New Fire Problem Added to Those We Have
THIS is essentially a time when conservation must rule. The elements which have brought about the conditions we face are all destructive in character, undermining even the foundations of our government. We must not alone observe our material resources. We must reclaim, cling to and conserve our pioneer habits of thrift and industry, our ideas of rational thinking and living, and our very ideals of government and society.
The appalling magnitude of the national fire loss takes on a more serious light in view of these conditions. The millions dollars worth of resources which are being burned up daily are urgently needed for the immediate wants of a distressed people. The Fire Chiefs and State Fire Marshals stand out in this period of readjustment as one of the most important, if not the most important, force for conservation in America.
We are told that the “housing shortage is so acute .that the social fabric of the country may be threatened. Figures recently published on good authority state that at the present time there are 121 families for every 100 dwellings, as against an average of 115 for each 100 homes before the war. Merely to keep pace with the increasing number of families and in no way alleviate this congestion, 2,139,000 homes should be constructed by 1926. A return to prewar conditions would call for 3,340,000 dwellings during that period. Yet last year, according to estimates of the U. S. Housing Corporation, only 70,000 dwellings were completed. In the meantime, our yearly residential fire losses are the equivalent of 13,000 homes, valued at $5,000 each—totally destroyed. Replacement of these homes is not included in the estimates just given. They are a net loss and a serious drain on the limited building program, which is limping along because of scarcity of materials and prohibitive prices.
*To the convention of the International Association of Fire Engineers, Mr. Gamber explained the cooperation between the Fire Chiefs of the State of Illinois and the State’s Fire Marshal’s office, and he pointed out a new fire danger—the unscrupulous profiteer when the prices have gone against him,
We are told that sugar, clothing, shoes and other necessities are almost beyond the reach of the ordinary pocketbook because supplies are short. Yet, in our hour of need, stupendous quantities of these things are going up in smoke because of somebody’s carelessness, neglect or ignorance of common fire hazard conditions.
In our days of plenty people paid scant heed when we told them that goods destroyed by fire were a permanent loss—resources gone forever. Now, in view of our diminished supplies, the truth is strikingly apparent. The insurance money does not bring back the goods.
Whether or not the reports of shortages are exaggerated, the fact is that we will not get back to normal until we consume less and produce more. Curtailment of waste is half the problem and the important half.
Our work is clearly cut out for us. It is easier to talk about reducing this tremendous fire waste than to accomplish it. Yet, I wonder if we realize what a tremendous force we are. The firemen of the United States are a mobilized force of thousands and thousands of men, ranging from the battalion organization of regulars in the larger cities to the single companies of volunteers in the smaller places. The whole country is covered with earnest and energetic men whose hearts are in their work.
When I took office as State F’ire Marshal of Illinois, I looked at the roster of sixteen Deputies, and then at the vast expanse of the state and wondered how we ever could cover that territory and make a real showing. I made up my mind that if real results of a permanent chararter were to be secured they would have to come through the hearty co-operation of the local fire chiefs. I set out to achieve that co-operation and where real co-operation has been brought about the results have fully met expectations.
The ideal of the State Fire Marshal is a State humming with fire prevention activity, with every local fire department always on the job and “hitting the ball,” and the State Fire Marshal ever supplementing and complementing their work—supervising, assisting, consulting, advising, handling the special cases which the local departments may be unable to handle, and always backing them up.
Where Legislation Is Needed
I found that a number of the larger fire departments were making pretty systematic inspections, working under good ordinances and co-ordinating their work effectively with the building and electrical departments. In a great number of communities— some of them fairly large, too—we found inspections carried on now and then, but without much system and a lack of adequate ordinances. In still others we found no inspections whatever being made, no fire prevention ordinances worthy of the name and a lack of knowledge of fire hazards.
We set out to bring to every community as complete a grasp as possible of the fire prevention problem and how to meet it. First, we tried to dispel forever any notion that sole work of a fire department is to extinguish fires. We have emphasized the idea that it is more important to prevent fires, and we have tried to get real fire prevention work started in full blast in every community of the State.
In larger places, which were in bad shape, we would place a whole corps of Deputies to make a thorough inspection, covering every property of importance in the town. In many of them it was the first real clean-up the town had ever had. The Deputy in charge of the work always made it a point to have the local chief sit-in with hitn. Wherever It could be arranged, local firemen were detailed to accompany our men. As the inspection was a complete one, every type of hazard was encountered and the local chief and his men could not help but benefit.
