President Gamber’s Address
To the Fire Marshals’ Association of North America in Convention at New York City, Dec. 8-10, 1920.
OUR work was never so important as it is today. Critical problems which confront the economic life of the country place grave responsibilities upon us as we work our way through the serious period of readjustment which is upon us.
We have been grappling with some of these problems for a year or more. World wide shortages due to the war, and the burden of high prices Which resulted, have made the work of fire prevention ever more pressing. We have stood four-square as a great conservation force, bending all our energies to check the indiscriminate waste by fire of our resources, for which the whole world was crying and of which we ourselves were in such dire need.
Difficult to Compare Losses
During that time we have seen the nation’s fire loss mount unti l it has reached the unheard of proportions of $1,000,000 a day. What it would have been without our efforts, no one can tell. The fires which have been prevented never show in the records. Like dead men, they tell no tales. But the fires which did occur have shown losses two and three times as large as when conditions were normal. Two or three years ago we could check one year’s record against the preceding year’s record and in a way judge of the results we were obtaining. There is no way to make comparisons today except on the basis of comparative values and that is most difficult, because values did not reach their pinnacle by one jump at any given time, but went ever upward by degrees over the entire period. But I think we may safely cut the last year’s fire loss in two and say that is what it would have been on pre-war values, and that would indicate a real saving on the nation’s fire bill.
Constructive Work Ahead
We must not pause long, however, on past performances, for I fear conditions are at hand which may tax all our resourcefulness and energies. There seems to have been a wave of individual losses of tremendous size here and there about the country. We pick up the paper almost any day and read of one of these somewhere. It may be that most, perhaps almost all, of these fires are free from the taint of suspicion. If so, there is surely a great deal of constructive work to be done to safeguard these vast aggregations of values. But the number of these fires, especially those of unknown or undetermined origin, is disconcerting.
We are facing the reaction from the high price period. For some months prices have been falling. In some lines the market declines have been radical. There have been waves of price cutting by merchants, anxious to get out from under a falling market. The public, which bought lavishly at top prices during the recent spending spree, is in a “watchful waiting” mood. If reports are to be believed, manufacturers are flooded with cancellation orders and merchants are carefully refraining from stocking up. The result has been curtailment of production by manufacturers, and in some cases a suspension of operations.
Danger in Over-Insurance
I believe the situation is desperate in some lines and mighty uncertain in others. There are, no doubt, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of firms and individuals whose resources will not carry them through the crisis. We all know also there have been a lot of speculators who have been making handsome profits without a legitimate business investment. They have been holding stocks on borrowed capital because enormous price inflation covered the interest and left a handsome speculative profit. Curtailment of credit has knocked the props from under them.
During the era when prices reached their high level, insurance was generally increased to cover the values. It was necessary to readjust insurance to the higher levels on which business was being conducted. For months insurance companies have viewed with concern the possibilities of a radical price drop, but they have been perplexed with the uncertainties of the situation. Insurance has not been readjusted to the present conditions of lower values and reduced stocks. Practically speaking, this amounts to over-insurance at a time when business is hard pressed.
Uncertainty of the Future
What the future holds no one can tell. Opinions differ. There is a genuine fear that fires for gain will become a real menace. On the other hand there is a hope that there will be stabilization at various levels until the final level is reached, and that the whole readjustment will be accomplished without serious panic or disorder.
I am an optimist, but I believe in looking facts squarely in the face. It was more than a coincidence that the moral hazard was practically wiped out during the months of soaring prices. It is more than a coincidence that fires have been noted in certain lines on the heels of a falling market. Human nature has not changed and during periods of serious price recession the moral hazard has always been present.
Personally, I am prepared for anything and I think we all may well be. I believe we are already at grips with the moral hazard in a very real sense although we have not yet fully appreciated the fact. There is one element which I fear especially and that is indiscriminate burning. By that I mean the wholesale destruction of other occupancies as incidental to the fire in which the crook is interested. Boldness and utter disregard of life and property have characterized the wave of crime which has been sweeping the country. It would be surprising if we did not have to face the same conditions in dealing with the incendiary, who is the most despicable of all criminals. Some of the recent large fires of undetermined origin, menacing whole sections of valuable business property, have been suspicious enough to justify fears in this direction.
