remains in apparatus to monitor radio. Note trim uniform

—L. A. County F. D. photo

Will fire company field inspection reduce the heavy losses with their high fatality incident—particularly among children? This study, by the Editors of FIRE ENGINEERING, would seem to prove it will.*

IT IS APPROPRIATE that the continuing theme for this year’s Fire Prevention Week (October 7-12) should be “Children and Fire Safety.”

Of the 11,500 persons who die needlessly by fire each year in this country, it is said the very young and very old predominate. The precise figures are not known. But it is conservatively estimated that fully 4,000 children are victims of fire, while several times that number suffer injury, many of them, permanent disfigurement.

The statisticians tell us that there are an average of 1200 home fires every day and that these fires claim more child victims than any other kind.

* This report is dedicated, with grateful acknowledgment of his assistance, to Jay W. Stevens, who, more than any other living student of lire prevention, has awakened the public consciousness of the senseless slaughter by lire of over 4,000 young people annually in this nation. Thanks are expressed also, for the assistance rendered the editors by fire chiefs, fire service organizations and others, too numerous to mention in the preparation of this study.

Every experienced fire fighter, whether he agrees with these statistics or not, will admit that this needless killing of young people offers about the greatest opportunity for practicing sound, energetic fire prevention that a willing fire service could hope for.

Therefore, if it is desired to effectuate the 1956 Fire Prevention Week slogan “Don’t Give Fire a Place to Start,” the place to begin is in the home. It is as simple as that: If we can prevent the occurrence of fire in the place where most fires start (1,200 of them every day), and where most fire casualties occur—the home—we will have preserved lives and property.

It is difficult to find fault with this reasoning. But it isn’t difficult to find the most logical means to prevent these fires from starting. The answer is to have a continuing home fire safety inspection program.

This conclusion is no surprise to most veteran fire fighters. They have long known that carelessness, like charity, begins in the home. They have known that intelligent fire prevention also must begin in the home, with the householder, and his family—particularly his children. But regrettably enough, with but a few glaring exceptions, fire fighters have been content to bask in the shadow of that (hoary) old catchphrase “every man’s home is his castle,” and practice a strict ‘hands off’ policy, insofar as it concerned inspection of private dwellings. Thus we have seen inspections of living places largely centered on multiple dwellings, tenements and places of assembly where the fire inspector had legal as well as moral right to inspect, locate and correct real or potential fire causes.

Some had vision

We mentioned exceptions. There were a few stalwarts who were not dismayed by slogans or laws written and unwritten about the sanctity of the home. One of these was the late Chief Daniel B. Tierney, of Arlington, Mass., one-time president, and for many years secretarytreasurer of the International Association of Fire Chiefs.

Chief Tierney was long aware of home hazards and home casualties caused by fire. He determined to do something about it. And he did. He believed that the place to start was the residence basement where in his days, the majority of house fires originated. He believed that with the proper approach and appeal, the average householder would welcome the inspection of his basement or, if he wouldn’t exactly welcome it, he would permit it, when done courteously and intelligently by uniformed firemen.

Los Angeles County fireman calling on housewife to ask cooperation during dwelling inspection campaign

—L. A. County F. D. photo

Backyard hazard explained to housewife by L. A. County fireman during home fire prevention inspection drive

—L. A. County F. D. photo

Chief Tierney may not have been the first in the nation, but he was the pioneer in New England, to institute the first home inspection program. That was over 30 years ago, a practice which we are told has continued in his city to this day. Year after year, the annual reports of the Arlington Fire Department have contained such passages as these (from the year 1943):

“For the twentieth consecutive year, firemen inspected the cellars of every residence in town. Only six fires occurred in residential cellars as compared with 7 in 1942, 8 in 1941, 10 in 1940, and 11 in 1939.”

Providence goes further

The example set by Chief Tierney in Arlington was followed by a few other progressive chiefs in New England and elsewhere. One of these was Chief Frank Charlesworth, of Providence, R. I. In November 1932, FIRE ENGINEERING told the story of the unique success accomplished in that city.

