NEW YORK FIRE DEPARTMENT ADMINISTRATION
The New York fire department is divided into two sections. The administrative section includes jurisdiction over purchase of apparatus and supplies, the fire-alarm telegraph system, buildings and their fittings, repairs to apparatus, and the clerical work. The fire commissioner is solely responsible for the administrative part of the department’s work. The chief is responsible for the fighting of fires and the discipline of the uniformed force. The commissioner is responsible for the efficiency of the apparatus and the clerical and repair shop forces, and is the trial judge in cases where charges are made by the chief against members of the uniformed force. This division of the fire department was provided for in the charter to prevent the establishment and maintenance of conditions which have been made possible in the police department by reason of the fact that the police commissioner is responsible for the entire department and all its activities. To illustrate: The police commissioner can transfer policemen from post to post, from borough to borough, at will. The fire commissioner cannot assign or transfer a member of the uniformed force without the recommendations of the chief.
It is this unrestricted power of transfer chiefly which has given politicians the rule of the police department and led to the enthronement of the graft system. The policeman who refuses to collect graft, who refuses to heed the political pull of an offender, who refuses to work for the political party in power, can be punished. It is the lack of the commissioner’s power to transfer or assign or reassign uniformed members of the fire department as he may desire and without the recommendation of the chief that has kept the fire department free from control by political organizations. With few exceptions the fire commissioners have endeavored to nullify this provision of the charter and to secure for themselves dominance over the entire department. Backed by the pressure of the nolitical organization which had chiefly governed the city up to last November, the commissioners have essayed through the pounding of the “system” to wrest from the chief the power which the charter gives him and which prevented them from making the department an auxiliary of that “system.”
While it cannot be said, at this time, that the present commissioner is acting at the behest of a political organization or is seeking to ingratiate himself, with a view to demanding future political favors, with a political organization, it is true that he is endeavoring to have his predecessors, by a campaign of harrassment and petty espionage, to force the chief to an implied waiving of his rights as to the maintenance of discipline in the uniformed force. At the recent meeting of the mayor and some of his commissioners for the discussion of proposed charter revision measures, Firt Commissioner Waldo advocated an amendment to the charter which would give the fire commissioner sole power over the entire fire department. In other words, he advocated an amendment which would allow a governing political organization to mould the department to its purposes. Fear that such an amendment might be proposed and rushed through the legislature without public knowledge of its full import had long been felt by insurance men and workers for good government, and they now see in the attitude of Fire Commissioner Waldo a recrudescence of the spirit of political control which they had hoped would be missing front the Gaynor administration.
There are two classes of men who follow with the most intense earnestness the doings of the fire department. These are the insurance men, who have a monetary interest at stake, and the “Buffs,” or Buffaloes, as they are called, who go to all fires through love of the excitement and for the work of the firemen. These two classes of men are more familiar, perhaps, than even the chief himself with the feelings of the officers and men, for the reason that the men know that they can tell them, without fear of punishment, the exact conditions under which they are working. It is through such men, not one or two discontented shirkers, but scores of loyal, efficient fire-fighters, that it has become known that the department is in a state which is daily decreasing its efficiency and discipline. Men are fined heavily for trivial offenses. Red tape is so wound around the officers that rather than face charges for a mistake which might be made in making a requisition for some small articles necessary in the houses they pay for it out of their own purses.
There is nothing in the rules of the fire department which forbids the drawing up or signing ot petitions by the men of the uniformed _____orce. The commissioner had no objection to and signed a petition to the board of estimate, drawn by the men, asking for an increase in pay. Yet when, without the knowledge of the chief, a document was circulated setting forth the confidence the members of the uniformed force had in him, at a time when he was under fire from his departmental enemies, the commissioner immediately set about an investigation. Men called before him in this investigation were examined after the inquisition method and made to believe that dire punishment awaited the signers of the petition. As a matter of fact, there was no violation of the rules, and the men could not be punished for drawing up or signing the petition. While such acts as the foregoing are part and parcel of the series of blunders which have aroused in the members of the uniformed force as a whole a spirit of discontent which is inseparable from laxity in the performance of duty, it would need something more to undermine the discipline, loyalty, bravery and obedience of orders which have hitherto marked their conduct. It would need a blow at the authority of the commanding officer, a concrete illustration of the fact that his was not the sole authority, a demonstration that his inferiors could attack him with the support of the commissioner and proof that departmental politicians and promotion seekers could reach the commissioner’s ear.
This was furnished by the investigation of the Washington street fire, which, purporting to be an inquiry into the cause of the loss of life at that fire, was an examination into the fitness of Chief Croker and Deputy Chief Binns for their positions by a packed board. The fact that three of Croker’s departmental enemies, his inferiors, ruled the investigation, was a blow at the authority of the chief. The manner in which they conducted the investigation was an allustration that his was not the sole authority, that they could attack him with the support of the commissioner, and that departmental promotion seekers and politicians could reach the commissioner’s ear.
