PREVENTION OF FIRES IN THEATRES.
Several weeks ago C. John Hexamer read a paper before the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia on the prevention of fires in theatres. This paper giving evidence that the writer possessed a thorough knowledge of the question treated, the result of labored research and wide observation, we propose to make that part of it especialiy interesting to Firemen the basis of what we have to say at this time. Theatre fires can have but two eventualites: either the fire is extinguished in a few minutes, or the entire theatre destroyed. This is easily accounted for by the extraordinary danger, from fire, of modern theatres. In the large space called the stage, of which the audience sees comparatively little, there are immense masses of laths, boards and other wood-work which, by long heating, are entirely dry and may be instantly inflamed. Gauze, coarse canvas, ropes, paper soaked in varnish, pasteboard, etc., lie about in promiscuous confusion, readily inviting and seemingly awaiting the spark which will turn them into a warning blaze. In the midst of these can be found the heating apparatus, which, with gas flames, each form a dangerous sphere ready to ignite any combustible. The danger is still increased by the combustible materials not remaining stationary. They are let down, drawn up, shifted about, and are, therefore, more liable to come in contact with gas-flame. At times it is necessary to provide illuminating effects temporarily ; as, for instance, where the chandelier of a ball-room scene, which is fed by a rubber hose, must be removed during a change of scene. On the stage, guns are fired off, torches swung, fireworks set off, while, at the same time, scenes of laths and canvas are let down. A German writer on this subject says : “ One who has been behind the scenes during the performance of a spectacular piece, and found himself suddenly enveloped in a sea of fire, and has noticed how a score of men are engaged in extinguishing (by means of wet rags suspended on long poles) the sparks which have settled on the scenery ; who has noticed how, notwithstanding all care, fiery objects fly from their prescribed course, or has seen how a piece of firework too strongly loaded throws everything into confnsion ; one who sees this for the first time cannot overcome the feelings of astonishment and fear ; and this, when viewed from the audience, is r.o more than is common in spectacular pieces.” These circumstances, not taking into account criminal negligence, show how readly a stage may be set on fire ; and how, if not extinguished immediately, or at most in the first minute, it must spread with immense rapidity and destroy the whole building. After this time the most strenuous efforts are futile. Few spectators realize the fire hazard involved in the vivid presentation of a spectacular play. It is safe to say that the number of female theatre-goers would be diminished one-half were the danger of fire incident to the successful rendering of many plays generally comprehended. Careful calculation shows that while 13 per cent of theatre fires occur in day-time and 16 per cent late at night, 21 per cent happen during the performances and 48 per cent during the two hours following the performances. Nearly one-half of theatre fires have extended toother buildings; hence, in construction, it should be borne in mind that theatres should not expose other buildings. The most frequent cause of fires in theatres is carelessness, and while there is some satisfaction in this fact, unless our theatrical managers can be induced to educate subordinates to extreme caution, it must be a hollow satisfaction at the best.
As to the prevention of fires in theatres, Mr. Hexamer himselt admits that the question is not easy to answer. While heating and lighting appliances, divided over manifold points of the stage, as well as manipulations with open lights, and even fireworks, are necessary for modern theatrical performances, he suggests that to counteract these inevitable hazards, the ready combustibility of wood-work, gauze, coarse canvas and other materials should be overcome, so that every spark and flickering gas-flame will not endanger the existence of the entire theatre. The experiment of making certain pieces of decoration of metal material has been tried many times, and with considerable success ; but the inconvenience of handling such pieces is greatly increased by their greater weight, making them practically impossible for drops, and larger wings and flats. Another device is to protect the wood and canvas by painting it with suitable materials, and thus to make it incombustible.
After the rebuilding of the “ Opera House at Munich (destroyed byfire, 1823) the woodwork was given a few coats of water-glass. This kept well for twenty years, but later trials showed that the coating of water-glass had changed its chemical composition, and gave no further security-. Water-glass is further objectionable on account of the gloss it imparts to scenery, thereby reflecting light and spoiling the artistic effect of the painting. The impregnation of scenery, before painting, has tern strongly advocated, and especially of the flies. Some of the different substances used for this purpose are alum, sodium sulphate, borax’ the soluble fluorides, and calcium sulphate. But it has been found that the ingredients used have lost their protective power, and have changed the chemical composition of the paint. The writer ascribes the failure of these experiments to the manner in which the process was conducted : the canvas being in all cases merely soaked in the solution, and then dried and painted. If a piece of canvas is soaked in waterglass, and allowed to dry, the liquid, in losing its water, will contract more and more, until finally the solid particles will sit loosely on the yarn of the canvas. Again, sodium tetra-silicate (water-glass being soluble in water) is dissolved on coming in contact with water. The water-colors used in scene-painting may, therefore,’ have dissolved the greater part of the silicate at the start.
