Millions Spent to Bring Water to the Curb
Why Stop There in Municipal Fire Protection? If the City Goes This Far, Why Should It Not Install Automatic Sprinklers to Still Further Safeguard Buildings from Fire?
IN spite of constantly increasing fire department efficiency, both as to men and apparatus; in spite of vastly increased fire prevention activities along educational lines; in spite of the great emphasis placed by the press on the folly and uselessness of our annual fire loss—the fire waste was greater last year than ever before except in years of conflagration like San Francisco or Baltimore. More than that, last year’s loss of $485,000,000 seems likely to be exceeded this year!
Nor does this actual property loss rightly express the magnitude of our fire waste. To it must be added each year many items of contingent loss and expense that altogether bring our fire loss, not to $485,000,000 a year, but to more than twice that enormous sum.
The trouble in this whole fire waste question, we believe, lies in a fundamental misconception or misinterpretation of the facts. We propose, with the somewhat limited figures at our disposal, to analyze fire lossses and see whether some definite starting point and some equally definite plan of starting does not clearly emerge from our examination.
The daily press prints thousands of columns a year about fires and fire losses. For the most part they harp on carelessness—particularly in homes. This is good and helps educate the household, but it has little influence in reducing the huge totals mentioned because fire losses in American dwellings, including apartment houses, are exceedingly low. The insured value of this class of risk reaches the stupendous total of $91,689,000,000. The annual loss on all of this huge value averages about $33,000,000. This is a loss of only 3 1/2 cents to $100 at risk and a loss ratio to the premium collected by the insurance companies of about 30 per cent.
Residence Losses Less Than Ten Per Cent.
It is estimated that dwelling houses total considerably more than 60 per cent, of the total insured value of the country. And yet their losses are less than one-tenth the total fire loss. It may be that the American householder is careless, but he unquestionably, on the basis of the figures above, safeguards his property more carefully than most business men. If all property showed a similar loss ratio to value, the fire loss would at once shrink to a small fraction of what it now is.
Figures recently released by the Actuarial Bureau of the National Board of Fire Underwriters clearly show one class of business property which with a mere fraction of the value dwelling house risk has a fire loss just as large and larger. This is the so-called Miscellaneous Mercantile Class —the type of building that makes up “Main Street” in moderate sized cities and which goes a long way toward piling up the values, starting the conflagrations and causing the losses in the congested value districts of metropolitan centers.
In “Unsprinklered Miscellaneous Mercantile Risks’” the National Board figures covering 80,000 claims with $439,000,000 of insurance involved, show losses paid of over $136,000,000. Now keep these figures in mind; $439,000,000 of value involved; over $136,000,000 of losses paid. The period covered is four years (1917 to 1920 inclusive). The average annual loss per year is $34,000,000 which is more than the total dwelling house loss for a year in spite of that huge $91,000,000,000 dwelling house valuation.
Now look at the following figures on “Sprinklered Miscellaneous Mercantile Risks” covering the same four years. The number of claims was 2,529 involving $401,000,000 of insurance. The losses paid were $6,000,000. Compare these figures with those on the unsprinklered risk! Although the values at risk are nearly as great as in the unsprinklered group, the loss is only 4per cent, of what it is in the unsprinklered group. In other words, here was a perfectly useless loss of $130,000,000 in one single class of business property during a four year period. That’s the cold money loss. It doesn’t figure interrupted business losses nor the losses in wages to employees. Nor does it take into account the danger to firemen who arrived on the scene to find buildings already doomed and perhaps cities endangered.
Sprinkler Reduction Not Confined to Favored Risks
Fire chiefs and firemen generally need no argument to convince them of the merits of automatic sprinkler protection. Heretofore, however, most of the data concerning sprinkler protection has come from the Factory Mutual Insurance companies and the various Inter-Insurance organizations, such as the Reciprocal Underwriters. The risks insured by such companies are carefully selected, large, well managed and away from conflagration districts. It was thought that the remarkable record of sprinklers in them was due in a considerable measure to those favorable factors.
Now, however, this wide stock company experience in one of the most troublesome of all classes of risks shows that sprinklers reduce fire losses there twenty times.