The statement has been made that the investigation of the Washington street fire was no different from other investigations at which there was loss of life. Yet, and here would seem to be the proof of the pudding, since that investigation was begun there have been several fires at which even men as high in authority as battalion chiefs refused to order the men into the building to reach the heart of the fire, for fear that should there be loss of life there would be another investigation. The only way to put out a fire is to put out the fire. If the fire department is to confine its efforts to preventing a fire from spreading and make no attempt to extinguish the fire for which the alarm is sounded, insurance rates will go up with a jump. In no previous investigation of fires has there been any disposition to change the methods of fighting them. They are fought the same wherever modern methods are in vogue. The firemen go to the fire instead of waiting for the fier to come to them.
As to the department itself, then the conditions present in it which are to be included in those which as a whole threaten New York City with a conflagration are the following: The openly expressed desire of the commissioner to be the sole authority over all branches of the department, and his desire for legislation to that end, meaning the opportunity for political control of the department. The petty tyranny of the commissioner in inflicting heavy fines for trivial offenses, treating the men as though they were regular soldiers, and the blunders caused by his ignorance of the needs of the department. The refusal of the commissioner to work with the chief, and his support of the latter’s enemies. The activity of departmental politicians and the commissioner’s support of them. The deterioration of discipline and efficiency in the ranks of the uniformed force which must come with the knowledge that it may be put in the hands of a political organization, that the authority of the chief can be disputed by his inferiors or his enemies, and that the commissioner has openly stated that he will sanction politics in the department.
The first step, then, to be taken in the interests of the citizens of New York City who would lose their lives in a conflagration, in the interests of the real and personal property owners who would lose their property in a conflagration, in the interests of the business men who would lose their merchandise in a conflagration, and in the interests of the city’s credit and the protection of the capital of leading and financial institutions which would suffer enormous damage by a conflagration, is the wiping out of the conditions named. There is only one way to wipe them out. That is to remove the breeder of them.—Municipal Facts.
New Jersey Fire News.
Passaic is to have two _____ew fire stations very soon.
Newark had six fires inside of nine hours one day last week. Very little damage was done at either.
Chief Alfred P. Smith, of Madison, sustained a sprained arm in an auto accident in Millburn. While driving his car he plunged into an excavation.
The Boonton fire department has elected the following officers: Chief, O. P. Whitehead; first assistant chief, Thomas P. Logan; second assistant, Henry Worman.
A temporary organization of the Passaic Paid Fire Department Pension Fund has been effected by electing Chief Bowker chairman, and Assistant Chief Gibson secretary.
The inhabitants in the vicinity of Millville, South Jersey, have been fighting forest fires for several days. The dry spell has caused everything out of doors to be inflammable, and a spark from a passing locomotive furnishes employment for the farmers to save their homes.
Five fire alarms flashed into Newark fire headquarters within twenty-four minutes during the height of the thunder storm on Aug. 3, and drew every piece of apparatus from the engine houses and kept the four telegrap hoperators at headquarters in a fever for half an hour. None of the fires were serious Three were caused by lightning.
Silver Lake is a local name given to a portion of the town of Belleville. It is a section populated by Italians, and is a collection of ramshackle buildings mostly. There have been a number of serious fires in the section. While it is part of Belleville, the fire department does not attend at fires, and appeal has been made to Newark for aid, resulting in apparatus being sent from the latter city.
Spontaneous combustion in fifteen tons of hay in George Spottiswood’s barn at Orange caused a $7,000 fire loss on July 25. With ten streams of water at high pressure, the Orange fire department under Chief Matthews attacked the fire at three different points, and succeeded in confining it to a comparatively small area. The flames were prevented from spreading to nearby coal pockets, or to a garage in a row of frame business buildings, and a solid block of small houses and tenements.
Following a fire in a garage at 8 Court street, Newark, Saturday night, C. Albert Grasser, superintendent of the bureau of combustibles and fire risks, served notice on the owner, Walter Eichhorn, that changes must be made in the place at once. The official stated that he found several rules of his department were being violated, and that through one of these violations the fire started.
Two gasoline tanks exploding with a detonation that shook up a large section of the town caused a fire that resulted in $50,000 damage to the oil plant of the Texas Company, at Avenue A and First street, Bayonne, on Sunday last. A general alarm was sent in, and it was only by the hardest kind of work that the Bayonne fire department prevented the blaze from getting to sections of the plant where it would have caused very great damage. The fire was under control three hours after it started.
At the annual meeting of Resolute Hook and Laadder Co. of Morristown, David F. Williamson was elected president; Harold Pavie, foreman: Arthur Mills, assistant foreman; Bartholomew W. Clifford, treasurer; Frederick Shelley, clerk; Rev. Ralph B. Urmy, chaplain; Harry A. Grove, steward; Edward Bean, assistant steward; Emmet C. Ward, Dr. Clifford Mills and Lewis C. Parker, inquiry committee. A feature of the meeting was the presentation to Foreman Pavie of a fireman’s gold badge, the gift of his friend. Jesse Lynch, of Buffalo, a former member of the company.