HOW STATE FIRE MARSHALS CO-OPERATE WITH FIRE CHIEFS
Continuation of Series of Letters from These Officials Giving Reports of Activities During 1922 and Plans for This Year
FOLLOWING is a continuation of the series of letters received from state fire marshals giving information as to their work during 1922, and their plans for Fire Prevention and co-operation with fire chiefs during this year:
Co-operates With Firemen’s Conservation Associations
Aside from the regular duties imposed on the office of the state fire marshal by law, which consist principally of enforcing all laws relating to the prevention of fires, the means and adequacy of exits in case of fire from churches, schools, halls, theatres and other places of public assemblage, the enforcement of the laws regulating the construction and operation of motion picture theatres, the suppression of arson and the investigation of the cause, origin and circumstances of fires which have been unusually numerous, the department has been and now is active in furthering the standardization of fire hose fittings, which movement was inaugurated by the National Board of Fire Underwriters some time ago.
Progress in this work has not been as rapid as we would like to see it for the reason that it takes a great deal of educational work to sell the idea to the town or village officers who must approve the plan before we will undertake to rethread their fittings. Up to this time twenty-three towns and villages in Minnesota have taken advantage of this service and are now standard as far as their fire hose fittings are concerned. One of the most valuable features in connection with this service is that in performing the work any defects in the hydrants that might exist are revealed.
The department has a number of field men busily engaged in making inspections the year round and in this connection we have arranged for a number of fire prevention meetings in towns visited, making a general inspection of the town, conducting fire drills in the schools, talking to the children on fire prevention and holding a public meeting in the town hall or some theatre where we could include fire prevention motion pictures in our program. These meetings are usually presided over by the mayor or chairman of the local fire prevention committee of which we have in the neighborhood of two hundred organized by this department. These meetings always arouse a great deal of interest, stimulate fire prevention activities and in some cases have resulted in procuring better fire fighting equipment for the town or village. One of the best meetings held in the interests of fire prevention was that of the Southwestern Firemen’s Association held at Windom, Minnesota, on the 11th of October.
One of the big things that we are emphasizing at all of these fire prevention meetings is the value and importance of introducing the teaching of Fire Pevention in the public schools of the state. We are not overlooking any opportunities to spread this propaganda and hope that through it we will be able to have a law passed by the coming session of the Legislature making it compulsory.
Some of the most valuable meetings that we have had have been held in conjunction with the Minnesota Conservation and Fire Prevention Association, which organization is co-operating with this department one hundred per cent. On these occasions a general and very thorough inspection is made of the business district of the town, conducted in a systematic manner by a large number of inspectors consisting of fire insurance field men, representatives of this office and local uniformed firemen.
In September 1919, the department tried putting on an exhibit at the State Fair which proved so interesting that it has become a part of the regular activities of the department and in 1920 this part of our program was extended to county fairs. This year we exhibited at about twelve of the best county fairs in the state, through which medium we probably reached at least sixty thousand people and, including the State Fair, a hundred thousand. Our exhibit consists of a display of first aid fire protection equipment and the showing of fire prevention motion pictures.
The Minnesota Fire College which was established during 1919 and the first of its kind to be held in the United States has proven so satisfactory that it has become a permanent institution in Minnesota and a number of other states in the Union have followed our example. The first two years the Fire College was held in St. Paul. This year it was held in Rochester, Minn., at the request of the firemen of the state, in conjunction with the annual meeting of the Minnesota State Fire Department Association and in 1923 it will be held at Bcmidji, Minn., during the week of June 10 in connection with the annual meeting of this organization. The college in the past has each year been conducted under the very able leadership of Leon L. Wolf of Cincinnati.
The primary object of establishing the Fire College was to render a real service to the firemen of the state by endeavoring to increase the efficiency of their respective fire departments and this purpose has been accomplished and has brought about a closer relationship between the fire departments of the state and this office which is most gratifying.
My latest plan to increase the efficiency of this department has just come into effect through the appointment of a committee consisting of insurance field men and business men which is to be known as the Fire Marshal’s advisory committee. It will serve in that capacity, meeting once or twice a month for the purpose of discussing fire prevention and fire protection activities and assist in formulating proposed legislation—George H. Nettleton, State Fire Marshal of Minnesota.
Greatest Evil is Overinsurance
It seems to me that the year 1922 has brought forth three important facts which cannot be ignored by anyone who seriously desires to see a reduction in the terrific fire loss of this country.
First—The record breaking loss which began about three years ago has continued with little if any show of abatement.
Second—The tremendous increase in losses is due to widespread overinsurance.
Third—It is useless to talk about reducing these big losses until something is done by the insurance companies to stop this excessive insurance.