To obviate this, he suggests that after thoroughly soaking the canvas in water-glass it should be placed in a dilute solution of hydrochloric acid; this will precipitate the silica inside of the fibres of the yarn itself. As silica has no gloss, this process would also get over that difficulty. Versmann’s, Oppenheim’s and other incombustible solutions thus precipitated into the fibres will answer as well.
The construction of the stage should be as nearly like the shavingvault of a planing-mill as possible. The rear and two sides of the stage (including green and dressing-rooms) should be enclosed by thick brick walls, brick being the best masonry in case of fire. It stands when granite has disintegrated and marble has been burnt into lime. The roof and roof-trussing should be made as nearly as possible fire-proof, as the rigging-loft is generally attached to the roof-trussing. To divide the stage from the auditorium a wire drop-curtain becomes necessary. The failure of wire curtains in the case of the Dresden Opera House, and again in the recent calamity at Vienna, has shaken public confidence in them. But in both cases negligence was the cause of their failure; the former was allowed to rust fast, and the latter was not let down. It is necessary that a wire curtain should be kept in perfect order and be automatic. It should be let down after every performance, and should not be raised until fifteen minutes before the beginning of performances. This would insure its good order, and would, in case of fire during the night, perhaps save the theatre. At present the safety of theatres having wire drop-curtains depends entirely upon the coolness of the men having them in charge, and how little this can be depended upon the late Vienna fire clearly showed. Automatic curtains would obviate this difficulty. It is further suggested that, in the construction of the building, the proscenium wall which divides the stage from the auditorium should be of brick, and that above the stage opening an arch should be sprung, and the wall carried up at least eighteen inches above the roof. The doors in this and other walls should be lined with iron. Solid iron doors, as all insurance officers and agents know, become so warped under great heat as to be useless, while iron-lined doors retain their shape, the warping of the sheet iron being resisted by the interior wood, and even when this burns into charcoal it still resists all warping tendencies. All doors contained in fire walls should have springs or weights attached to them, so as to be at all times closed. Fire doors can be shut automatically by a weight which is released by the melting of a piece of very fusible solder employed for this purpose. Wire screens or baskets should protect lights, whether on the stage or in the dressing room. The value of the remedies suggested by Mr. Hexamer depends, altogether upon the degree of care exercised by the theatre people in preventing fires. It is carelessness that causes most of these fires, and unless extreme care be exercised in observing recommendations and following remedies, human ingenuity applied in this direction must be without avail.
—The New York Board of Fire Commissioners opened bids Wednesday for the erection of a new house for Engine Company No. 16, to be located at 223 East Twenty-fifth street. James Duff)’was the lowest bidder, his figure being $17,229. The papers were sent to the Comptroller for the approval of the sureties. Bids were also opened for supplying the Department with 300,000 pounds of hay, 55,000 pounds of rye straw, 2500 pounds of white oats and 1800 bags of feed. John Moonan was the lowest bidder, his bid being $7955The contract will be awarded to him should the Comptroller approve his sureties.
THE NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF FIRE ENGINEERS.
FIRST DAY.—AFTERNOON SESSION.
On Tuesday the Tenth Annual Convention of the National Association of I’irc Engineers met at Melodeon Hall, Cincinnati. The meeting was largely attended by Fire Chiefs from all parts of the country, and it was generally acknowledged by all, at the close of the first day’s proceedings, that the Cincinnati Convention was a success in every sense of the word. President George Watt Taylor called the meeting to order at noon, and, after a few introductory remarks, introduced Mayor Means, of Cincinnati. The Mayor was escorted to the platform by Chief Bunker, Assistant Chief Hughes and Commodore Smith, of St. Louis. His address of welcome was short and to the point. It gave him great pleasure, on behalf ol the Fire Department of Cincinnati and the city itself, to welcome representatives of that grand body of men, always ready for the post of duty and danger, with slight hope of glory or reward.