In 1930 Chief Charlesworth’s department conducted a six week’s inspection drive, in which 77,077 dwellings were visited. Admittance was refused at only 231 homes. During the campaign the city incinerator handled 35 extra tons of rubbish daily. It took in 3,500 old Christmas trees, although the inspection was made eight months after Christmas. Thirtyeight hundred old mattresses also were sent to the incinerator.

Chief Charlesworth’s men, like Arlington firemen, confined themselves to basements. The firemen volunteered their services, working on off-time. Before the drive started, the Chief talked with and secured the cooperation of local newspaper editors, which daily carried stories, cartoons and news about the enterprise.

Firemen wore full uniform and called in pairs. They asked permission of the housewife to inspect the basement and requested her to accompany them, calling her attention to the defects and hazards. Two pamphlets were left with the housewife, calling attention to other parts of the house and hazards which might be found therein. These are all sound inspection practices still being followed today.

From tile early start, Providence has variously maintained its inspection programs. Chief Lewis A. Marshall, when he took over, instituted radio apparatus inspections which have received wide publicity and have proved very successful.

Even before these New England departments were pioneering home inspections to strike at the root of most dwelling fires, the City of Portland, Oregon, was completing almost a decade of such preventive work.

Portland and Stevens pioneer

The moving spirit in this enterprise, and the man who has preached and practiced inspections to prevent fires was, and still is, Jay W. Stevens now executive secretary of the International Association of Fire Chiefs.

Away back in 1914, Jay, then Fire Marshal of Portland, began sending men between meal hours to make home inspections. This was done under the directions of Captain Edward Grenfell, now head of the city’s fire department, who, incidentally, has continued the fire department inspection program, with some trimmings of his own, almost ever since. The Portland Fire Department will always remember Jay Stevens as a former battalion chief, but posterity will acclaim him as the exponent and torch-bearer of home inspections.

Suffice to say that as the original Portland program developed, the city’s fire losses were cut 80 per cent in four years —no mean accomplishment in those days.

So much for early history. But notwithstanding these shining examples, the idea of firemen carrying fire prevention into the places where people lived was slow to germinate. This concept of fire prevention itself limped along for many years, wrestling with the wooden shingle, and what seemed other and more serious prevention problems. And so homes remained closed to fire fighters—until fire struck and then the smokeaters were more than welcome (if the householders were alive to do the honors).

Following the years of spasmodic efforts to find and correct home fire hazards, it remained for Fire Chief John H. Alderson, then head of the Los Angeles City Fire Department, to get the home inspection plan “on the road.”

Almost his first act after his election to presidency of the I.A.F.C. in 1950, was to call upon Jay Stevens and inform him that he was appointing him chairman of a fire prevention committee, with full power to act. Chief Alderson not only pledged his full support, he gave it.

President Hoover heads group

Thus came into being the first truly nationwide plan whose primary aim was to save the lives of 4,000 or more children and prevent hideous injury to countless thousands of others, through home education and visitation. A formidable committee of nationally prominent persons was formed representing leading civic, commercial, fraternal, labor, church and other organizations, with no less a person than former President Herbert Hoover as its head.

A personal letter from Chairman Alderson went to some 17,000 fire chiefs urging their active participation. A prime object of the drive was to have every one of the 50 or more million homes in the nation visited by uniformed firemen, who would personally point out the hazards which were taking an increasing toll of lives and property.

The plan, with only a modicum of financial support, nevertheless took root and inspired many a local campaign. It received further impetus as enterprising fire chiefs saw a fertile field for the broader use of their fire service mobile radio through company field inspections. Still, it was necessary to create—and recreate enthusiasm for such effort. This the I.A.F.C. attempted to do, with the welcome aid of the National Board of Fire Underwriters, the National Fire Protection Association, International Association of Fire Fighters and other cooperating agencies.