How the Danger Should be Met
We are the main force which will have to meet this danger in our respective states, and I think we should make up our minds that it is a very real danger and begin to scrutinize very carefully all the important losses which occur. In Illinois we have kept the deputies keyed up for several months to the prospects of some real investigation work, and have urged the local authorities to work in closest cooperation with us in detecting crooked losses. Investigations have begun to pop and we expect a lot of them.
Progress Made in Fire Prevention
Turning to the general subject of fire prevention, the strides which have been made during the last year are a source of congratulation. The most important event was the issuance of a Fire Prevention Day proclamation by the President of the United States. For years efforts have been made to secure this national recognition of the fire waste problem, and, now that the precedent has been established, I believe we may feel sure that the Presidential proclamation will be an annual event.
As we expected, the proclamation gave a tremendous impetus to the Fire Prevention Day observance throughout the country. Never before were the fire prevention forces brought into such full play or so well coordinated. Never did the people respond so well. Organized and well directed efforts were the rule rather than the exception.
In my own State we adopted a slogan, “Make Fire Prevention Day a Fireless Day.” With splendid supI>ort on every hand, we had a reported loss of only $9,600, against a normal daily average of $51,000. In some communities the national flag was flown by order of the city authorities, making the day a patriotic event, and certain hours were set aside for a general clean-up by every citizen. Proclamations by Mayors were issued all down the line and some of the local features which were worked out were an inspiration. The same was true in other States.
Part Played by the Association
I think we may take pride in the part our Association had in bringing about this observance. Last April the executive committee and the Committee on Publicity and Education held a meeting in Chicago. As a result of this session, it was decided that the Association should make a determined effort to secure a Presidential proclamation. By direction of the Executive Committee, your President went to Washington July 21 and took the matter up with the Secretary to President Wilson. The National Board and National Fire Protection Association were invited to cooperate in the effort through W. E. Mallalieu, General Manager of the former and President of the latter organization. He was unable to go to Washington at this time and delegated H. C. Brearley. Mr. Brearley and myself saw Secretary Tumulty and went into the matter thoroughly. Later some good follow-up work was done by T. Alfred Fleming. The issuance of the proclamation on September 7th is a matter of history.
While in Washington we tried to interest Postmaster-General A. S. Burleson in having a Fire Prevention cancellation stamp used at all postoffices for thirty days prior to Fire Prevention Day. He seemed to be interested in the suggestion, but we were later informed that the cost would be something like $32,577 and that a technical ruling of the department confined the use of special cancellation stamps to national purposes which are supported by Congressional appropriation. I believe it is possible to secure the cooperation of the Post-Office department if persistent effort is made and I hope the next officers of the Association will follow up the matter.
While in Washington we also saw Philander P. Claxton, Commissioner of Education, relative to sending out Fire Prevention Day programs to 35,000 teachers and educators of the country. We also saw officials of the Chamber of Commerce of the United States, relative to interesting local Chambers in the observance of Fire Prevention Day. I believe these conferences bore fruit.
We may also be gratified over strides which have been made in another direction the past year. The Fire Marshal department in Maryland has been revived, under jurisdiction of the insurance department. Energetic efforts are under way in California, Colorado, Idaho and Missouri for the enactment of Fire Marshal laws by the next legislatures. I have seen a copy of the proposed law for California. It incorporates the best experience of other states, and, if it is passed without substantial changes, California will have one of the best laws in the country. Chief John F. Healy of Denver, President of the International Association of Fire Engineers, is on the committee having the matter in charge in Colorado, and I think this is assurance of success in that state.
Canada Sets Splendid Example
Canada is setting a splendid example. Departments have been created in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island since our last convention and I am informed by Fire Marshal Heaton of Ontario that all of the Canadian provinces now have Fire Marshal departments except Quebec and New Brunswick. In addition Canada has a Dominion Fire Commissioner. They are doing some splendid work across the line.