President Taylor responded gracefully, assuring the Mayor of the most hearty and sincere expressions of gratitude, on behalf of the members, for his cordial welcome, and acknowledging the Firemen’s right to the complimentary words used by his Honor. With the Firemen there was no party bigotry nor religious intolerance, nor the strife of school. The interest of every citizen was the Fireman’s care. The highest palace and the humblest hut; the costly bales of the merchant prince and the worthless rubbish of the laborer’s cabin ; the costliest work of art and the most worthless*product of the unskilled hand ; the noblest temple of learning or of faith and the vilest den of folly and of vice, all stand in like peril from the. fell destroyer, and all claim with impartial hand the Fireman’s protection. The warfare of others is waged tor destruction ; the Firemen are against it. Others’ warfare brings sorrow ; the Firemen’s, only joy. The rattle of other charges brings despair and death ; the Firemen’s, hope and life. The coming tramp of other legions is always dreaded and averted ; the Firemen are welcomed and invoked. Other soldiers come as foes ; the Firemen always as friends.
The following Chiefs were appointed a Committee on Credentials; Nevitts, of Brooklyn; Evans, of Pittsburg; Stocked, of Nashville ; Greene, of Boston, Gibson, of Rochester, N. Y.
Recess was then had.
On resuming, the first business was calling the roll, and over eighty members reponded to their names.
Captain Eyre M. Shaw, who was in attendance, was, on recommendation of the Committee on Credentials, made a life member.
The reading of topic papers for discussion then came up.
J*’irst—” Ought the Association, in appointing committees at Conventions, require them to make reports as to the merits and demerits of articles on exhibition?” Samuel S Collyer, Pawtucket, K. I.; J. K. Hopkins, Somerville, Mass. ; Isaac I). Hyatt, Meriden, Conn.; A. L. Holmes, Grand Iiiven, Mich.; K. 1,. Saunders, Jackson, Mich.
It was the opinion that such reports ought to be made, and that where the article was not worthy of notice it should not be mentioned.
The next topic w as the sixth:
Sixth—” Are insurance companies benefited by Salvage Corps and 1 ire Patrols j if so should they be handled by the Police or lire Departments? Give reasons.’ B. B. Bullwinkle, Chicago, 111. ; Francis J. Meeker, Newark. N. J. ; Henry Hemmiller, Columbus, O. ; Thomas J. Hough. Malden, Mass.
Captain Bullwinkle, of Chicago, stated that the first Salvage Corps in this country was started in New York in 1839. Cities now having Salvage Corps and Fire Patrols are New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, New Orleans, San Francisco, Worcester (Mass.), Newark (N. J.), Mobile, Boston. St. Louis, Cincinnati (Fire and Police Patrol) and Baltimore. His opinion was that the Salvage Corps or Fire Patrols should be under neither the Police nor Fire Department until they were free from political influence. Until that time they should be run by the insurance companies.
Adjourned until evening.
The Convention was largely attended by visitors in the evening, many ladies being present.
