NEW YORK FIRE DEPARTMENT INVESTIGATED
Chief Croker, of the New York Fire Department. assured the legislative graft investigating committee that New York is in no danger of a conflagration such as had been predicted by several witnesses before the committee last week. He declared that the efficiency of the fire department was a safeguard against any such disaster. But he admitted that still greater safeguards could be placed around the fire hazards here. One, he said, would be the enactment of a law enabling the fire department to enforce its orders for the installation of fire prevention apparatus and conveying the power even to evict when such orders were disobeyed. As an instance of the working of the present law he said he recently had ordered 100 sprinklers installed. His order was obeyed in one instance. Chief Croker declared that greater protection was given now to the wealthy than to the poor, and that many buildings rated as fireproof really were firetraps. Along the lower end of Fifth avenue and between that and Sixth avenue, he said, were many sweatshops, which generally were referred to as workshops, although there were no fire escapes in some of them. The chief also seized the opportunity to deny the charge of Frank Chambers, of Rogers, Peet & Co., that Chief Croker felt aggrieved when he found that a fire had been put out by automatic sprinklers without his help. The chief said he wished sprinklers would put out all the fires. He told the committee that he had been identified with the fire department for twenty-seven years, and had been chief for eleven years. The department, with its 4,500 men, he said, costs about $8,000,000 a year, and of this sum only about $15,000 a year is spent on fire prevention. There is a bureau of auxiliary fire extinguishing appliances, composed of ten men, whose duty it is to take whatever precautions against fires may be deemed expedient, but their work now relates chiefly to the theatres and the moving picture places, said the chief. Many fires, he added, were caused in tenement and apartment houses by rubbish in the cellars. Especially in tenements, he asserted, discarded mattresses and other household effects were left in the cellars and became menaces to life and property. He added that many persons in the tenement districts go into the cellars at night with either a lighted match or a lighted taper of paper, and after finding what they have been looking for, throw the match or taper down among the rubbish. “There should be a light, properly protected, in every cellar and hallway,” declared the chief. “And the same thing applies in a large measure to hallways where matches may be dropped by tenants returning home late at night. There should be a light burning in every hall from sunset to sunrise, and there should be a light burning in dark hallways all of the twenty-four hours. In all cellars of tenements there should be sprinkler connections, and no cellars in this type of house should have openings to the upper floors from the interior. This should apply even to dumbwaiters, for any such interior opening leading to the upper floors gives fire an opportunity to go up into the building.” Chief Croker told the committee they would be astonished to learn the number of rag shops operated in cellars. He said he knew of one in the cellar of a church. Sprinklers, he said, should be installed in all workshops, factories, and theatres. He declared, too, that frame structures should be eliminated, as practically all big fires here and in other cities, had originated in frame structures. Of skyscrapers and their relation to fire hazards here, Chief Croker said that his department could combat successfully any fire to the height of seven stories, and that it was not a question of how high a stream of water could be thrown, but with what force it could be sent against a fire.
M. Linn Bruce, counsel for the committee, wanted to know what Chief Croker thought about a state fire marshal law, with its investigation of every fire.
“It would be a first-class law if the appointment were non-political,” said the fire chief, “and provided the tenure of office was long enough to make it worth while and enough salary to keep the official honest.”
Mr. Bruce also wanted to know about the efficiency of the fire department here.
“Our department is in the highest state of efficiency,” replied Chief Croker. “It can’t be beat.”
“Do you mean that it is at the highest point of efficiency?” asked Mr. Bruce.
“I mean that it is always at the highest point of efficiency,” said Chief Croker.
“But what does it need, if anything to increase its efficiency?” insisted Mr. Bruce.
“Twenty more companies, about 300 men,” replied the chief, and he added that there were many places in the outlying sections where more firemen could be used to advantage. Then came Chief Croker’s assurance that a conflagration could not wipe out the business heart of the city. He was informed of what the fire insurance men had said about the grave hazards in the section between Chambers and Fourteenth streets, and Mr. Bruce asked:
“Do you think a single fire could burn down this entire section from river to river?”
“I do not,” replied Chief Croker. The high pressure, he said, had failed only once, and that was through no fault of the high pressure system itself, but because some underground construction had broken the high pressure pipes. “What the fire insurance companies call the conflagration districts, I would call the dangerous districts. The ‘Swamp’ taking in south of Chambers street east of Nassau, north of Wall, and to the East River, is probably the most dangerous of all.”
