How European and U. S. Fire Departments Compare
Chief John Kenlon, of the New York City Fire Department, Draws Parallels Between the Two Types, and Shows How the European Discipline Partakes of a Military Nature
WHILE Chief John Kenlon of the New York City fire department who has recently returned from a trip abroad for the purpose of studying the European fire fighting systems freely admits that contrary to the generally accepted idea the discipline of the European fire department is stricter than that prevailing in those of America, he points out that it is distinctly of a military character. In other words, the respect given to the officers as a general rule, in the European fire service is given because of rank and not on account of the ability and knowledge of the man himself.
The tour of three months analyzing the fire fighting methods of the European department enabled Chief Kenlon to study and compare the methods of fire fighting with those in this country. This he has done with the thoroughness which characterizes every act of the head of the New York City fire department.
“In Europe,” said the chief, “discipline is, as a rule, more easily maintained than in the United States; class distinction and military tinge are present in a marked degree; the democratic spirit, so universal in American departments, is not to be found there, hence, the apparent difference in fire sta tion discipline. On the fire ground, that is, when in action, I believe the discipline of American departments to be equal to anything I have seen elsewhere. In most of the larger cities of Europe the fire officers are, by virtue of their position, officers.”
Commenting on the military man as a fire officer, Chief Kenlon said: “Recently, in one of the large cities abroad a new third officer was appointed to the fire department. He was a young man, of no experience whatsoever in fire fighting. He was appointed, or assigned, to this work from his rank as commissioned officer in the army. Now suppose the first officer were absent on leave, and the second officer were absent from some other cause. Then the responsibility at a large fire that might occur would rest directly on the young, inexperienced third officer. He would have to rely upon the judgment of the company officers—foremen—who rank in the fire department as non-commissioned officers do in the army, namely, as sergeants and corporals. Confidence in any line is engendered by experience, and lack of experience usually means lack of confidence. Also, an officer must have confidence in himself before his men will have confidence in him. The respect, then, shown the European fire officer is often of another kind than that shown the chief in an American fire department: it is a respect based on rank and not on the man.”
A few of the foreign departments stood out above the rest in perfection very clearly, the line of demarkation being quickly perceived by Chief Kenlon. In the first of these, that at Milan, Italy, every officer must be an engineering graduate. The chief himself is both a graduate mechanical and civil engineer. Each man is required to be a thoroughly experienced tradesman, versed in mechanical trade. Thus every man is a machinist, an electrician, a plumber, or other artisan.
The department builds its own apparatus, as well as doing all its own repair work, and the products of the department shop show that the workmen are not novices.
When an alarm sounds for a large fire the workmen in the shop also respond. “This particular practice in the Milan department,” said the chief, “reminds one of an American volunteer fire department where the members of the department, on hearing an alarm, drop their work, no matter what they are engaged in, and respond.”
Nevertheless, for discipline, for education, and for high quality of personnel throughout the department, t hief Kenlon considers the Milan organization as ranking first in Europe.
The force at Edinburgh, Scotland, too, came in for high praise from the chief. The orderliness and neatness of quarters, as well as the trim appearance of men and equipment, and the smartness in the execution of orders marked the department of Chief Officer McMasters as a model one.
In considering the departments of Paris and London as compared with that of New York City, Chief Kenlon said “Conditions must be taken into account. There are still 74,000 frame tenements alone in New York. Vast numbers of other structures which burn rapidly are found throughout the city. Buildings in New York, chiefly with the exception of large office buildings, are not built for permanency. Builders are aware that most of the structures erected will have outlived their usefulness in a couple of generations or less and will be replaced by more modern structures later. There is hardly a building that was built as far back as fifty years which is entirely satisfactory now. New standards set by modern buildings tend to make the older ones obsolete, quickly lessening the demand therefor by renters or buyers.
“On the other hand, most of the buildings in the commercial section of London are built to stay. Two conditions account for this: in the first place no structure is permitted higher than 80 feet, such being the limit set by law, and only an extraordinary condition would induce an owner to tear down an 80-foot building and replace it with one of the same height. A building once built to the limit of height is therefore built for permanency. And as the height-limiting regulations have been in force for almost centuries, large areas of built-up sections have remained untouched for like periods. The above has made permanency of construction an essential, and the result has been erection of buildings which present little hazard of fire spread. Such is quite general throughout Paris as well as London.
“In view of these vastly different conditions, particularly the extreme hazards encountered in New York, the New York fire department is far ahead of those in London, and Paris. This applies not only in the cases of personnel and methods of fire fighting, but in apparatus as well.”
A British fire officer who recently visited New York having said that he learned nothing new in New York’s fire department, Chief Kenlon’s comment on this remark displayed the sagacity that brought him into the command of the world’s greatest fire department “while I do not know who the officer referred to is. I am quite sure that he learned to the extent that he was willing to learn during his visit in New York. Any officer can learn something new by visiting a neighboring fire department, hut two conditions are essential thereto: first, he must have a receptive and alert mind, and secondly, he must not come convinced that he already knows everything worth while knowing on the subject.”