These figures seem to us convincing evidence that what automatic sprinklers have done in the great cotton mills, shoe factories, paper mills and large department stores of the country, will be repeated wherever they are installed. That means that fire losses would be about 3 1/2 cents per $100 at risk, the same as they now are in mills insuring under the Factory Mutual system and the same as they are in dwelling houses. In trying to estimate what the effect of general sprinkler installation in business property would mean in dollars and cents, we are greatly handicapped by a lack of authentic data. The following is therefore, only a close approximation.
Perhaps $12,000,000,000 of commercial risks are already under sprinkler protection on which annual fire losses are on the average around $6,000,000. Dwelling house losses are $33,000,000 a year. This leaves upward of $250,000,000 of fire losses coming from unsprinklerd business buildings and certain unclassified and non-commercial risks. If $45,000,000,000 of unsprinklered business values could be brought under sprinkler protection, the loss on it would be some $22,500,000 a year instead of around $250,000,000 as at present—a saving approximating $225,000,000.
Municipalities Can Solve the Problem
Here are figures to conjure with. Here is a way to reduce the annual fire loss very substantially with all that implies in the way of a reduction of contingent losses, such as business interruption, insurance company expense, fire department expenditures, loss of wages, loss of life, etc.
As a greater part of our annual fire losses are made up of this class of risks, the solution of the problem presents no great difficulty nor should its accomplishment be hard to effect. Municipalities have always been quick to enact ordinances providing greater and greater safeguards against conflagrations. Many of these are expensive to comply with. From a shortsighted viewpoint it might appear as if they constituted an unnecessary tax. But do they? Who would be thoughtless enough to assert that the restrictions embodied in most city building codes were not designed to assure the safety of the community as well as of the individual citizen.
But experience, as embodied in the figures cited above, has demonstrated that these safeguards have not been carried far enough. Slow-burning construction, fire retarding walls, air courts and the like are all excellent provisions against the spread of fire, but they are not enough to stop conflagrations, as has been shown time and again. The fire must not merely be retarded or held back, it must be put out right at the start. Many leading cities have evidenced an appreciation of the great hazard represented by their congested districts with thousands of these miscellaneous mercantile risks in a limited area and have expended millions on the installation and maintenance of high pressure systems.
These cities, as well as many others, can go much further toward a solution of the problem that will cut our annual fire loss in two, by enacting ordinances that all such risks in congested districts must be sprinklered. This will cost the municipality nothing. It will reduce the conflagration risk to a minimum.
An Outline of Prevailing Conditions
To give a better understanding of the plan suggested it is essential to outline briefly the nature of the buildings now lacking sprinkler protection and to point out why they have not previously been sprinklered and why they never will be sprinklered if the matter is left to voluntary action. Such an understanding of the situation is essential to a clear grasp and a keen realization of the necessity of some such method of procedure as we advocate.
The great unsprinklered classes of business property are:
- Miscellaneous mercantile risks,
- Tenant manufacturing risks,
- Piers, wharves and docks.
A very large proportion, of all other business property is already equipped with automatic sprinklers. That the above named classes have not been similarly equipped is due to conditions that effectually negative the various selling points which so much appeal to the business man owning and occupying his own property.
In all of these great unsprinklered classes, the building is owned by one man and filled with the goods and machinery of other men. The owner won’t sprinkler the property because his saving on insurance on the building alone does not justify the equipment from an investment standpoint. It is quite impossible to get a group of tenants to make the installation and thus permanently better the property of the landlord, often an estate. In many cases the combined savings of owners and tenants on account of reduced insurance, would pay a handsome return on the necessary investment in sprinklers, but the co-operation necessary is impossible to get. In warehouses, garages and piers, the situation is even worse.
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Millions to Bring Water to the Curb
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It is obvious from the foregoing, that the obstacles to voluntary sprinkler installation are well nigh insuperable. Now and then a combination of favorable local circumstances results in real progress being made as in the case of Knoxville, Tenn. For the most part, progress is negligible and buildings go on burning and cities go on being endangered by conflagrations because the non-protection of these unsprinklered business buildings endanger not only themselves, but better protected property all about them. Waiting for private ownership to correct this situation is like expecting raindrops to wash away Gibraltar. The foolhardiness of depending on non-retroactive building laws to correct the situation is easily apparent because that practically means that cities must burn up before conditions arc changed. In addition any general municipal action of this kind would effect very important economies in sprinkler installation work. Systems would be laid out in the most convenient large units and the cost pro-rated according to the areas protected. There would unquestionably be a large saving in engineering expense, alarm valves, connections, installation, selling expense, etc. More than that, the city’s credit would allow the financing to be done on a very low interest rate and the working capital of the concerns involved would not be disturbed in the least.