These things are healthy indications of the practical expansion of the fire prevention movement and I think it will be matter of but a short time when there will be effective departments in all states and provinces. As an Association we should do all we can to foster the creation of these new departments and assist them in getting organized. We should bring them into active membership in our Association, for we need them and they need us. In my capacity as President, I have done everything possible along these lines.
Effective Committee Work
Results in an organization such as ours depend largely upon effective committee work. We meet but once a year and the real work must therefore be done by the officers and committees. Pursuant to instructions at the last convention, two important additions were made to our standing committees, namely, the committees on Arson and Legislation. The Publicity Committee was made the Committee on Publicity and Education and its work broadened.
The Arson committee met with the Executive committee in Chicago, April 22nd and outlined the work of drafting a model law, preparing a brief on evidence and submitting a report on arson conditions throughout the country. A sub-committee was put to work and I believe the report which will be submitted to this convention will be one of the most valuable contributions the Association has yet made. It is unfortunate that the committee had to get along without the services of F. W. Kubasta of Wisconsin, chairman, who was called from his official post to other duties, but the work was more than well handled by his colleagues.
You may also expect something good in the way of a building code proposal, and I am informed that there will be valuable reports from the Committee on Legislation and the Committee on Publicity and Education.
I speak of these committees because I have been a little closer in touch with their activities than with those of some of the other committees. I hope we will have good reports from all the committees.
You have already received the report of the Committee to cooperate with the National Board, which was mailed to all members by Chairman Fleming. This committee met with the National Board in the Board’s offices in New York, February 17th and 18th, and had a real worth while session. Not the least of the results was the creation of a special committee of this Association on Conservation of Life. Members of this committee are: W. E. Mallalieu, chairman; James R. Young of North Carolina, Homer Rutledge of Michigan and A. H. Harrison of New York, secretary’. Conservation of life is the strongest appeal we have in fire prevention. In the past the loss of life has been entirely a matter of estimate, without much in the way of figures on which to base estimates. The new committee will have all of the facilities of the National Board in the compiling of statistics and each Fire Marshal is urged to furnish data on blanks provided by the committee. This is not an easy matter in Illinois and some other states, where the statutes do not provide the facilities for gathering these statis tics, but we should all do the best we can, for this work is fundamental to a vital phase of our duties, —the conservation of human life.
Cooperation with Industrial Safety Congress
The Association also participated in the second Industrial Safety Conference, held under the auspices of the United States Bureau of Standards at Washington, D. C., December 8th, 1919. I was invited to attend as President and was glad to do so. As you all probably are aware, the plan of procedure as proposed the American Engineering Standards committee was adopted. Under this plan sponsorship for different safety codes is to be awarded to various organizations holding membership and preparation of a number of important standards is under way.
We have already been asked for suggestions with reference to a code on Fire Protection from the Safety to Life Point of View and a Ladder code. There will be more frequent requests in the future and it is my hope that the Association will participate as actively as possible through committees appointed when each occasion arises.
Following the usual custom, I also attended the convention of International Association of Fire Engineers at Toronto, Canada, July 28, 1920, as representative of the Association and delivered an address on “Coordinating the Energies of the State Fire Marshals and Fire Chiefs.” 1 am pleased to say that the International Association of Fire Engineers is represented at this convention by William H. Bywater, the distinguished Fire Chief of Salt Lake City, who will speak on “The Most Effective Means of Fire Extinguishment.”
Fire Chiefs Must be Fire Preventionists
The times in which we live are momentous. Fire prevention is one of the most important problems we face. The country cannot continue to stand the tremendous drain that is sapping its resources uselessly. It is estimated that a return to pre-war conditions of living would call for the construction of 3,340,000 homes by 1926. Last year only 70,000 were built. Meantime we are burning at the rate of 13,000 dwellings annually. The terrific factory, mercantile and warehouse losses must be stopped. The new hazards which have been developed, especially through the use of gasoline and volatile oils, must be regulated and made safe. The killing, and maiming of thousands annually must be curbed. Fire prevention rather than fire extinguishment is the big thing for the future and I believe the time is near at hand when local Fire Chiefs will be appointed because they are experts in fire prevention.