Protecting a City from Fire After a Hurricane
How the Fire Department of Miami. Fla., Prevented Fires Under the Most Adverse Circumstances—Heroic Work During the Storm
GREAT disasters have a tendency to bring out latent heroism and emphasize the American quality of quickly rising to meet unusual emergencies. This was true in the terrible hurricane which visited the Florida coast, and nearly wiped out among other cities, that of Miami. The following article tells graphically how the fire department of that city not only did self-forgetting work of rescue during the height of the Storm but also performed the equally important work of preventing fires directly after the visitation, which if they had been allowed to occur in the unprotected state of the city would have meant its practical destruction.
Histories of American disasters show that frequently a conflagration of serious proportions follows. The most devastating hurricane ever to strike America swept over Miami, Fla., on September 18, 1926, leaving in its trail a litter of debris and rubbish that covered the city. And yet. the Miami Fire Department and Fire Prevention Bureau kept fire losses, covering a period of 16 days after the hurricane, down to $69. This damage, attributed directly to the storm, was in a wet electric motor. The figures are obtained from the official report of E. A. Westra, third assistant fire chief and chief of the fire prevention bureau.
Credit Due to Fire Department for Avoiding Conflagration
Miami avoided a conflagration, the records show, not through luck but through a precautionary system, which with 100 per cent loyalty from the city’s fire fighters, gave almost perfect results.
The record is all the more significant in that a thousand fire hazards were opened up as a result of the storm which did not exist before. The spectre of no water, no power, no lights (ex cept candles and lanterns, which made the situation all the more perilous), no telephone service and no box alarm system, loomed before the fire forces every moment of the first hours and day . following the hurricane.
Lumber, wood splinters, dry tinder, rubbish, rags, furniture and underbrush littered the streets, lawns and houses, forming an almost continuous line of combustible material encircling the city. Most of the streets were blocked the first two days with debris, which presented a serious traffic problem to the fire trucks. It was recognized that a blaze, given slight headway, would have been a difficult thing to control. A candle tipped over, a carelessly tossed match or cigarette, would have been enough to start it.
Plan Formulated to Combat Fire Peril
With these things in mind the last whispers of the hurricane had not died away before a plan was formulated to combat the serious fire menace. The experience and plan may some day be of value to some other city faced with a similar problem.
With the usual fire fighting facilities paralyzed the first thought was, “We can’t let a fire get started. We must prevent fires rather than put them out.”
Fire Prevention Patrol Organized
Within a few hours after the storm had subsided a fire prevention patrol had been organized and flung over every section of the city. Strict orders were given to bar every attempt to start a brush or rubbish fire, whether in a public place, on the streets or on private premises. The patrol was on duty night and day and every person was ordered to dump his debris in the street from where it was immediately picked up by trucks and hauled away to especially designated and guarded fire pits.
Miami fire regulations require that a permit must be obtained from the fire prevention bureau before any rubbish may be burned. In those first days after the storm hundreds of persons, desiring to get rid of debris in the easiest way, made application for permits but all were denied.
Notices were published in the newspapers and posted on bulletin boards informing the public where open pits were located to which individuals were requested, when possible, to haul material. Notices were also published warning the public against tampering with electrical equipment of any kind until it was tested by city inspectors.
Practically Continuous Duty for Firemen
The fire patrols were composed of every available fireman off duty from his regular “trick” together with other experienced fire fighters selected from the city at large. Inspectors from the fire prevention bureau had charge of the patrols. It was a time when every fireman was in reality on duty for 24 hours each day and this emergency period lasted for several days. Each man slept “in between times” as best he might for a few minutes or few hours at a time. All were subject to constant call. W. R. Coleman, chief of the fire department, was out of the city due to illness during the storm, hut his five assistants, K. A. Roberts, Dan W. Irby, E. A. Wcstra. L. S. Jones and James Depew, functioned admirably during the emergency.
In addition to the foot patrols, walking a “beat” in each built up section of the city, automobiles were kept in constant service patrolling the storm area and outlying districts.
Methods Devised for Quickly Reporting Fires
With the fire alarm and telephone systems out of commission means had to be devised to report fires to headquarters and the nearest stations. Fast cars were stationed at strategic points and within calling distance of the patrols. In spite of the utmost precautions blazes would start and in such cases the alarm was speeded to the fire station by auto while hand extinguishers and other methods were being used on the job. Scores of incipient blazes were squelched by these methods and it was surprising how quickly fire trucks were able to respond.
City forces and the public utilities companies began immediately after the hurricane to restore water and power service but it was 36 hours before there was a semblance of water pressure. Arrangements were made with the electric company, in event of a conflagration, to throw all power to the fire pressure pumps and cut off other services for as long as was necessary.
After the second day power, alarm, telephone and water service was gradually extended, but it was not until 16 days after the hurricane that the special patrols were entirely removed.
Fire Department Performs Many Extra Duties
In addition to its regular duties the fire department was called upon the first few days after the storm for many other services, most important of which was the use of its truck equipment to pump out basements of emergency hospitals and food establishments and also to pump fresh water into tanks for these places and isolated districts. Bakery basements were flooded and the firemen pumped these out so that equipment could be placed in operation and bread furnished the public.
Incidentally, the pressure pumps of the fire department, which were mounted on trucks, had extra hose lines attached and if worst came to worse they were prepared to open manholes and fight fire with water from storm and sanitary sewers.
Every piece of equipment in every station was kept in perfect mechanical condition, of course. The chemical engines performed major service and large additional quantities of chemicals were shipped in immediately after the storm and offered to the public. Many privately owned hand extinguishers were refilled by this method, all of which helped the general situation.
Traffic Lanes Quickly Opened Up
While the firemen were at their tasks other city forces were clearing streets to open traffic lanes and within two days most of the principal thoroughfares were passable, although to have seen the streets the first day it seemed like an impossible accomplishment in that length of time. All in all, the “come-back” of the entire city in every way was most remarkable.
Several of the fire stations were automatically turned into refugee stations after the hurricane. Women and children, principally, flocked to them from wrecked homes as to community stations and the firemen fed them and cheerfully gave up their beds.
It happened that National Fire Prevention Week fell the week after the hurricane. Miami’s fire department can point to its record as a distinctive achievement in the national observance of the week.
Some Views Showing Devastation by the Hurricane and the Blocked Conditions of the Streets. From top to bottom: 1, Street on which aerial truck of Miami Fire Department was overturned by the hurricane. Note boats on boulevard and other obstructions. 2, Typical blocked street in Miami. 3, Royal Palm Hotel, about three blocks from bay. 4, Trees destroyed by wind and water four blocks from the ocean.