After our men completed their work and left town, the local chief would follow up the orders and advise the office of persons who refused to comply. In due time, our men would return to check up the orders and take legal steps to enforce compliance where necessary.
Getting Rid of Fire Traps
The effect of these special inspections was salutary. They cleaned up the town of its worst hazards and put it in shape where hazards could be kept down if the fire chief would follow up the work. They educated property owners to dangers of conditions which they hitherto had not thought much about. They impressed the people that fire prevention is a good thing and increased pride in having a cleaner, safer city. When citizens see fire-traps, which have long been eye-sores, give way to good looking, modern buildings, they always have more pride in their city.
We would follow up our work with the recommendations for ordinances which would properly cover the needs of the city and assist the Chief In convincing the city council that they should be enacted.
The same plan was carried out in the smaller communities, the only difference being that one Deputy working with the Fire Chief, could do the work.
In cities where the work is well organized, our work is much easier. Our Deputy calls on the Fire Chief. They go over the situation together. The Chief outlines cases he feels unable to handle, or which he feels can be handled most effectively by State authority, and they are given special attention.
It is a standing instruction to all our men to call on the Chief as soon as they reach town and work in closest co-operation with him.
Under our Illinois law—and I believe the Fire Marshal laws of most States—every Fire Chief is given the same authority as a Deputy Fire Marshal as to making inspections and issuing orders for the removal of hazards. To stimulate inspection work by the local chiefs and also them give more backing of authority in their work, we provided them with special inspection blanks on which to issue orders. These carry the signature of the State Fire Marshal and also set forth that the order is issued under full authority of the State Fire Marshal law.
State Stands Back of the Local Chief
The Chief sends one copy of each order to our office and it is given the same attention as any order issued by a regular Deputy. We go the limit for the Chief on these orders. We follow up his orders, where advisable, by a letter to the property owner. If he needs more help, a Deputy is sent to assist him in enforcing the order, especially if suit is necessary. It sometimes happens that local political conditions make it hard to handle a particular situation. In such cases we are only too glad to issue the order for the chief and back him all the way in enforcing it.
Every day’s mail brings batches of Fire Chief’s orders to the office. Scarcely a day passes but what requests are received from one or more Fire Chiefs, asking for advice along certain lines, or for the assistance of a Deputy in handling a particular problem. We try to give immediate service on all these requests. Where advisable, I am always willing to go myself, or send one of the most competent office supervisors. We are having almost more appeals than we can handle for special inspections of towns by groups of Deputies and we are making every effort to induce the legislature to enlarge our force of field men.
In short, our office is becoming the clearing house for all manner of fire department problems and we will have to expand to give the service which is expected of us and to which the local Chiefs are entitled.
Thus, when I say that I wonder if we realize what a powerful force we are, I have in mind a picture of sort of the co-operation and co-ordination which we are trying to achieve in Illinois. The Fire Marshals of other states are trying to do likewise, and if that kind of activity could be brought about in every city and hamlet in this great land, I believe the results would be surprising.
Illinois, but I can point to cities where a substantial reduction in the fire loss has been shown since earnest co-operation has been brought about along the lines indicated.
The Fire Chiefs and Fire Marshals are working toward the same end, but there is no need for overlapping of work. Every Fire Chief should handle routine inspections; they are a part of the work of his department, not alone for preventing fires, but in order that he may become familiar with the construction of buildings, their occupancies, hazards, etc., so that in case of fire it may be fought intelligently and with least danger to his men. There are times when a Chief wants the State Fire Marshal to go over his city, because he is not getting the support he should from the city administration or for the moral effect on the community. In such cases the Fire Marshal should respond most promptly. The Fire Marshal should also step in and exercise his authority to enforce local ordinances, as well as state requirements, when there is sluggishness in any city in regard to fire prevention matters. But, generally speaking, best results are secured when the Fire Marshal is left free to give most of his attention to special hazards, acting more in an advisory capacity to the Chief as to the routine matters.
The Chief, on the other hand, has the right to expect help from the Fire Marshal when complicated construction matters come up, or when the local authorities find themselves unable to handle a particular situation. He has the right to expect advice as to ordinances which should be provided to meet the needs of his city and as to matters of fire equipment. The Fire Marshal should give him all this assistance and should also support him in his reasonable recommendations to his city council.
