HOW FIRES ARE PUT OUT
We have often alluded to the fact that the daily press pays little attention to matters connected with the Fire Service, and expressed the opinion that if the newspapers would devote more space to the subject, pointing out the causes of fire and their cost to the country, it would probably have some influence in reducing the number of fires. Carelessness and recklessness are the principal causes of fire, and the losses by our annual burnings exceeds $100,000,000. If the people could be led to realize the fact that every fire adds to the burdens of each individual, they might be induced to be less reckless and more careful in reference to fires. It gives us pleasure to note that the N. Y. Times has given some consideration to the Fire Department of this city, and in its edition of last Sunday had an article with the caption given above. With a few minor exceptions it is substantially correct, and, although THE JOURNAL has heretofore given all the information it contains, we reproduce it here as showing what one of the most prominent journals in the country thinks of the men and experiments of the New York Fire Department. We especially commend it to Capt. Shaw, C. B., Chief of the London Fire Brigade, and Col. Paris, Chief of the Paris Department.
Enthusiastic people have gone so far as to say that the New York Fire Department is the best in the world. It is probable that it is ; at any rate it ought to be, for in no other city in the civilized world is a good Fire Department so necessary. In no other American city of considerable site are the buildings erected on such excellent plans for destruction by fire as in New York. Nowhere else are they so frail or so high or so compact or so packed with inflammable materials. Nowhere else can a contracior build an eight-inch wall out of damaged bricks, run it up six stories high, and domicile half a dozen families in each story without molestation from the authorities. Nowhere else in America are whole villages packed within the walls of a single building, and that building made largely of pine floors, partitions, doors, sashes, and ceilings, with outer walls that are kept plumb only by leaning against other houses. Nowhere else is it expected as a matter of course that there will be three or four fires every day, that once or twice a week there will be a big fire, and that two or three times in the course of every year the losses will mount up into millions. All these advantages of an American metropolis New York enjoys. It is no wonder, therefore, that extraordinary precautions should be taken for preventing and extinguishing fires, and that the best machinery for the purpose should be secured. It would be the height of absurdity if, surrounded by all these dangers, we were not provided with everything that can be had to protect us against loss by fire. All the useful and expensive machinery we have, however, would do us a little good were it not handled by competent men. Good as the New York fire machinery is, the New York Firemen are better. For the best work in the least possible time, for dash, bravery, and esprit du corps it is doubtful whether the New York Fire Department is equaled anywhere in the world. The fact that time and again Commissioners have come here from other large cities, both in this country and in Europe, to study the workings of the Department with a view to modeling their own forces after the New York plan is sufficient evidence that our Fire Brigade has won its laurels.
Like the Police Station-houses, the Engine-houses are modeled after no particular plan. Some of them have been built expressly for the purpose and others are in buildings that for many years were stores or dwellings. One of the down-town Engine-houses, close to the old post-office, and in a busy street, may be taken as a fair example of them all. It is three stories high, with a basement, and affords room enough for all the requirements, but with none to spare. The machinery is all on the first floor, on a level with the street. Directly in front of the big door stands the Engine ; a little further back, and on the other side of the large room, there is the Hose Carriage, technically known as “ the Tender.” Back of these, at the extreme rear, are the stalls where the three horses are kept—two for the Engine, one for the Tender. In the second story there are two rooms—the officers’ room in front and the dormitory in the rear, where the men all sleep. The third story, all in one large room, is the family sitting-room, where the men spend their spare time. The wall on one side is covered with closets, and each man has his locker.
