LEGISLATION TO PREVENT FIRES.
EGISLATION is confidently relied upon by the general public to cure all the ills from which it suffers. It is regarded as the universal panacea for State, municipal, corporate and individual shortcomings, and as a means of prevention of all the crimes in the calendar. Whether it can do anything to prevent the enormous waste of property by fire that is now going on is a question yet to be determined. Whatever relates to this subject is regarded by the average legislator as a question of insurance, and forthwith his hostility is aroused, and his prejudice against “corporate monopolies ” is so great that he becomes oblivious to the public interests involved in the subject. The number of persons that appreciate to the full extent how great is the national calamity caused by the annual fire losses of the country is comparatively small. The great majority of persons read of the losses from day to day, but do not stop to consider how great the aggregate is; besides, they argue that, as most persons insure their property, it is the insurance companies and not individuals that suffer. Legislators also seem to feel that it is the business of the insurance companies to look after fires, and that any legislation tending to prevent them is calculated to benefit the companies and not the public. Whether this popular misapprehension regarding the business of insurance can ever be done away with is doubtful so long as a lot of political demagogues are to be found to deliver inflammatory tirades against corporations and capital, and to denounce every enterprise that requires a combination of capital and of individuals. It does not require a special knowledge of insurance to realize the fact that the money paid out by the companies for fire losses comes out of the pockets of their patrons, the public, not their own ; they are simply a medium through which the collections are made, and expect fair remuneration for their services; when the business ceases to be profitable, they return their capital to the stockholders who advanced it and gracefully retire from the field. The premiums collected by them from the public must pay losses, expenses and a fair profit or the companies will cease doing business ; whatever burden falls upon the companies has to be borne by those who pay premiums. When fire losses are heavy or taxes increased, the rates charged by the companies are advanced, so that the burden of losses falls directly upon the people. Legislators may shut their eyes to the facts, may continue to legislate against the companies or refuse to legislate for their protection, but the public has to foot the bills under any and all circumstances.
The fire losses of the country have assumed such magnitude in the aggregate, amounting to $100,000,000 and upwards each year, that the question of insurance should not be permitted to figure conspicuously in its consideration. As a matter of fact, only about fifty-five per cent of the property annually burned is insured, so that a large proportion of the losses falls directly upon the propertyowners, while the balance is distributed among many through the intervention of the insurance companies. Most fires are of a preventable nature ; they are caused by lack of foresight, proper care, recklessness and malice. Legislation might be brought to bear to compel propertyowners to obviate these causes. In the first place, building laws should be so framed and administered as to prevent the erection of those highly inflammable structures that are so common in our large cities, and that constitute an ever present peril to the entire community. But propertyowners will not erect substantial, slow burning structures —fireproof buildings are impossible—so long as they are permitted to build cheap and dangerous ones, that will bring them in just as much income as the others, and that they can insure for their full value. It is not only necessary to clearly define in building laws the conditions under which buildings may be erected, but provision must be made for the rigid enforcement of such laws. Nearly every city has regulations for building in force at the present time, but the daily burnings are proof positive that the laws are not administered energetically. It would require a large force of building inspectors in this city to prevent builders using improper material or disregarding the requirements of the law, but the results attained would more than compensate for the expenditure.
