REPORT ON FIRE PROTECTION IN NEW YORK SUBWAY
Fire Commissioner Robert Adamson, of New York City, has submitted to Mayor John Purroy Mitchel a report on fire protection in the subway system, by the commissioner, and a report by a special committee or board of inquiry, appointed by the commissioner and consisting of John Kenlon, chief of the department; Putnam A. Bates, chief of the Bureau of Fire Alarm Telegraph, and J. O. Hammitt, chief of the Bureau of Fire Prevention. The investigation was upon request of the Mayor made shortly after the subway fire of January 6.
Report of the Commisisoner.
Commissioner Adamson in his report says, in part: A careful physical survey of the subway has been made by Chief John Kenlon, Chief Putnam A. Bates, of the Fire Alarm Telegraph Bureau, and Chief Joseph O. Hammitt, of the Bureau of Fire Prevention, who were selected by me as a special board for that purpose, and their report is attached. The extent and technical difficult of this inquiry, as well as the demands of their regular duties upon the time of these officials, explains why you have not received a report sooner. The conditions presented at this fire suggested at once two points in which the fire protection in the subway seemed to need correction: First, the origin of the fire, due, as it apparently was, to the short-circuiting of the power cables, which cables, at many points, are strung across the subwav in an exposed condition, instead of being confined in iron conduits, as is required of all electrical wiring in buildings above ground, suggested a constant source of future fires. All the power, lighting and signal wires in the subway are thus exposed, and they are covered with inflammable insulating materials which, in the case of some of the cables, contain a compound of cotton, tar and other combustible ingredients. The fire of January 6 fed solely upon this insulating material, the smoke and fumes from which were sufficient to fill the subway for several blocks and to render many passengers and firemen unconscious. Moreover, these three systems of wires were so intermingled that the short-circuit quickly placed all out of service, and the situation of the passengers was rendered more terrifying bv the resulting darkness. Second, the escape of passengers from the subway was difficult and perilous, owing to the lack of means of exit between the stations. Fortunately, the subway local which stopped nearest the fire was halted opposite a ventilation grating at Broadway and 55th street, and a very large number of passengers, many of them unconscious, were taken out through this opening, although it was. not as fully equipped for this purpose as might have been the case. The practical experience of passengers and firemen in getting out of the subway under these circumstances suggested that it might be wise to increase the emergency exits from the subway. Generally, as to these two points, our investigation showed that the subway cables are not insulated, according. to modern fireproof methods, that the insulation of this cable, unprotected as it is, of itself constitutes a fire hazard, and that more frequent openings are needed to provide exits for passengers in case of emergency. In addition to this, the investigators found that far too much combustible material is allowed to accumulate and be stored in the subway, that the wooden cars, wooden third rail guards, wooden ticket booths, wooden doors to toilets and porters’ rooms at stations, wooden news-stands, etc., constitute a fire hazard that should not be allowed in a structure through which so many thousands pass daily. It was found that considerable quantities of gasoline, kerosene, lubricating oil and other inflammable liquids are stored at points in the subway. Action to reduce the quantities of these storages and to regulate the condition under which they are stored has already been taken by this department. The recommendations made by Chiefs Kenlon, Bates and Hammittt for the correction of conditions are: “The electric wiring should be installed in a fireproof manner throughout. A source of current supply for the lighting, power ventilating, signalling, fire alarm and telephone systems, independent from the source of power current. The complete isolation of the electric wiring, constituting one system from the electric wiring of any other system, to guard against a breakdown in one class of wires or cables being communicated to another class. The installation of a system of emergency or pilot lights, so arranged that in case of the failure of the source of current supply of the general subway lighting system, the emergency lights will automatically be placed in operation. It is suggested that the source of current supply for this emergency lighting shall be from storage batteries situated in an approved location. A duplication of the source of current supply of the general lighting system so that in case of the failure of one source of supply an emergency source will automatically