LONE ENGINE COMPANY PROTECTS 9,000 LIVES ON WELFARE ISLAND
Land Adjacent to Manhattan Island Has 118 Buildings, Including Hospitals. Asylums and Prison—Aid Can Be Rushed from City
VISITORS to New York City always remember a long narrow island lying parallel to Manhattan Island, in the East River. Few realize that it contains what may be called the most unique fire unit of any department in this country, and few can compare with it in the number of lives that it must protect, and the attendant responsibilities.
Welfare Island is a comparatively new name for the far-famed Blackwell’s Island which was given to the city by the old Blackwell family. Since there are a number of hospitals, homes and asylums on the island, the Commission of Public Welfare, seven years ago, prevailed upon the city to change the island’s name to avoid the pall of penal servitude falling on those, other than prisoners, stationed on the property. The island is about one and one-half miles long and 644 feet wide. It extends from a point opposite Fifty-first street and ends at a point near Eighty-sixth street.
There are 118 buildings on the island housing approxiCaot. Joseph A. Christie mately nine thousand persons, including officials, physicians, nurses, patients, prisoners, keepers, employees and their families. The buildings are as follows: Fifty of one story; twenty-nine of two stories; seventeen of three stories; ten of four stories; three of five stories and one of nine stories. The latter is 100 by 120 feet, built up to the level of the Queensboro Bridge which spans both channels of the East River from Fifty-ninth street, Manhattan, to Queens Boulevard, Long Island City. This building was constructed to provide transportation between the bridge and the island in order to eliminate the very unsatisfactory boat service. It lias three service elevators of six, thirteen and seventeen tons capacity, available for fire apparatus (excepting hook and ladder trucks) which respond on first alarm to augment Engine Co. 49 on the island. This building contains many hazards, such as drug supply, chemicals, lumber for manufacturing coffins, records, stationery, dry goods for wearing apparel for patients and prisoners, coffee roasting, general storage and warehouse for the island institutions.
Twenty-seven of the buildings are used for hospitalization, two for laboratories, one for radium treatment, four for nurses’ quarters, three for doctors’ quarters, eight for dormitories, two for prisons (penitentiary and warehouse), two for homes for the destitute, four for laundries, eight for garages, two for oil storage, three refrigerating plants, nine for churches, chapels and other religious work, also besides the carpenter shops, paint shops, bakeries, store houses, hath houses, post office, recreation centre, nine cottages for residences of the warden, medical superintendent and other officials.
The island contains many old structures, luckily there have been no fatal fires in them mainly due to the vigilance and educational fire prevention propaganda by the officers and members of Engine Co. 49. The Department of Welfare maintains a fire drill expert who supervises all the institutions of that department.
City Hospital is a five story stone building, 200 x 450 feet, erected in 1859; Metropolitan Hospital, four stories, of stone, 300 x 400 feet, erected in 1848; Cits Home for Women, four stories, stone, 100 x 250 net, erected in 1846; City Home for Men. four stories, stone, 110 x 300 feet, erected in 1846; Penitentiary. five stories, stone, 1,275 x 175 feet, erected in 1876, with additions in 1897: Workhouse, four stories, stone, 200 x 600 feet, erected in 1852; Nurses’ Home, five stories, stone, 100 x 200 feet, erected in 1908; service building between the bridge and the island, nine stories, brick and concrete, 100 x 200 feet, erected in 1918.
All buildings are equipped with standpipes, extinguishers, hose, hooks, axes, buckets and interior fire alarm system. The more serious hazard on the island is the Metropolitan Hospital, with its combustible interior, wide open cupola, and open stairways. Most of the older buildings have wooden floors, old wood trim and stairways, cock lofts and storage capacity not separated.
The elevator building at the bridge connection with its inflammable contents on various floors is an ever threatening source of fire which could, if large enough and hot enough, prevent fire apparatus and firemen from reaching the island.
All buildings are well equipped with an interior alarm system, on each floor, cellar and other important location. Each box is numbered and the location designated both in the records of the city fire department and in the institution itself.
To snap a box in any of the buildings, is to give notice, not only to the fire department at the central office in Manhattan. but it also causes the engineer or stoker on duty in the boiler houses to blow four blasts on all steam whistles as sort of local alarm to call out the employees, nurses, keepers and doctors for their particular detail of fire duty. The quarters of Engine Co. 49 are opposite East Seventy-second street, facing toward Manhattan. The employees of the Department of Welfare and the Department of Correction have a prescribed drill which they follow until the arrival of the fire company.
There is one master alarm box of the city fire department on the island. It has from one to eighteen terminal numbers attached to it. The alarm might read: 3 920——18; the “3” indicating special building alarm, the “920” being the box and the “18” the designating terminal number indicating the specific location on the island of the origin of that alarm. Assignments have been made for a fifth alarm, embracing 19 engines, four trucks and one more fireboat.
A first alarm assignment for the island brings, in addition to the local fire company, Engine Companies Nos. 8, 39 and 44, H & L Companies 2 and lb, the Chiefs of the 8th and 10th Battalions—all from the mainland via Queensboro Bridge, and two fireboa’s. The fire apparatus from the mainland reaches the level of the island in about five minutes—the hook and ladder crews carrying axes, hooks, claw tools, etc., and leaving their apparatus at the bridge level. It is arranged on signal that in case of fire, the elevator operators take their cars to the bridge level and await the arrival of the firemen In the meanwhile, Engine Co. 49 is in charge.
The water supply to the island is from the mainland via two 12-inch mains, one under the bed of the river and the o’her from the Queensboro Bridge level The pressure on the hydrants averages thirty pounds.
Engine Co. 49 is in charge of Capt. Joseph A. Christie on one platoon and Lieut. James Coyle on the other There are two officers, two engineers and eighteen firemen, Capt. Christie has had twenty-eight years ‘service. The average service of the members of the company is twenty-three years, all active men however with valued experiences in busy fire companies prior to their assignment to the island.
The company had three fires last year. Its work is more along the line of prevention and inspection than actual extinguishment. The fact that there have not been more than three fires a year on the island is due mainly to the vigilant inspection, educational and prevention activities of the firemen and the fire drill expert, Erward C. Smith, a retired member of the New York Department.
The company is equipped with a second size tractorized steam pumping engine; a South Bend hose wagon carrying 1,000 feet of 2 1/2-inch hose; a Mack city-service truck with a chemical tank and a reel of 300 feet of 1-inch hose. The engine house was built in 1882. It is maintained equally by the Department of Welfare and the Department of Correction. Two trusty prisoners arc assigned to cook and wait on the table. The firemen themselves take care of all other fire house activities. The motors of the apparatus are turned over three times a day—same as on the mainland. Weather permitting, the apparatus is given a short run every week. Often an inmate of the City Home or an old convalescent patient will stroll to the engine house to talk to the “boys”, and recall old times in the volunteer department of yester-year.
Ten years ago a trusty prisoner purloined a fireman’s uniform coat and cap and was wearing it on his way to freedom when a guard familiar with the faces of the firemen encountered him and spoiled the get-away.