No one could stop the wave of incendiarism when it began three years ago. Prices dropped from their high levels suddenly. The insurance coverage automatically became overinsurance. But there is no excuse now for writing excessive insurance on risk after risk.
The last legislature gave us a good increase in our field force. As a result we are making 6,000 inspections a month. We are following up our orders and getting a high percentage of compliances. But we find ourselves helpless to reduce the fire loss in face of the tremendous incendiary waste.
Our investigators are working day and night, Sundays and holidays, on crooked losses. Almost always their reports are the same—overinsurance.
It has always been hard to convict in cases of this kind because of difficulty in securing evidence. We are finding it difficult to convict now even with complete evidence. In one of the best cases we ever had the defendant had insurance of $45,000 on a building worth not over $23,000. It was a company insurance adjuster who made the appraisement and recommended all this insurance. Competent witnesses placed the value of the property as low as $10,000 to $12,000 at the trial. This adjuster testified for the defense and swore the value was something like $55,000. The jury acquitted. I cannot help but think that the jury may have felt that the insurance companies ought to “pay the fiddler” if they were willing to accept premiums on such excessive insurance and a company man was willing to justify the thing under oath.
The fact is that overinsurance is becoming something of a public scandal in many places. Juries are human beings.
I hey are drawn from the public and represent a cross section of public opinion. It is not surprising to see them react in favor of the defendant after they have seen case after case of the rankest sort of overinsurance paraded before them, and with knowledge that excessive insurance is not only easily obtained, but is actually encouraged by so many agents.
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Co-operation by State Fire Marshals
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We have preached carelessness for years as the cause of our fire loss. The. insurance companies are leaders in the propaganda for carefulness. It is time to realize that carelessness of another kind—careless underwriting—has become a most prolific cause of our fire waste. Some of these fires have swept whole city blocks and have cost lives as well as property. The responsibility is a serious one and the need for certain reforms in underwriting and adjusting practices ought not longer be ignored.—John G. Gamber, State Fire Marshal of Illinois.
Mining Shacks and Old Buildings Removed in Montana
Since April 19, to November 24, 1922, this department has collected $1,297 in fees for the issuance of certificates of compliance for the storing of explosives. There were 148 certificates issued to 94 firms, companies and individuals. Our law requires that a certificate of compliance be issued both for caps and powder and for each different magazine where a firm, company or individual may be storing either powder or caps—or both. Ninety-two condemnation orders were issued during the year. Thirty-four of this number were issued in Butte, and the removal of the buildings condemned will leave very few of the old shacks which represent the hardships gone through by the settlers and prospectors who helped to make Butte one of the largest mining towns in the world. The majority of these old shacks are being replaced by new up-to-date buildings. Much attention has been paid during the twelve months past to the fire escapes of the state. In addition to the inspection of the state schools and the public schools in general eighty-nine inspections were made in the various parts of the state, and I found the citizens not only willing but anxious to co-operate with me in my attempt to insure them against accidents, as nearly as possible, in case of fire, by having first-class fire escapes.
We investigated seventy-one fire losses during 1922; made sixteen arrests; one evaded arrest; got four confessions; have seven awaiting trial at present; had five cases dismissed; and have four pending. For three years I have been trying to cause the arrest of “My Man,” who was wanted in Montana for arson. I made an attempt in June to locate him in Minneapolis but was forced to return home without him. Our sheriff, from the county in which he is wanted, followed him to Portland, Ore., from there to Vancouver, Wash., and at the present time he is in jail awaiting the trial the early part of 1923.
Hardly a week passes that we do not receive a call from some citizen of the state to investigate some particular case which should have our attention—R. S. Mentrum, State Fire Marshal of Montana.
(Note.—Word has since come from George P. Porter, state auditor of Montana, that Robert S. Mentrum, state fire marshal of Montana, passed away on December 24, 1922.-EDITOR.)
Lady Representatives Visit Schools in Texas
The Fire Prevention Department in Texas consists of the state fire marshal, one chief fire prevention inspector, four field inspectors, two lady inspectors, and one expert arson investigator. The duty of the field inspectors is to visit cities and towns as often as is convenient and inspect all mercantile and manufacturing establishments, point out hazards and have them removed. The lady inspectors visit the cities, inspect the picture shows, point out hazards, and insist on their removal. They also visit the public schools, lecturing to the children in the third, fourth and fifth grades on Fire Prevention and on fire drills. The arson investigator in the last few months, has been called on to investigate something near thirty incendiary fires. We have in Texas about 350 local fire marshals in various cities that investigate fires when the state fire marshal is not called on to assist. All told, perhaps one hundred persons have been arrested in 1922 charged with arson, but few of which are convicted, owing to the extreme leniency of jurors and the inability of the state, under the law, to present other than circumstantial evidence. However, with the assistance of an expert investigator, the moral effect is worth the while.