As part of Minnesota statewide fire prevention conference. Governor Orville Freeman inspects building after helping extinguish fire purposely set to demonstrate latest fire fighting methods. Statewide drive was sponsored by American Hardware Mutual Insurance Co.William Raney sadly stares at ruins of his home near New Ashford, Mass., following fire in which his son died in a futile effort to save a sister who had escaped. Raney’s wife was badly burnedThe Nation's Save Lives by Inspection campaign has taken many forms. In Memphis, Tenn., this effort was directed toward protecting unattended children and eliminating the hazardous kerosene heater. Here firemen carry the fire prevention gospel into a little home with a big brood

—Photo courtesy Memphis Fire Department

The program received new inspiration and impetus when the idea took hold with the states, and statewide fire prevention with emphasis on home inspections, received the blessing of state and civic leaders. Here, as in the case of President Hoover, another prominent figure added his effort to the cause. He was Governor Arthur B. Langlie of the State of Washington, a longtime friend of firemen of his state, who at the time was chairman of the Governors Conference of the United States.

At the suggestion of the Committee, Governor Langlie wrote all the other 47 governors, urging them to call a statewide fire prevention conference to be attended by all fire chiefs, fire marshals, and other officers, civic and other interested officials.

The response to Governor Langlie’s letter was unanimous and in practically every case the state head expressed his willingness to cooperate fully.

Governors’ Conferences multiply

Eighteen of these Governor’s Conferences have already been held and more are planned or are in the making. All of those meetings have been eminently successful. These are primarily fire service conferences; invitations have thus far been limited to chief fire officers and fire marshals because these officials are charged with the main responsibility for any fire prevention effort and are the key men in this life-saving crusade. The Conference is the meeting ground to provide exchange of ideas as to how best to proceed with the program.

Briefly, the meetings called by the governors, are one-day affairs, usually held in the legislative chambers of the capital buildings. The governor welcomes the group, expresses his interest, and pledges support of his office. Nationally-known speakers in the fire prevention circles stress the urgent need of the drive, after which the details of the program are unfolded. These fall within three categories:

  1. How to prepare the public to receive the firemen inspectors (This is very important and must be thoroughly done)
  2. How to school the firemen themselves for the particular tasks (Home inspections call for, good judgement and the exercise of tact)
  3. How to carry out the actual inspection program in the homes.

In several parts of the country, fire marshals have organized and are supervising statewide home inspection campaigns. This is true in Nebraska and Oregon, where, in the latter state, Fire Marshal Taylor has assigned a deputy to devote his full time to assisting local fire departments in promoting their campaign.

The intense interest of the governors has been stimulating. Governor J. Hugo Aronson of Montana said in his welcoming address that if, as a result of his having called the meeting, one life might be saved, or even if he could prevent the destruction of a single home, the meeting was worth while. In Georgia, Governor S. Marvin Griffin was equally encouraging. Governor Langlie has said that the losses in his state last year were a direct challenge to the fire departments of the state. And in his closing remarks, Fire Chief Mitchell Doumit, who acted as chairman of the Washington state conference, said on behalf of firemen of his state: “I accept the challenge, and we are going out to do something about it.” Still another governor pledged continuing cooperation and Milward L. Simpson of Wyoming asked that the conference be repeated next year.

Proof of the pudding

One .of the difficulties encountered in such fire prevention efforts is the lack of positive evidence of accomplishments realized through efforts expended. Happily, the history of the home inspection movement has proved otherwise. The proof is found in the cold, hard statistics of fires and life and property losses. Nor are the results confined solely to the larger full-paid departments. It can now be said without fear of contradiction that even the small volunteer departments can conduct successful home inspections. A notable example is Kentville, N. S. (pop. 5,000), whose fire chief is Beverly R. Wade.

For the past several years the fire department has annually inspected every dwelling for fire hazards. Chief Wade reports that since 1945 no person has been killed or injured by fire. “Practically all citizens have become conscious of the danger of fire” he says.

Another small community is Ponca, Neb. State Fire Marshal E. C. Iverson went to Ponca and talked to firemen, the Commercial Club and the editor of the newspaper. The whole town endorsed the idea. The weekly church bulletin carried this notice: “The home-to-home hazard inspection will start Tuesday, September 11. Cooperate!” Inspections were made between 6:30 p.m. and 9:00 p.m. using two pieces of apparatus and ten men. Only on two occasions were firemen refused admittance. Fire Marshal Iverson says: “Any volunteer department can do what Ponca firemen did. All they need to do is to tell the citizens what they want, and they will go all the way with them.”