A fire is discovered, for example, at the corner of Broadway and Fulton street. It may first be seen by a policeman, or by a Fireman on patrol duty, or by some citizen. There is a fire-alarm signal-box at the corner, and the policeman has a key ; so has the Fireman ; but if the fire is discovered by a citizen and the policeman is not in sight, he goes to the box, and sees by the printed notice attached to it where the key is kept. Procuring the key, he opens the door and pulls down the small brass handle directly in front of him. Each signal-box is known by its number, and by pulling down the handle its number is instantly and automatically telegraphed to the headquarters of the Department, where operators are always on duty. Suppose the number of the box to be 27. Two strokes, with a short pause, and then seven strokes more are told upon the bell in the operator’s room. This does not send the signal to the Engine-houses, but only to the headquarters. The operator, without the delay of a second, reaches to a little cabinet in front of him in which are several hundred tiny drawers. Opening the drawer marked No. 27 he takes out a small brass wheel, with two notches on one side and seven on the other. He fits his wheel into a socket made to receive it and opens the circuit. The wheel revolves, and taps corresponding with the notches are telegraphed to every Engine-house in the city, the whole operation from the time that the signal-box was opened taking less than ten seconds. There is no chance for mistake, for there are the notches, cut in brass, and the bell must give just as many taps as there are notches. This signal goes to every Engine-house in the city, no matter where the fire is. If it is only a chimney burning down in Greenwich street, the Engines in the furthest corners of Harlem and Morrisania are manned every time the handle in a signal-box is pulled. This signal, sent out from headquarters, is sounded upon three gongs in each Engine-house. One gong, a very large one, that may be heard for blocks, is close to the Engine. Another is directly over the horses’ heads. The third is in the sleepingroom, to waken the men who may be in bed. And with the sending of this signal is done some of the most curious automatic work in the world. The Firemen have come nearer to making an electric battery think than any other people. The electric current that makes the first stroke on the gong loosens a big twenty-five pound weight that hangs by a wire into the cellar in every Engine-honse. The weight jerks a long wire, and the wire releases the springs that fasten the horses’ bridles in the stalls, and at the same time strikes the gongs over the horses’ heads, letting these intelligent animals know that they are wanted. At the same instant, and by the same stroke of electricity, the gong in the sleeping-room is sounded. By the side of the gong in the Engine-room stands a small clock. The electric current lets loose a tiny weight, and the weight straightens out a light chain which holds fast the pendulum of the clock, and of course stops it at the instant the alarm is received. This is so that when the Firemen return from the fire they can tell the exact minute at which the signal was received and state the time in their daily report. Another weight dropped by the same current draws back the bolt that fastens the front doors. All this is done by a single flash of electricity ; so when the operator at headquarters touches his key and opens the circuit he rings the alarm in every Engine-house in the city, wakes the men if they happen to be asleep, rouses the horses, unfastens them, stops the clocks, and unbolts all the front doors. Even in this city, that is surrounded by a spider’s web of telegraph wires, there is no place where a single flash of electricity does half as much work.
The harness is kept constantly on the backs of the horses, and these four-legged Firemen, as full of the importance of their business as any of their comrades, are so well trained that they back out of their stalls and run to their places in front of the Engine and tender the instant they hear the gong sound. For this reason it is not well for a visitor in an Enginehouse to be caught standing between the horses and the apparatus when an alarm comes. The horses do not take the trouble to dodge anybody who happens to stand in their way. All this has been going on while the gong was still striking 27. Before it is done striking the horses are harnessed to the Engine and tender, every man is in his place, the driver in his seat holding the reins says “ ready,” the doorman has his hand on the knob of the door, and the Engineer has his torch in his hand ready to apply it to the inflammable material under the furnace. The gong strikes 27 and pauses. The instant it stops striking the doorman throws open the doors, the horses start oil’ with a dash without waiting to be told, and in a second the apparatus is off. The doorman waits just long enough to slam the doors, then swings himself to his place on the tender, if he can catch it, and the company is started. The Engineer stands on the ashbox at the rear of the Engine. The torch he holds in his hand is a small pine stick wrapped around one end with cotton soaked in kerosene-oil. In a hole bored in the extreme end are three patent fusee matches that no wind can blow out. The furnace is filled with shavings and dry Virginia pine covered with cannel coal. As soon as the smoke-stack is clear of the Engine-house the Engineer touches the friction matches against the rapidly-revolving wheel, and instantly has a blazing torch. He inserts this in the furnace among the shavings, and before the fire is reached he has 60 or 70 pounds of steanT to the square inch, or power enough to throw water to the roof of any but the highest buildings.
The Engine was all read}’, and might easily have left the quarters before the gong stopped giving the alarm, but that would not do. The signal 27 showed that the fire was at Fulton street and Broadway, which is in that Engine’s district. But if it had gone on one stroke further, and struck 28, it would have indicated that the fire was, perhaps, somewhere up in Broome-street or elsewhere beyond the ground covered by that Engine. So the Company always has to wait until the gong is done giving the first signal. It it strikes for one of the stations of the district the Engine is all ready, and goes to the fire as we have seen. If it strikes for a locality out of that district the horses arc unhitched and the men return to their places. This gives a good deal of extra work to the Firemen, but it cannot well be avoided, for if they waited till the gong stopped ringing, and then found it was one of their calls they would waste the 10 or 15 seconds required for preparation, and every second may be worth dollars and lives at the beginning of a fire. As the officers put it. “ every second gained at the outbreak of a fire is worth an hour’s work when it gets a good headway.” Just how long it takes to man the Engine and have it ready to leave the quarters after the signal is received is a matter of some doubt, and must always vary with circumstances. When the men are asleep in bed or up in the sitting-room in the third story, it sometimes takes as long as 18 seconds to have everything ready to start. But that is not considered quick work. Fourteen or fifteen seconds, under any circumstances, would, perhaps, be a fair average. Some Companies pretend to do it in 6 seconds ; others in 8 ; others in 10. The celerity has increased very much within a few years ; so rapidly in fact that if it continues in the same ratio for a few years more the Engines will be at the fire some seconds before the alarm is given at all. The men of each Company know so well just what signals they are to respond to that they do not need to look at the printed schedule hanging in a conspicuous place on the wall to know what their numbers are. And not only do they know their own numbers, but the numbers all over the City. Let the gong strike 75, or 682, or 724, or any number, and they will tell you in an instant that the fire is in Ninety-third-street, or in Morrisania, or at the Battery, or wherever it happens to be. The “first alarm” calls out several Engines, two Hook and Ladder Trucks, and the necessary Tenders. Second and third alarms bring more Engines and more Hook and Ladder Trucks. It is a popular fiction that a “general alarm ” calls together all the Engines in the City. This is a mistake, as any one may easily see by thinking about it for a minute. So many Engines would only be in each^other’s way, and all the rest of the City would be unprotected. If there are not enough Engines out to control the fire after a third alarm has been given, others are selected and ordered out at the discretion of the Chief. For this purpose every signal box is provided with a Morse telegraphic key.