be utilized. The installation of a complete fire alarm system connecting directly with Fire Headquarters, of a character of construction conforming with the requirements of the fire department. The installation of a complete telephone system separate from that now installed in the ticket office at each station platform. The purpose of the new system being to place the subwav trains under direct communication with the power plant and the executive offices of the Interborough Company. The Committee believes that a series of such telephone stations, equipped with suitable fixtures, located every 500 feet and installed on each of the walls of the four-track subway throughout its entire length, should provide an equipment that would insure easy access, the length of the longest train being approximately 500 feet. The adoption of a suitable standard form of electric signal light, indicating the location of each fire alarm station, each telephone station and each exit. These signal lights should be on independent circuits from the general subway lighting system, and so provided for that in case of failure of the normal current source, the emergency source will automatically be resorted to. The adoption of a vaporproof type of rigid fixture for all electric lights throughout the subway except at station platforms where fixtures are required for special illuminating purposes. Such reconstruction of splicing chambers as may be necessary to effect a complete segregation of all electric wiring systems, and to prevent the escape of smoke or gases into the subway. A better system of battery inspection and upkeep to insure successful and continued operation of emergency lighting in each individual car. The equipment of each car with an approved number of portable electric lamps. Regarding the other important question, namely, the provision of adequate means of escape, the committee recommended the installation of additional openings to the street. The erection of longitudinal walls between tracks, so that each track will be confined in a separate tube is also recommended. It is doubted if the width of the present subway will permit of the construction of such walls without endangering subway workmen, but the width of the new subway will permit of such walls. The removal of all wooden cars from the subway as quickly as they can be replaced by steel cars is recommended. Another source of possible fire danger in the subway pointed out by the committee is the show windows opening on subway platforms at some of the stations. The committee recommends that the buildings in which these openings exist shall be separated from the subway by fire walls, with standard fire doors, affording communication from the building to the show window, and the show windows equipped with automatic sprinklers. As these buildings, unlike the subway proper, are under the jurisdiction of the fire department so far as the regulation of fire hazards are concerned, orders are being prepared to cover each case mentioned bv the committee where window or other openings on the subway present a fire hazard. Orders are likewise being prepared regulating the storage of gasoline, kerosene and other oils in the subway. You will find in the attached report a statement of the quantity and location of these storages and the regulations which arc proposed. Both the lighting and the signal systems of the subway appear to have completely failed at the fire. The telephone system which might have been of value to the train operatives in communicating with the subway stations, also failed at the fire. This failure was due to the fact that the wires of this system were not segregated from the power and signal wires, and thus the telephone and alarm systems went completely out of service at a time when they were needed most. A system of emergency lights is also recommended, and it is urged that the fire alarm system of the subway be connected directly with Fire Headquarters. Delay in transmitting the alarm for the fire of January 6, is entirely responsible for the serious character of that fire. Had the alarm been transmitted promptly the fire would have been put out quickly and there would have been little or no panic and possibly no discomfort to any of the passengers.
Report of the Committee.
The report of the committee consisting of Chief Kenlon and Bureau Chiefs Bates and Hammitt is, in part, as follows: Since the commencement of operation on February 2nd, 1902, there have been one hundred and two fires and accidents in the Interborough subway of sufficient character to necessitate the summoning of the fire department. Short-circuiting and other electrical conditions appear to have been responsible for 48 fires in the subway. Accumulation of rubbish was also responsible for a considerable number of fires. The fact that the number of fires and accidents are increasing makes it highly important that close attention be given to the problem of safeguarding travel in the subway.
The Recent Fire.