Space does not permit recountal of all the progress made but we can mention a few of the more outstanding achievements, beginning with the nation’s largest city, and fire department, New York.

Fire Commissioner Edward F. Cavanagh Jr., reports, “Our apparatus field inspection not only has turned up many hundreds of thousands of hazards, but has resulted in early correction of all these hazards and the prevention of their repetition. As a by-product, it has been one of the strongest mediums of education and fire safety propaganda that we could have devisee).

“The pay-off is on the results. Fire statistics have been going up in this city for more than three decades to the point where in 1953 they reached approximately 56,000 in number. If we had made no effort to stem the rise, it is safe to say that at the end of the year 1956 we would have had … a total of about 62.000 fires. Building inspection, or home inspection . . . carried out by men and apparatus and radio contact with fire headquarters has even at this time brought a reduction from the actual high figure to a new low figure of about

46.000 fires, and I am more than confident that at the end of the year instead of what would have been 62,000 fires we wall have a further reduction to approximately 42,000 fires for the year 1956.”

In New York, the radio apparatus dwelling inspection program has taken several different approaches, one being the all-out effort to reduce the loss of life from oil stove fires (many of the casualties being children). As in tire case of Memphis and other cities where home inspections and education have paid out. New York drastically reduced its fatalities from this source.

In Greater New York the over-all home inspection program based upon company radio inspections, has been broadened from the initial “pilot” effort, to cover all boroughs. And it has gone further. It has spurred fire department inspections in other fields and occupancies—business, industrial, etc. Now, even the department’s powerful marine fleet’s eight fireboats are “hitting the seaways,” conducting waterfront inspections.

In Billings, Montana, the number of actual dwelling fires has been reduced by more than one half. Fire Chief Morse, while naturally pleased with this result, is more elated over the fact that they have saved the lives of at least ten children.

How does he know? Six years ago, the year before house-to-house inspections were started, three children were burned to death in his city. The year the program was launched, three more died. But in the four years since total inspections has been practiced, not one life has been lost.

In Los Angeles County, which includes the cities of Los Angeles, Long Beach, Beverly Hills, Pasadena, Burbank, Glendale, and twenty-three other municipalities, as well as many unincorporated communities, 90 per cent of the residences have been inspected. And there is a marked reduction in fire losses, number of fires, and above all of death by fire, according to Jay Stevens.

One might contrast this with the experience of one city which shall be nameless but which has not adopted the “inservice” house-to-house inspection plan. Here is the statistical evidence:

Population increase since 1925 …. 570.000 to 790,000—or 33 1/3%

Increase in number of alarms, same period . . . . 5,600 to 10,800—or 98%

Increase in number of actual fires (the only real measuring stick) . . . . 3,500 to 6,000—or 90%

Inspections have other values

Although the prime object of dwelling inspections is to reduce fire causes in the home, thereby preventing fires and attendant casualties and property destruction, home inspections as practiced today have another and important objective. That is the creation of public good will, and better relations between Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Public, and their fire department. And if good public relations are not an asset, ask any fire chief who has seen his proposed fire budget voted down by people “who just didn’t seem to appreciate the fire department.”

Take the city of Fresno, Calif, for example. Three years ago the lire department did an outstanding job of home inspections. Shortly after completion of the canvas, a sizeable bond issue for improvement of the fire department came before the people together with a similar bond issue for improving the police department. Net result: The fire bonds carried four to one; the police bonds failed.

It is common knowledge that the public is becoming more and more tax-conscious as municipal costs increase, which means, all public services are coming in for more and more scrutiny. Which indicates in turn, that the fire service as well as other public agencies, today must show that for the increased cost, the citizens are getting more and better service. Obviously, any element which creates more favorable acceptance of, and appreciation for the fire department is worth striving for.

