Portable and Stationary Engines.
To the Editor:
In the presumption that a free discussion of fire topics is acceptable to FIRE AND WATER, because beneficial to the fire service generally, the writer ventures to offer some comments and queries on the ideas advanced in the article on “ Portable Fire Engines” in your issue of November 26th. This interesting essay was written by John W. Smith for the executive committee of the National Association, and the general tenor of it favored the gradual abolition of the steam fire engines in cities and the substitution therefor of district pumping stations, separate mains and direct pressure. He assures us that the fire service is to-day as much behind the times as it was when steam superseded hand power, and that one of the chief reafor this is the delay caused in dragging “ cumbersome and unwieldy ” steamers to the scene of a fire, and the liability to accident involved in such weighty pieces of apparatus. He further explains that a city’s water service is not always capable of supplying so many engines, that some cities do manage to get along without the portable machines, wholly or partially, and that the most feasible way of diminishing the enormous annual fire loss is by concentrating the pumping power in a number of independent stations, each supplying its own particular district.
To begin with, does the American steam fire engine merit such harsh criticism? Our British cousins have always seen fit to ridicule the weight of our apparatus, among other features of our fire service, and when they read an article in an American journal condemning our steamers as being too heavy and too liable to break down, they will surely be more than ever satisfied with their own ideas. The ever increasing number of hazardous structures in all our cities, and the steady growth of fire hazards generally have compelled our engine manufacturers to make the power of their machines greater and greater, but how much have the weights increased ? Are not the heaviest machines that were ever put together in this country those that were built nearly thirty years ago ? And to show that the tendency is still to diminish the weights, let us take, for instance, the departments of the representative cities of Chicago and Philadelphia. Marshal Benner’s annual report of fifteen years ago affords a full description of the six steamers then nearest the centre of the south side business district of the World’s Fair city, and this in connection with later reports of Marshal Swenie show that the average weight of the six was over three hundred pounds greater than that of the machines occupying the same stations to-day. Yet the latter have been especially built to cope with fires in Chicago’s tall buildings, and cannot be beaten for power or efficiency. In Philadelphia the six steam fire engines due on first alarm at Front and Market streets fifteen years ago averaged over eleven hundred pounds heavier than the more powerful machines which have succeeded them, as is shown by Chief Cantlin’s reports. In any of our American or Canadian cities, where the department is kept up with the times, the writer believes that the showing will be much the same as in the places mentioned.
Of course there may be cities where Mr. Smith’s criticisms would hold good; where the steamers are of an antiquated pattern, and what with great weight, unwieldy design and many years of wear and tear, they are liable to break down at a critical moment and cause much disaster. But if the gentleman is prejudiced by such experience, is it fair for him to condemn the efficient machines for the shortcomings of those that have outlived their usefulness?
Modern engines have replaced the “old-timers” almost everywhere, and in properly managed departments it is almost an unheard of thing for a steamer to keep the pipemen waiting for water after the hose has been run off and carried up into a building to the seat of the fire. And it is just as uncommon for a standard steamer of late model to break down in performing long and hard service. As an example of the truth of this let me cite the fire on West Madison street in Chicago, April 12, 1891, the force engaged on this being the largest ever employed at a fire in that city. Thirty-four engines worked for all they were worth that day and nearly all of the night, yet not one of them had to go to the repair shop next day.
With our present steamer service, if twenty-five steamers are working on a fire, and an accident does happen to one of them, it may have to shut down, in which case only one twenty-fifth of the available power is lost. But a precisely similar mishap might befall the pump of a district pumping station, in which case all of the power would be gone.