The field inspectors that are constantly on the road, have inspected some three hundred and fifty cities and towns with a total of thirty-nine thousand, six hundred and thirtysix risks inspected. If the hazards are not removed when owners are notified, additional penalties are charged against the property. The lady representatives, whose duty it is to visit the schools, have succeeded in creating quite a bit of interest along Fire Prevention lines. We now have two hundred and fifty cities and towns that have adopted the teaching of Fire Prevention in their public schools, and receive a credit of three per cent. on the key rate of their city, and textbooks on the subject are in the hands of the pupils. The ladies have visited two hundred and twenty schools in the past twelve months and have lectured on fire drills and Fire Prevention to perhaps two hundred thousand pupils.
Concerning the co-operation of chiefs of fire departments, I am happy to report that the co-operation is beautiful and indeed helpful in our work. In a recent meeting of the Chiefs’ Association, a resolution was adopted favoring amending the Texas laws to permit conviction for arson on circumstantial evidence. If this amendment should be enacted, a long step will have been taken in eliminating incendiary fires. I am quite sure a bill will be presented to the near approaching Legislature with the idea in view to make it a heavy penalty for the insurance agent who writes flagrant overinsurance, and to the man that accepts it. Such a law could not fail to minimize the moral hazard.
Regarding the matter of standardization of hydrant and hose fittings, would say that some five years ago the State Firemen’s Association appointed a committee to inaugurate the movement, and divided the state into twenty-five districts for the purpose of facilitating the work. The committee is composed of one fire chief from each district, and the Chief engineer of this commission, as secretary of the committee, secured data regarding the dimensions and thread of the fittings of all the protected towns. Taps and dies were purchased, and a few of the towns converted their threads to standard. It was found, however, that all of the large cities had threads which deviated from the standard, and many of the smaller towns had already installed equipment to correspond to the size and thread of the nearest city. Under the circumstances, it was deemed advisable, for the present, to direct the effects of the committee toward prevailing upon the various cities and towns to provide adapters, where necessary, to permit their equipment to be used in connection with that of their neighbors.
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Co-operation by State Fire Marshals
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While this plan is not, of course, an entirely satisfactory substitute for standardization, considerable progress has been made, and in this territory it apparently constitutes the most practical solution of the problem until such time as more funds are available for defraying the comparatively heavy expense which would be entailed by actual standardization of all fittings.—G. W. Tilley, State Fire Marshal of Texas.
Hope for Fire Marshal’s Department in Maine
While our fire statistics have not as yet been completed for the year ending December 31, 1922, we can, however, report at this time a record of approximately 2,100 fires, with 45 on our list of investigation, and while some have led to arrests many have only had the outward appearances of incendiarism. The co-operation of the fire chiefs, municipal officers, etc. has been very good, but not so alert as we might wish, as oftentimes quick action at first would give us the real cause from “unknown.”
Much inspection has been carried on through the state during the past year. The work of having buildings equipped with lightning rods has greatly increased, and people are beginning to realize their real protection. Our records go to show that while some 220 buildings have been struck by lightning during the past year only five of these were buildings that had rods, which proved in these cases that they had not been properly grounded.
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Co-operation by State Fire Marshals
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We are hoping that at a not far distant time we may have a Fire Marshal’s Department organized which will, with more help, enable us to do a far greater fire work—Leon W. Helson, Acting Insurance Commissioner of Maine.
West Virginia Might Have Fared Worse
The state fire marshal’s department was reorganized during the year 1922, by separating the investigation of arson cases from inspection work, and this movement has proven very satisfactory, the arson squad having secured convictions of ten persons during the fiscal year 1921-22 charged with arson, whose total sentences aggregate fifty years.
This department is working along the line of education and has furnished 50,000 copies of a text book to the schools of the state for teaching fire prevention, as it is through this channel that satisfactory results must eventually be attained.
Some legislation will be asked of the coming session of the legislature which is intended to get more prompt compliance with orders of the department; also, a personal liability bill will be presented for enactment into law.
Considering the period of reconstruction and industrial disturbances through which we have been passing, we might have fared worse. Our loss in West Virginia was slightly reduced during the fiscal year 1921-22 over that of 1920-21, and this period covered the worst industrial unrest we have ever experienced in this state.
This department has succeeded in securing full, complete and harmonious co-operation of all civic organizations of the state, and whatever degree of success that has attended its efforts is largely due to the interest being manifested by the organizations referred to.
We earnestly hope and anticipate that West Virginia’s fire waste will be further reduced this year—C. L. Topping, State Fire Marshal of West Virginia.