Final proof—if any further is needed —of the efficacy of the home inspection program is found in the words of leaders who speak with the voice of authority. Listen to what some of them say:

Fire Chief William Fitzgerald, President, International Association of Fire Chiefs: “This is a grass roots campaign, one that must be carried out on the local level by uniformed firemen. It is our duty, our responsibility. If the job is done according to the plan and if competent, complete inspection is made, it just can’t miss.”

John A. Neale, President, National Fire Protection Association and Chief Engineer, National Board of Fire Underwriters: “The home inspection program sponsored by the International Association of Fire Chiefs and performed by municipal fire departments, is one of the most outstanding and worth-while fire prevention efforts currently being performed. Reports reaching us show that in cities where the program is being carried out, it has resulted in a significant reduction in the number ol fires.

Richard E. Vernor, Manager Fire Prevention Department, Western Actuarial Bureau, Chairman Fire Department Instructors’ Conference: “This fire service home inspection program, so well spearheaded by the I.A.F.C., is one investment with practically a guaranteed return. Figures over a wide geographical area indicate substantial reductions in fire frequency, with the consequent saving of both human life and property where fire departments have implemented wellorganized and publicized campaigns. . . .”

All these authorities stress the importance of a good program based upon personal contacts, publicity, education and follow-through. Let us explore the more important steps to such a home inspection campaign.

Fundamentals of a campaign

  1. The local fire department must take the initiative. It is well to appoint a home inspection committee to gain public support. Be sure to include leaders in all major fields, including religious, civic, service organizations, press, business, educational, etc. And of course, choose fire department personnel with special care. Select a chairman who has not merely a “name” but will get tilings done.
  2. Relate fire department facilities to the tasks in hand—
    1. Have necessary maps, diagrams, etc. of streets and areas to be inspected, with company and battalion districts; also the necessary record forms.
    2. Arrange personnel details, by companies, squads and shifts.
    3. Designate inspecting apparatus companies (some departments detail ladder crews to operate with pumper personnel on inspections).
    4. Predetermine communications procedures necessary for equipment to remain in service during inspections; report movements to headquarters. (Radio amplifiers are an asset.)
  3. Hold pre-campaign meetings of department (and committees if appointed), to discuss details, including the following:
    1. time element; days of week; time of day, etc.
    2. Part to be played by each cooperating agency
    3. Map inspection procedures (see following )
    4. “Sell” the campaign to all concerned
    5. Have clear understanding of delegation of responsibilities, etc.
Speakers at Utah's statewide fire prevention conference held at Salt Lake City on July 17 included (left to right) Chief William Taylor, Burbank, Cal., IAFC director from the Pacific Coast Inter-Mountain Association; Chief Clyde Peterson, Ogden, Utah, state vice-president, IAFC; Jay W. Stevens, executive secretary, IAFC; Chief William Fitzgerald, Seattle, Wash., president, IAFC; Chief S. H. Edmondson, Pasadena, Cal., past president. Pacific Coast Inter-Mountain Association and Jay C. Newman, Commissioner of Public Safety, for the State of Utah

Preliminary training essential: It should be remembered that dwelling inspections are different than routine company building inspections by whatever means. Personnel must be carefully coached in the special procedures to be followed in approaching tfie home, introducing their subject, meeting objections, handling noticeable and ‘hidden’ hazards, offering advice and recommendations, and leaving the premises. A number of departments have enlisted the services of local sales managers or others who have conducted house-to-house selling to help train fire department personnel. Such talent may be found in local service clubs—or among buffs.

Preparing public important: Remember the newspaperman’s dictum: “Tell’em you’re going to tell’em. Tell’em. And tell’em you told’em” in planning a successful dwelling inspection drive.

Here too, valuable assistance can be secured usually for the asking from local men engaged in public relations and publicity work. Treat your inspection program as a necessary product to be sold to your citizens of all walks, advises one fire marshal. Intelligent use of press, public radio and TV—if there are local stations—as well as other publicity media, telling the “who, what, where, when, and why” of the campaign will smooth the way to get into the home, get over the inspection and fire safety story, and get out, leaving a good impression on the homemaker.