Chief Croker said, too, that a poor class of buildings are located in West street, Washington street, and south of Chambers street. The entire committee wanted to learn about fireproof buildings here.
“A building is only fireproof until you put a stock of goods into it,” said Chief Croker. “Then it becomes what is called a slow burning building. If you give me power to make an inspection and to enforce orders after they are issued, I will guarantee to reduce fires here 25 per cent, the first year, and there is no telling what 1 could do when I got going in that direction.”
It was not until several days afterward that the attention of Chief Croker was called to the charges that had been made against him at tincommission’s hearing. After he had heard all of the charges made by Chambers, the chief smiled as he replied that his duties were outlined clearly in the charter and that it could be discovered readily, therefore, whether or not he was performing them. “All violations of fire regulations on buildings,” said Chief Croker, “are noted in formal reports to fire headquarters and there they are put in the proper form and forwarded to the tenement house commission or the building department, according as the nature of the violation places it within the jurisdiction of one or the other of these departments. As the law stands now, the duty of the fire department ends when these reports have been delivered to the proper department. Mr. Chambers states that I am twenty years behind the times and am averse to the use of sprinklers. The records of the fire department will show where thousands of recommendations have been made for the installation of sprinklers and other safety devices in buildings. Where these recommendations have not been followed the fire department has been able only to call the violation to the attention of the corporation counsel. It has no authority to enforce its own regulations or recommendations. So far as the establishment of a bureau for the prevention of fires is concerned, Mr. Chambers may recall that he and I have discussed this plan and that the ideas now advanced by him are my own, expressed to him in these discussions. More than two years ago there was a consultation of representatives of the board of health, the tenement house commission, the street cleaning department, and the fire department. Fire Commissioner Hayes and I attended that conference as delegates of the fire department. At that time I recommended a bureau such as Mr. Chambers now advocates. I stated publicly to Commissioner Hayes and to Mayor McClellan that I could reduce the number of fires 25 per cent, if a proper corps of men were placed under my command, and if authority were given us to enforce such laws as l would have enacted by the legislature.” Chief Croker explained that the fire department was handicapped now in its efforts to insure the very precautions which Mr. Chambers and others advocated, through the fact that it alone had not the authority to enforce its mandates. With the necessity of each recommendation for fire precautions passing through two or more departments, as is the case under the present law, there came increased opportunity, declared the chief, for an evasion of the fire department’s original recommendations.
Fire Marshal William L. Beers told the committee that from 10 to 15 per cent, of all fires in Manhattan are of incendiary origin, that up to that hour 9,588 fires had occurred here since January 1 of last year, that fires are on the increase here and throughout the United States, and that the chief causes are carelessness in housekeeping and m underwriting. The fire marshal gave the committee several suggestions foi new legislation which, in his opinion, would result in a decrease in the number of fires. One, he said, would be the establishment of a state fire marshal. Another would be the licensing of fire insurance brokers and of fire adjusters by the state instead of by organizations, such as the New York Fire Insurance Exchange. He told the committee that he had nine assistants. At 8 o’clock each morning his office receives a report of all fires that have occurred in the city the preceding twenty-four hours. There are an average of about 188 fires each month that are investigated by each of his nine assistants. “Each day there are eight or nine fires.” said Mr. Beers, “which are not explained by the investigation. It is our custom to summon from twelve to fifteen witnesses in each investigation. There have been forty-three arrests for arson since the first of last year. Two convictions have been obtained, some prisoners have been sent to asylums, and some are under indictment ” In about 90 per cent, of the cases. Marshal Beers said, lie was unable to get evidence warranting an arrest, largely because of the inadequacy of bis force, which cannot follow each case as far as he would like. “It would be a mighty good law ” said the marshal, “that should require all persons on whose property fires occur to make affidavits concerning them. The insurance companies insure too many people who ought not to be insured under any circumstances. I have observed mighty few fires where people were not insured, and well insured. I know of cases where people not in this country long enough to learn the language have had three or four fires. of the fires of 1909, 30 per cent, were started in cellars or on first floors, where there vote accumulations of rubbish. I believe where fires are shown to have been the result of carelessness of this kind the people responsible should be fined the cost of bringing out the fire department. It is all a question of cleaning up and maintaining decent conditions. People depend entirely too much on getting paid for fires out of their insurance.” Mr, Beers said the loss by fire throughout the United States had been about $30,000,000 more in the last twelve months than in the year preceding. Losses in fires investigated by the fire marshal are about $11,000,000 each year.