Municipal action is, therefore, necessary. It is more than necessary—it is essentially logical. What the cities of the country have spent in laying mains, installing hydrants, creating and maintaining the pressures for fire service, no one knows. It must he hundreds of millions. After the terrific expense of bringing this water under high pressure through thousands of miles of mains, they stop it at the curb. Thirty feet away across the sidewalk are scores of thousands of buildings that are fire traps. Sooner or later they will catch fire and burn. But the sadly needed water is still in the mains thirty feet away. To get the water the last thirty feet. 219 cities, according to the United States Census, pay several hundred million dollars a year—every year.
Fire Departments Purpose to Prevent Conflagrations
The expenditure is low for the magnitude of the work done. The results are remarkable. The trouble is that the method is archaic. It is an outgrowth of the 17th century beginnings of fire insurance. Fire departments are operating remarkably efficiently under such conditions. The general public is apt to wonder why fire departments with all their expensive equipment do not reduce the fire loss. The trouble is that the public, and a great many responsible city officials, do not realize the real purpose of fire departments. Their chief function is not to save the building and contents where fires start, but to prevent fires from extending to other properties and assuming conflagration proportions. Delay in finding fire and delay in sending in the alarm to the fire department makes it physically impossible for them in a great many cases to keep losses in individual buildings at a minimum. As a safeguard against sweeping fires and conflagrations, the average fire department is fulfilling its chief function with a degree of efficiency that in unquestioned by those who know the facts of the case.
What could be more sensible than for cities to pipe the city water that is all ready right at the curb into buildings and put automatic firemen every ten feet along those pipes, so that when the fire started the water would start? It is this simple, fundamental conception of having water automatically available when the fire starts that has cut fire losses ten to twenty times in the business properties that have adopted sprinkler protection. The plan suggested above is to extend the city’s fire fighting system a few feet farther right into the buildings when fires start and make it automatic.
Many cities have already required sprinkler protection in certain types of buildings in certain sections. In some ways that works a hardship on owners, simply because it is not made universal. The plan we submit is to make automatic sprinkler protection general in all business buildings where merchandise is manufactured, sold or stored within the congested value districts.
Municipalities Can Install and Finance Equipment
When it is necessary for a city to lay sidewalks, pave new streets, or put in sewers, it goes ahead and does the work and then tells the property owners about it by assessing theowners of the abutting land. Why not do exactly the same thing as regards installing fire protection that not only improves the actual property affected but brings new safety to the city as a whole—perhaps saves it from utter and complete destruction by fire?
In the first part of this article, it has been suggested that cities compel property owners in congested districts to protect their neighbors as well as their own buildings by sprinklers. But as this calls for a large individual outlay it would be easier on the property owner for the city to finance the equipments and have them installed. A special fire protection tax would then he levied against the owners of the building for a period of years until the investment wasamortized. This would put all building owners on the same footing. They could consequently act on a uniform basisin raising rents or increasing storage rates sufficiently to meet the new tax. The reduced insurance rates of the tenants would largely if not altogether offset such advances. In reality, the whole investment would eventually be returned many fold out of reduced fire losses which mean reduced insurance expense.
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Millions to Bring Water to the Curb
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The fire chief, as the one man actively responsible for a city’s safety from fire, will naturally be expected to take the lead in advocating or opposing any such plan from the standpoint of fire engineering. He is not concerned with the financial aspects of the situation. His advocacy or opposition should be based solely on the question as to whether such a plan will definitely, immediately and continuously cut fire losses.
What fire chiefs have to say of such a plan will have great weight with other municipal officials considering it. The fire chief must take the lead. We believe the progressive force that is moving most chiefs today will cause them to enthusiastically endorse such a plan as scientifically correct and along the sound engineering lines that are today being followed by the fire fighting fraternity. FIRE AND WATER ENGINEERING, therefore, urges your careful study of this plan and solicits articles from you in regard to it. Further than that, it believes your influence is so important that it proposes shortly to mail a comprehensive questionnaire regarding this and other related matters so that a real consensus of opinion may be obtained.
An explosion of the air dome in the water works pump at Manchester, Tenn., caused a shut down in the water service, this being the first interruption since the completion of the works over a year ago. The standpipe which was about half full contained enough water to supply the town for several days.