Among the arguments advanced in favor of the district pumping station is the lack of water at fires and the running of steamers in districts where there is not water enough to supply them. This is an important point, but if there is not enough water for the steamers how can there be enough for the pumping plants? Each of these separate stations must have a large enough connection with the source of the city’s water supply to furnish all the water that the pumps can handle, and every portion of the district protected must be underlaid with mains, so capacious as to furnish the full number of heavy fire streams concentrated in any given locality. Therefore, before it can be fairly said that lack of water is an argument in favor of the pumping stations, should not the city mains be made large enough to give the steamers a sufficient supply? And would not this greatly cheapen the i’em of mains alone, considering that ” domestic pressure ” and the ordinary weight of iron pipe is sufficient for steamer service, while in the pumping systems all piping and connections must be able to stand very heavy pressures for all possible emergencies. If the city’s water distribution must be increased anyhow, why not give the steamers a chance before condemning them ?
Would our firemen go to work with more confidence if the independent pumping plan was adopted? If so. on coupling a line of hose to a hydrant on such a system preparatory to entering a dangerous place, they would have to know that every detail of the district plant was perfect ; a full head of steam in the boilers, engineers and stokers awake and at their posis, pumps in complete order and repair from steam ports to suction valves, and every section of main pipe, every lead joint, every valve and every hydrant in the best of condition.With steamer service the captain in charge can assure himself in regard to most of the material facts at a glance, and it matters not as to what he cannot see as long as the city pressure amounts to a tenth of what would be required for direct service. Mr. Smith explains that if an accident occurred at the district pump-house itself, relief might be obtained by opening a valve connecting with the next adjoining system, and allowing the neighboringpump-house to furnis hthe piessurc ; but what a fine illustration it would be of the merits of the whole plan to witness the orthodox signs of a budding conflagration, the flames bursting forth into the street, the fiiemen nearly wasting in the intense heat and vainly trying to protect themselves and adjoining property with miserable little streams, while several blocks away three or four half frozen men picked and chopped away at the ice in the street in order to find the valve connecting the adjoining system.
In one of our coast cities two years ago a public-spirited citizen, owning a great deal of property in a certain district, put in a pumping system, consisting of powerful pumps, boilers in which steam was constantly maintained, and mains extending for several blocks with hydrants plentifully distributed. Tests were made of the system before insurance men and others, and there was no trouble in keeping up a surprising number of heavy.streams by direct pressure. The source of supply was assured, as the suction went directly into the waters of the harbor, and the whole plan was considered nearly perfect. Alas, within a week after the final test a big fire broke out within a block of the pumps, and it was a yet here was evidently a “ lack of water.
Luckily the department managed to get the fire under control without any further help from the pumping system, and, after a careful search of half an hour or so, it was found that a mechanic in making some minor repairs to a pipe line under a wharf had left a valve open, and the bulk of the water pumped had been going out into the bay. What effect would an incident or two like this be likely to have on the spirits of the firemen and the confidence of the underwriters?
In conclusion, it seems as though our firemen should find much in the district pumping plan to commend it as an auxiliary to the fire-fighting facilities of any city, but when it comes to dispensing with any of the present means of protection on account of it, they are likely to dissent strongly. It is not to be denied that a few of our cities which are fortunate enough to be blessed with the peculiar conditions necessary to furnish water at the hydrants in sufficient quantity and at a reliable high pressure have so far gotten along with a minimum of assistance from steamers, and if all our cities could have a like water service there is no question but that a proportion of the healthy and vigorous fire from the start. Having seen such good work from the pumping system the chief ran hose lines from it to protect the front and worked the most of his steamer lines from the rear, but what was the result? Darkness and smoke soon prevailed back on the harbor end, but in front the flames rolled out half across the street. Merchants over the way commenced moving their goods, and not a stream reached over twenty feet. Consternation prevailed ; the pumps were running beautifully, and no one could tell what the trouble was, engines would probably be put out of service. But most practical firemen would question whether the district pumping systems could give as reliable a service as is afforded by the high and capacious reservoir at Worcester, for instance.
We certainly need additional fire protection, and emergencies frequently arise when use can be found for every sort of contrivance that will throw a fire stream of any sire. Why not place the district pumping systems in the same category with the street mains from fire boats, and call them both valuable as auxiliaries in case of large fires and emergencies, though not sufficiently reliable to be depended upon exclusively?
HARRY W. BRINGHURST, Member Pacific Coast Association.
SEATTLE, WASH, December 23.