The most serious fire in the subway occurred at 8.00 a. m., January 6th, 1915, at 53rd street and Broadway. A still alarm was received by the fire department at 9.15 a. m., more than an hour after the fire started. The fumes and smoke from the fire caused the death of one person and the injury of more than two hundred persons. Two fortunate circumstances lessened the seriousness of this disaster, namely: the fact that not one of the trains nearest to the location of the fire was obliged to stop immediately at the splicing chamber in which the most severe explosion and fire occurred. and that the location in which the trains nearest to the fire were stalled was in the vicinity of the ventilating chamber at 55th street and Broadway. Had the accident occurred at one of the many points in the subway where there is no direct means of emergency exit, and at a considerable distance from any station, the rescue work would have been slow and very difficult. The officers of the fire department in the prosecution of their duty while in charge of the work of rescue and the extinguishing of the fire, were in a peculiarly advantageous position to observe the conditions surrounding this accident, and the degree to which an occurrence of this kind might extend under circumstances more advantageous for a serious fire. To reinforce the information obtained at the time of the fire, the committee examined the subway structure with great care and in detail during the early morning of January 8th and 9th. Subsequent to this, further inspections were made by the committee and by members of the engineering force of the fire department, testimony was taken from the officials of the Interborough Company, and such other precautions were observed as would insure our conclusions being based upon information concerning the accuracy of which there should be no uncertainty.
The following data is confined to those conditions which we consider should at once be rectified. This branch of the subject has been considered under the following heads: (a) Combustible material in the subway. (b) Non-fireproof character of the electric wiring, (c) Inadequate fire alarm system, and means of communication. (d) Insufficient ventilation. (e) Inadequate exit facilities, (f) Incomplete regulations imposed upon the employees of the subway in regard to precautions against fire and action to be taken in case of fire. Combustible Material in the Subway: This has again been divided into subdivisions: Electric Insulation: Considerable combustible material is furnished by the insulation of the electric power cable where not run in vitrified tile conduit in the subway wall, by oil-filled transformers, and by the insulation of miles of lighting and signal wires which, throughout this subway, except in the vicinity of station platforms, are not enclosed in metal conduit, as required in fireproof buildings above ground. There are numerous openings from buildings into the subway, and a considerable number of show windows in the subway stations. The protection of these openings we found to be, in many instances, very unsatisfactory. Third Rail Guard: As is generally known, the third rail guard consists of a wooden strip about 1 1/2 inches by 8 1/2 inches, which is supported in a horizontal position directly above the rail. The wood which has been used in the construction of the third rail guard in the Interborough subway is not of a slow burning character, and the committee is of the opinoin that a wood utilized in other railway installations is more suitable. General Station Conditions: Inspection of several stations showed that combustible material exists of the following character: Wooden ticket offices, wooden newsstands and their combustible contents, wooden doors to porters’ rooms and toilets, wooden screens at entrances to toilets and wooden doors to transformer rooms on platforms. Housekeeping Conditions: Inspection of several work rooms and locker rooms showed that considerable improvement should be made in the housekeeping conditions. Housekeeping conditions at some points on the other hand were found tb be good.
Storage of Combustibles.
Storage of inflammable oils and combustible materials found at the various store rooms, work shops, compressor rooms and other places along the line are as follows: Gasoline, 30 gals.; kerosene, 1,500 gals.; lubricating oil, 70 gals.; alcohol, 4 gals.; turpentine, 7 gals.; black insulating paint, 10 gals.; lard oil, 5 gals.; asphalt tar. 5 bids.; minwax, 115 gals.; paints, 10 gals.; oakum. 1 bale; tarred paper, 2 doz. rolls: carbic, soo lbs.; carbide, 75 lbs.
The committee were impressed with the inadequacy of the general arrangement of electric service. No provision for duplication of service or segregation of current sources was provided in the planning and equipping of this important system, the successful operation of which is dependent wholly upon the certainty of its electric current service. The committee found that high tension, low tension and signalling cables were installed together in the westerly splicing chamber, and that to this involved condition was due the delay that had occurred in disconnecting the sources of current supply and the extent of the disaster. The construction of the splicing chambers, no doubt, also contributed largely.
Inadequate Fire Alarm System and Means of Communication.
Fire Alarm Boxes: An examination of the equipment constituting the fire alarm svstem in the sub wav in the vicinity of the fire of January 6th, showed that the glass in the upper box at 52nd street and also that of the box at 53rd street had been broken. A lead wire near one of the terminals of the upper box at 51rd street, however, was not connected to its terminal. Rubber-covered wire without Other protection had been used, and in several places the rubber insulation was cracked. In some cases the wires were held to the supporting structure by means of metal staples. These staples were not insulated. The alarm cables passed through splicing chambers occupied bv power cables and high potential feeders, which fart, no doubt, explains to some degree the failure of this equipment to more effectively perform its intended function. The telephone system in use up to the time of the January 6th fire failed also through a similar intimate relation of cables with those carrying the heavy currents for the operation of the transit system. Inter-communication, therefore, was destroyed at a time when it would have been most useful.