The Department is divided into ten Battalions, each with its Chief, and each Company has its Foreman. When there is a fire the first officer to reach the spot is in command till his superior arrives. This system works admirably. A few minutes after the first Engine reaches the fire the Battalion Chief arrives in his light buggy. He then takes command under the arrival of the Chief of the Department. The Chief of Battalion goes to every fire in his district, and the Chiet of the Department goes to every fire south of Twenty-third street on the first alarm, and to every fire, anywhere in the city, on the second or third alar n. The shouting and hallooing of orders all died out when the old Volunteer Department gave up the ghost. All orders are now given by signal, with tin1 arms by day-light and with colored lanjernsat night. So well are the signals understood, it is not necessary for an officer to say a word from beginning to end of a fire. Every man at the tire has 1 is place and goes to it. Each Company has a Foreman, an Engineer, an Assistant Engineer, and eight Pipcmcn. The Foreman and his Assistant take charge of the apparatus, the Engineer and his second keep the Engine running, and the Pipemen catty the hose wherever they are sent. The steam is raised to the necessary height in the boiler in the shortest possible time by keeping the water constantly warm, and generally with a few pounds of steam on. This is etlected by a small stove in the basement, immediately under where the Engine stands. A fire is kept constantly burning in this stove, and around the tire-bed is a coil of pipes, which are connected, by a gas-pipe with the boiler. The heat from the stove keeps the water in the pipes in constant circulation, so that steam may be raided very quickly. The connection between this stove and the boiler is so arranged that when the Engine goes out of the House the pipes slip apart automatically, without requiring any time. Every morning the Foreman of each Company sends a report to the Chief of his Battalion, giving the number of men on duty, the number sick or injured, the condition of the apparatus, and any particulars he may have to tell. The Chief of Battalion consolidates all these into one report and sends it to the Chief. The Chief consolidates the ten Battalion reports and sends the result to the Commissioners, so that at noon every day the Commissioners know just how many men they have on duty and every* thing that is going on in the Department.
How the men live in the Engine-houses has to be seen to be properly appreciated. There is always something to do. In a corner of the Engine-room is a telegraph instrument connecting with headquarters, and through this orders and messages are constantly passing. One man is selected every day to take charge of the Engine-room and watch the doors. This man attends to the telegraph instrument and answers messages. At eight in the morning the time is sent by telegraph from headquarters to all the Engine-houses, so that every Company has the same time. Then the roll is call, the men all standing in line, and each man must show that his badges, keys and uniform are in good order. From six in the evening till six in the morning, the streets are patrolled, the Firemen taking “ watches ” of six hours each. Every fire makes quite as much work for the men after it is over as while it is in progress. The Engine has to be washed and cleaned, and the tender ; the hose hung up to dry, and new hose reeled on the tender ready for the next fire. Near the rear of the building is an open tower, running from ground to roof, in which the wet hose is hung to dry. The Engine must shine like a piece of silver plate all the time, or somebody will catch it.
How do the Firemen manage to get down stairs and man the Engine in from 6 to 16 seconds after receiving the alarm ? is a question ihat every body asks them. It seems impossible, especially when they are in bed. The idea of rousing from sleep, springing out of bed, dressing, running down stairs and hitching three horses, all in 8 or io seconds, is queer enough. Hut it is done ; and it is not hard, when >ou know how to do it. The sleeping-room is the rear part of the second story. I he door leading to the stairway is always kept open, and the stairs* which lead down to the Engine-room, are straight and easy. There is a bed for each man, and every bed is as white as a sheet of snow. The beds are inspected every day, and must be kept as clean as the most particular housekeeper could desire. The men are likely to be in bed at anv hour of the day or night, for, when they are kept out at a fire all night, they of course sleep the next day whenever they get a chance. Before they go to bed they hang their coat, vest and hat on the part of the Engine or tender they are to occupy when the machine goes out, for each man has his allotted place on the Engine and tender. In undressing, they stuff the ends of their pantaloons into the tops of their big rubber boots, and “skin” themselves out of their clothes, boots and pantaloons coming off together, with the pantaloon ends still sticking in the boots. They are left standing in a convenient place by the side of the bed, so that in case of an alarm the Fireman steps out of bed right into his boots and trousers.