Concentrate Heavily on Children: Reach the grownups through their children, utilizing local educational facilities in all grades, all schools, with appropriate appeals. But as a “must,” secure the counsel and cooperation of the educators and teachers. The uniformed firemen has long been a hero to children. Good public relations, the cooperation of educational and civic authorities, and a well-planned and executed home inspection drive, will go a long way to further cement this relationship.

Printed Helps: In addition to general publicity, printed promotion, directed to groups as well as to individual property owners and occupants, is highly important. Even the use of simple postcards, giving householders advance notice of the arrival of home inspectors and following up their visit, will produce results. Also efficacious is printed matter that can be left with occupants at the time of calls. These can be home inspection blanks (procurable from the National Board of Fire Underwriters and/or National Fire Protection Association), folders, leaflets, booklets, etc. on home fire safety, etc.

Some departments have simple fire prevention souvenirs which can be presented to children. Others make it a point to encourage teenagers encountered on visits, to join their Junior Fire Brigade. Even if calls are refused, some educational safety literature should be left with the householder.

Miscellaneous inspection hints

Although many departments do not specify so, in their advance promotion of home inspections it is considered advisable by some chiefs to suggest basement inspections or attic and basements. In many cities, men are ordered not to enter living quarters of the house, even if invited to do so by the occupant.

Personnel on inspection shall operate in pairs, full uniforms and shall not smoke on the premises. Many chiefs insist men shall remain together at all times.

The majority of departments consider it advisable to approach single houses from the rear and enter by the rear or side entrance. Care should be taken not to track in any dirt. Most departments discontinue dwelling inspections in bad weather. Others have inspectors remove rubbers and/or raincoats upon entering in inclement weather.

A number of cities rule that if refused entrance and no request is made to call at another time, inspectors are not to double back.

It is a universal rule that no orders whatever, are to be issued by inspectors to householders to correct obvious defects. Only suggestions and recommendations should be given. The householder is not to be scared by a too obvious flashing of badges, official notebooks and forms. If the desired corrective measures are explained in the literature carried, these can be pointed out before departing.

Hours of inspection vary according to location, climate, and custom, but many cities specify 1:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m., Mondays through Fridays. No calls are made on Saturdays, Sundays, or holidays. This does not apply to multiple dwellings.

If their apparatus is equipped with bells, some departments prefer these used to alert and summon firemen from the dwelling upon receipt of an alarm by the radio monitor rather than siren.

Companies on apparatus field inspection remain on the air, preferably with a driver monitoring radio. This man should be coached in the answers he is to make to inquiries from passersby who may not be content with the information contained on the explanatory placard which apparatus should mount (this last is considered essential by most fire chiefs).

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Inspections are frequently made only on one side of the street during a single tour. When inspections start within a block, the custom is to complete the blocksurvey on that tour.

Appropriate records should be made and retained by the department, covering each property visited, the conditions encountered, etc. Such information may constitute an excellent mailing list for further departmental promotions.

Quo vadis?

What of the future? It is filled with possibilities and opportunities, insofar as home inspections are concerned. Of the nation’s 50 million dwellings, less than 4 million have had a single visit by firemen —except of course for the grim business of fire extinguishment and life saving. And new properties are being erected (wih new hazards) almost faster than they can be inspected.

Shortage of manpower for dwelling fire inspection has been at least partially overcome by judicious use of radio (which also has a long way to go before all the nation’s fire departments will be radioequipped).

Efforts to curtail public fire department budgets may prove a deterrent to this most important fire preventive innovation. But now the ice has been broken, apparatus or company dwelling inspections will most certainly increase in degree and effectiveness, as methods and procedures improve from experience.

An encouraging sign also, is the attention being given to stronger, broader laws governing fire safety. At least one state we are told, has a law permitting firemen to enter homes on inspections without invitation, notwithstanding the generally accepted law of “eminent domain.” There will be interesting developments in this field as fire service organizations, safety groups and kindred bodies show more interest in the saving of lives —particularly those 4,000 youngsters— from deadly, destructive fire.

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