The very best way to compel propertyowners to erect proper buildings, and to exercise care and watchfulness to prevent their burning, is to make them pecuniarily interested in the result. In France, the person on whose premises a fire starts is held accountable in pecuniary damages to all persons who may suffer by reason of such fire ; he is liable to be arrested immediately and imprisoned. An impending penalty of this nature has a tendency to make men careful, not only as to the character of the buildings they erect, but in caring for them afterwards. When willful carelessness is made a crime there will be fewer fires. In addition to exacting building laws, there should be others making it the duty of certain designated officers to inspect every building thoroughly at least once a year, and as many more times as there should be changes in its occupancy or the character of the fire hazard. These officers should have the power to compel propertyowners and tenants to make such alterations as they deem necessary to reduce the fire hazard to the minimum, and they should be entirely distinct from the building department. In short, there should be a bureau of inspection, whose officers should have authority to enter any building at anytime for the purpose of inspecting it, and there should be severe penalties provided for neglect to comply with their requirements. The experience of fire underwriters has demonstrated that it pays to make thorough and frequent inspections of property insured ; the interest of the public in the matter is far greater than that of the insurance companies, and the advantages of general inspections would be far greater than the insurance companies have realized from their limited watchfulness over the risks they insure. But thorough inspection is not the rule with all the companies. On the contrary, many of them are so anxious to obtain business that they take any that is offered, regardless of the hazards involved. If,instead of a few inspections made by insurance companies in their own interests, a bureau of inspection exercised a careful supervision over all buildings, however occupied, the advantage the public would gain through a reduction of the fire loss would more than compensate for the cost.
It is conceded that fire insurance is responsible for a great many fires. The fact that property can be insured for its full value, and often in excess, has a tendency to make owners careless, if it does not tempt them to become incendiaries. They build carelessly, relying upon insurance to hold them harmless in case the building burns; they provide no effectual means for extinguishing fires, and exercise no supervision to prevent them. Too many rejoice when a fire converts unprofitable property into cash taken from the treasuries of the insurance companies. The laws should be so framed as to make it impossible for anyone to realize a profit from the burning of his property, even though it does not originate on his premises. Where it does originate on his premises, he should be made to share the loss, even though he is insured to the fullest extent. This could be done by making it a misdemeanor for any insurance company to pay more than three-fourths of a loss where the fire originated on the premises wherein the loss occurred. Hold the insured person responsible pecuniarily by this means, and his watchfulness and care will be materially increased. There would, no doubt, be some individual hardships inflicted by the enforcement of such a law, but in nine cases out of ten the loser would be properly punished for neglecting to make use of reasonable means to prevent fires. Propertyowners who suffer from fires originating in premises other than their own, should be indemnified for their actual loss to the full extent of their insurance, but in no case should they be permitted to profit by the burning. Over-insurance is admittedly the cause of many fires; it is a temptation to unscrupulous persons to set fire to their premises, thus jeoparding the safety of adjacent property and frequently putting many lives in peril. If the law prohibited the payment of more than three-fourths of any proved loss, the temptation to incendiarism for purposes of gain would be removed, and the insurance companies would pay less frequently for goods that had been removed to a place of safety before the fire occurred that destroyed the boxes and cases that were supposed to contain them.
Unquestionably the surest way to reduce the number of fires, and to prevent the enormous waste they involve, is to compel propertyowners to adopt all reasonable safeguards for the protection of their property; and those who are insured will be very apt to do this if one-fourth of any loss that occurs has to come out of their own pockets. But there are many who do not insure at all, trusting to luck to save them from loss, and upon these the official inspections we have referred to would have a beneficial effect. It seems singular that owners of property require the stimulus of a reward or the fear of penalties to induce them to adopt proper measures for the protection of their property, but that such is the fact is shown by the increasing fire losses. If all property was insured it might be said that the promise of indemnity was the cause of so much incendiary carelessness, but, as before stated, nearly one-half the property burned is not insured, and the loss falls directly upon the individual owners. Proper legislation, rigidly enforced, could do much to overcome the indifference or ignorance exhibited generally by owners of property. The welfare of the community at large, that has to bear the burden of these losses, ought to be of sufficient weight with legislators to induce them to give this subject intelligent consideration. In our own State, they have refused, in the interests of a few speculative builders, to amend the building laws as suggested by the building department, and probably any legislation that might be proposed would be defeated in a similar manner. Still, it is worthwhile to agitate the subject, and in the end the public may become so well informed regarding it that legislators will have to yield to the popular demand for legislation to prevent fires.
“ These firemen must be a frivolous set,” said Mr. Spilkins, who was reading a paper. “ Why so ?” ” I read in the paper that after the fire was under control, the firemen played all night on die ruins. Why didn’t they go home and go to bed like sensible men, instead of romping about like children?”—Texas Siftings.