Hon. S. F. Covington, Presidentof the Globe Insurance Company of Cincinnati, who had been invited to deliver the annual address, now proceeded to read his paper, which is digested here as follows, space not allowing its reproduction in full. Mr. Covington took an hour to deliver the address, speaking with great rapidity:
It is estimated that the value of the property annually destroyed by fire in the United States exceeds $100,000,000. Our annual fire waste, as compared with the value of our exports of domestic merchandise, coin, and bullion for the year 1881, is about the same as that of New Orleans, which you know is a large cotton exporting port; is one-third more than either Boston or Baltimore ; is two and one-halt times greater than Philadelphia ; is three times as great as San Francisco, with all its wheat and gold shipments; is four limes as much as either Charleston, Savannah or Galveston; is eighteen times greater than Mobile; thirty times greater than Portland, and, excepting New York and the ports just named, fully one-third greater than all the other ports of the country. For every eight dollars in value of all the domestic merchandise, corn, and bullion exported by us we expend one dollar in fire waste. The average annual loss by fire in ihe State of Ohio is about $5 000 000, a sum equal to the aggregate amount placed upon the grand duplicate of the State for county tax, poor tax, bridge tax, and road tax. I’be l ire Department has a full natural right to inquire into the manner ip which insurance companies write upon risks, and it is within the province, and perhaps the duty, of Chief Engineers to inquire by what right an insurance company assumes the risk of a man of bad reputation, or one who is careless as to guarding against the dangers of fire. It is the hazardous and the high rate risk, affording a large commission fee, that attracts the man of whom 1 complain. The more dangerous the risk the higher the rate of premium, and of course the more commission. It is not to his interest to have the risk improved; it is rather to his interest to have it burn, for the double reason that he can n old it up as an “awful example ” to other risks of like character, and thus enable him to get more commissions. And then the party having been paid his loss rebuilds or resumes business, and of course insures again, tints giving the cnter>rising solicitor two commissions on the samq business within tne vear. This is ike one introducing a contagious disease that he might profit by selling a remedy for it. People will not make their risks safe, I regret to say, unless insurance companies will make it an object for them to do so. You gentlemen who are so frequently brought in contact with coal oil and all its products, inflammable and explosive, with flour dust, now known to be a more violent explosive than anything known thirty years ago, with the great variety of chemical productions ol recent discovery, a large number of which will burn spontaneouslv, explode or ignite readily, and which enter so largely into numerous and varied manufactures; you who must now meet the fire in the sixth and seventh stories, and sometimes in stories still higher, in ltuildings covering acres instead of yards, and crowded to their utmost with inflammable material, between walls ready to topple of their own weight, I feel sure will corroborate my statement that the fire dangers have increased in greater ratio than the means of extinguishing them. Such a condition of things should not be permitted to exist. It can be remedied, and it should be done. 1 he men who rush to the rescue of their neighbors’ lives and property at the tap of the bell have a right to demand better construction and more care and vigilance as against liability to fire.
Captain Eyre M. Shaw was escorted to the platform and was introduced in fit language to the assembly, by B. Bryson McCool, Chief of the Pottsville (Pa.) Fire Department and President of the Pennsylvania State Firemen’s Association.
Captain Shaw made a lengthy’address, giving a resume of the London Fire Brigade. He informed the Convention that, in regard to procuring men for his Brigade, during his entire career he had never chosen any but sailors, for they were^the best fitted for the fire service. After enrollment they are brought to one of the^houses of the Brigade and spend two months in preparatory schooling. The Captain had noticed an important difference between the organization of the London Brigade and the American Departments. In America each Fireman belonged to one of a series of Companies in the Department. In London a Fireman was simply a mem” her of the Brigade.
The result of the London plan was that they had discipline very complete in itself, and which leads to the most satisfactorily results; and one of these results was not only the discipline accomplished for his work which he expected to be done, but gave them an indirect advantage in the confidence which the public have in the force which is seen to work with discipline. The discipline of a man-of-war in action was not more strict than they had it. The Captain said he was quite aware that something of the kind exists in many Companies in this country, but it was not universal. In his Department they work upon that one point, discipline, to a greater extent than in any establishment they have. It is not embarrassing to the men, it is very satisfactory to the t hief, and it meets the approval of the public, which is a very important point. Captain Shaw admitted that London was behind the age in regard to water supply. Touching the construction of buildings, he said that he believed that Londoners in time would see buildings 130, 140 and 150 feet high. London cannot grow in area. Commerce is growing everyday; it is becoming perfectly gigantic. America had means for the enlarging of city areas which do not exist in the old countries, and until Americans had exhausted those areas they may perhaps keep down the height of their buildings ; but the moment the area Is exhausted they will have to go up higher, as London had done, as Hamburg had done, and Berlin, and even Paris. All Firemen, and particularly the younger ones, should look to what will happen in the next twenty years, and make their arrangements accordingly.
While American Firemen had been increasing the magnitude and weight of their fire machinery and appliances to meet this growth in buildings, in London they combatted conflagrations with appliances so small as would excite the mirth of Americans. For forty years he had not used at a fire anything larger than a oneinch jet. On Continental Europe, Firemen would even open their eyes when told that a one-inch jet was used in London, for their streams were smaller yet. The 1 ondon fire appliances were wholly different and much smaller than the American.
After Captain Shaw had closed his remarks, the Convention adjourned to nine o’clock Wednesday morning.