POSSIBLE CHANGES IN THE FIRE DEPARTMENT ORGANIZATION.
At the recent election in this State, owing to a split in the Democratic party, the Republicans succeeded in electing their candidate for Governor, and also secured a large majority in the Legislature. The administration of the city government has been largely in the hands of the Democrats for several years, and as it is conceded in politics that “to the victor belongs the spoils,” it is probable that the Republicans will use every effort to “reorganize” the city government by turning out Democratic officeholders and putting Republicans in their comfortable seats. This can only be done by the aid of the Legislature, and it is already openly talked that a new city charter will be prepared in the interests of the Republicans for that body to enact into a law. In 1873 a new city charter was passed—one of the ironclad kind— which provided that officers duly appointed should not be removed for political reasons alone, but only alter trial and conviction on charges and specifications duly presented. Therefore, without a remodeling of the charter, the party in power would be unable to get possession of the “spoils of office.” This would be an aggravation that no politician, Republican or Democrat, could contemplate without profanity. It may be taken for granted, therefore, that an attempt will be made by the Republicans to get control of the city offices. Indeed, the Democrats fully expect this, and will accept the situation with as good grace as possible.
In the event of such reorganization of the city government, the Fire Department will not be overlooked. In 1873, under the new charter, it was revolutionized, the number of Commissioners reduced from five to three, and all officers, above the rank of Captain, summarily “bounced,” superseded, or changed about. This included the officers of the rank now known as Chief of Battalion, of which there are ten. There are two Democratic Commissioners and one Republican. It is predicted that, as the Republicans who have been so long numbered among the “outs” will want as many offices for distribution as it is possible to get, the new Commission will probably be increased to five, giving the Republicans a majority in the Board. Unless the cope of the Board is considerably enlarged, these five Commissioners will find it difficult to keep themselves employed. We suggest, therefore, that in the “ new deal ” what is now known as the Building Department be consolidated with the Fire Department—where it properly belongs—and one of the Fire Commissioners selected as its head. At present the Superintendent of the Building Department is an irresponsible officer, against whom grave charges of inefficiency and corruption have been repeatedly made, as they have also been made against nearly every one of his subordinates. The building laws vest in the Superintendent great powers of supervision over the construction of buildings, means of fire protection, life-saving appliances, etc., which are matters of vital importance to Firemen. It is a notorious fact that many buildings have been erected in this city within the past few years which set at defiance all considerations of safety, and make no pretensions to being an obstruction to the progress of flames—on the contrary, from the utter disregard of the requirements of the law, they invite conflagrationsMany of these structures are so flimsily constructed that Chief Bates, himself a practical builder, has forbidden the Firemen to enter them in case of fire on the premises. They are death-traps, whose walls, when heated, arc liable to collapse and bury the men in the ruins.
The Building Department is also charged with the supervision of fire escapes, and has power to compel owners of buildings to put up such as are of practical value. It is a well known fact that persons connected with that Department have had a pecuniary interest in a certain kind of escape and have used their official power to compel propertyowners to buy them, virtually driving other and better fire escapes out of the market. It is safe to say that a proper enforcement of the building laws would prevent a large proportion of the annual loss by fire, and would also save thousands of lives that are sacrificed every year to the lack of proper sanitary conditions in our buildings. The non-enforcement of these laws places in peril the lives of our Firemen every time they respond to an alarm. If they were charged with the supervision of buildings, they would see to it that the walls were substantially built, and that proper means of fire prevention were provided. They would also enforce the provisions of law relative to fire escapes, so that the lives of thousands of occupants of factories and tenement houses would not be in constant jeopardy.
An enlarged Board of Fire Commissioners might also be charged with the care of so much of our system of water supply as relates to the extinguishment of fires. They should have the placing of alt hydrants, and absolute control of them, regulating the number of them, their location and capacity. No one so well knows the requirements of the city in this respect as the men who have spent their lives in the Fire Service. The Commissioners already have control of the Bureau of Combustibles, so that there is little room for improvement in that respect. But the duties we have suggested might, with profit to the city, be devolved upon the Board of Fire Commissioners, provided the Board consists of five members. The Salvage Corps, now run by the Insurance Companies, is a legitimate part of the Fire Service, and should be under the control of the same officers who control the Fire Department. With these functions added to those now devolving upon the Board, the agencies for fire prevention and extinction would be under one control, and directed in the best interests of the city. Of course, this proposition is based upon the supposition that the new Commissioners—if there is to be new ones—will be competent men, having a knowledge of the requirements of the Fire Service, and that they will be honest men as well, and ambitious to give to our citizens the best protection possible to their lives and property. We also take it for granted that the experienced men now in the service would be retained. But politics are queer insects, and, should the revolution anticipated actually take place.it is quite as probable that the efficiency of the Fire Department will be destroyed as increased. Certainly if the “reorganization” proposed contemplates wholesale removals of the officers and men on account of their political predilections, demoralization will follow. But a new charter is a great thing, and is generally regarded as the required panacea for all political evils with which the city is suspected of being afflicted.