Good Can Come Through Co-operation
Of course a good deal of this does not apply to great cities like Chicago and New York, which have their own highly organized personnel of men and equipment necessary to cope with the complicated and special problems of fire protection in a great city of congested and manifold occupancies. But even in these cities only good can come through the closest co-operation between city and state, with all rights of home rule reserved. The majority of cities and towns are obliged to operate on limited Fire Department budgets and look to the state, through the State Fire Marshal, for advice and assistance.. I want to say right here that some of the most effective results are being secured by volunteer chiefs, whose pay is so small as to hardly compensate them for clothes spoiled in the course of a year and who are in the work only for the love of it. It shows what can be accomplished by earnest, enthusiastic effort.
At the last convention of the Fire Marshal’s Association of North America a number of ways of increasing the usefulness of State Fire Marshals to Fire Chiefs were discussed. One of these is the placing on the staff of each Fire Marshal a special Fire Department Deputy, qualified by successful experience as a firemen, w-hose duty it would be to visit the various fire departments of the state and give them expert advice on equipment and fighting fires. Where appropriations permit, such a man would also be sent to the New York Fire College for additional training.
Along the same line, some-of the Fire Marshals are bringing training home to the firemen of their states by means of annual fire congresses, where instruction
is given by noted experts. We are also taking up the matter of bringing about standard hose couplings in each State, so as to avoid the tragedy of having the couplings fail to fit when a Department is called to another city to help fight a great fire. We are working for laws in each state under which townships may purchase fire equipment as town property, to be located in the most central village or part of the township. The development of motor apparatus makes such a plan hold great possibilities for the fighting of rural fires.
No doubt the ultimate solution of the fire prevention problem lies in educating the public to a higher level of the responsibilities and duties of citizenship in regard to preventable fire and winning their cooperation. But we have not obtained that co-operation yet, generally speaking, and I doubt if we will get it until the schools of America by systematic teaching of the lessons of fire prevention, or a nezo generation is schooled in habits of carefulness, thoughtfulness and a sense of personal responsibility.
Teaching Personal Responsibility
1 think there is a way to teach personal responsibility to the present generation, however. That is through the enactment of personal liability laws and ordinances in each state and city.
Under such measures, a person who has a fire through his own carelessness, or through failure to comply with any law, ordinance or order issued under law or ordinance, would have to pay the city the cost of extinguishing the fire. If property other than his own was burned, he would be held liable for reimbursing the owner. I trust that every one of you will work for such ordinances and laws and go on record in favor of a strict personal liability statute in every state.
In the meantime, we must inspect incessantly and carefully. We have special hazards today which were scarcely known a generation ago. I need only mention as examples the wide-spread use of gasoline and volatile oils, due to the tremendous development of the automobile and dry-cleaning plans; the growth of the manufacture and use of pyroxylin products, and the phenomenal rise of the motion picture industry.
New special hazards are appearing all the time and the old ones are devolping new features. We must keep pace with these hazards, devising methods to cope with them and always striving to improve those methods.
New Danger of Today
Business has been too good because of the high price levels. There are hundreds, probably thousands, of firms and individuals who cannot stand a sharp break in prices. Their profits are built on inflation. They include many factories which were equipped during the war or since, and thrived because commodities of every sought have brought unheard of prices. They include also the speculating profiteers, who have horded the necessities of life on a rising market, greedily holding them for ever higher prices, despite the scorn which has been heaped upon them. Many merchants are said to be overstocked, too.
I f the break in prices should come suddenly, we will have to be on guard. We all know that many warehouses are stocked to bursting with food and clothing and information trickles out from time to time that speculators have overplayed their game; that they have overloaded; that many of them will be victims of their own greed and will find themselves obliged to disgorge at a loss.
But will they? Fire Insurance for a year past has been written on inflated valuations, and the insurance companies are frankly disturbed.
We may have some sympathy for a man—although we cannot condone the act—who, having invested his all in an honest business adventure and failed, is driven to desperation and the torch, but we can have no consideration for the conscienceless scoundrel who withholds necessities from his fellow citizens and burns them when the market blasts his unholy venture. Justice demands that all such find repose in the penitentiaries for the maximum sentences.
Let us therefore prepare now to meet this emergency. Some lines are showing a tendency to drop. Every suspicious fire should be scrutinized more carefully than ever before. Every Fire Chief should work in closest co-operation with the Fire Marshal of his state and the best efforts of both should be brought to bear to see that prison doors await those deserving of them.