Insufficient Ventilation and Inadequate Exit Facilities.
The question of exits between stations for use in emergencies appears not to have been sufficiently considered in the original construction. those that have been provided being only such as probably were found convenient to locate at various openings designed primarily for ventilation. Additional Openings to Street: The present openings to the street appear plainly insufficient, both for the purpose of ventilating the subway and as a means of exit in case of emergency.
Importance of Employee.
Even after every possible improvement in construction and equipment of the subway has been made, the safety of the traveling public will depend upon the employees. These men must appreciate their responsibility, and instructions cannot be too carefully given to meet every emergency. A book of rules and regulations is distributed to the employees of the Interborough Company, and in the recommendations of this report will be embodied certain subjects which, in the opinion of the committee, would, if adopted, add substantially to the value of these instructions and the tendency towards panic would be decreased through a better knowledge on the part of the employee, of the essential steps to take to avoid danger should fire occur.
The committee having thus presented the facts as determined by personal examination, now tender their suggestions in the form of recommendations for transmission to the Public Service Commission for the assistance of that body in the solution of fire prevention problems. These recommendations arc presented under four general headings, as follows: Fire Prevention, Segregation of Electric Wiring Systems, Adequate Means of Escape, Training of Employees.
The committee recommend: Steel cars should be speedily substituted for the combustible cars now in service. Buildings should be isolated from the subway by fire walls; all openings in such fire walls should be protected by standard fire doors; all show windows in subway stations should be cut off by fire walls from the stores back of them and equipped with automatic sprinklers. The electric wiring should be installed in a fireproof manner throughout. The oil filled transformers of the railway signal system located in the subway should be kept free from oil on their exterior, and all wooden switch cabinets should be replaced by metal cabinets. When it becomes necessarv to renew sections of the third rail guard, a slow burning wood should be used. All news-stands should be of metal and provided with self-closing doors in the lower portions used for the storage of stock of magazines. etc., and with automatic covers held by fusible links over the upper or display portions. Wooden doors to toilets, porter and transformer rooms should be covered with metal. Lockers required for storage of clothing or other articles should be entirely of metal. General housekeeping conditions in work shops and locker rooms should be greatly improved. A plentiful supply of approved waste cans should be provided and maintained. The storage and use of highly inflammable liquids and solids in the subway should be ereatlv reduced and much better safeguarded. The filling of buried tanks in the subway with kerosene should be by gravity flow from the street through properly protected filling pipes.
Segregation of Electric Wiring Systems.
The committee consider that whatever changes are made should embody at least the following fundamental features: A source of current supply for the lighting, power, ventilating, signalling, fire alarm and telephone systems, independent from the source of power current. The complete isolation of the electric wiring, constituting one system from the electric wiring of any other system, to guard against a breakdown in one class of wires or cables being communicated to another class. The installation of a system of emergency or pilot lights, so arranged that in case of the failure of the source of current supply of the general subway lighting system, the emergency lights will automatically be placed in operation. It is suggested that the source of current supply for this emergency lighting shall be from storage batteries situated in an approved location. A duplication of the source of current supply of the general lighting system so that in case of the failure of one source of supply an emergency source will automatically be utilized. The installation of a complete fire alarm system connecting directly with Fire Headquarters of a character of construction conforming with the requirements of the fire department. The installation of a complete telephone system separate from that now installed in the ticket office at each station platform. The purpose of the new system being to place the subway trains under direct communication with the power plant and the executive offices of the Interborough Company. The committee believes that a series of such telephone stations, equipped with suitable fixtures, located every 500 feet and installed on each of the walls of the four track subway throughout its entire length, should provide an equipment that would insure easy access, the length of the longest train being approximately 500 feet. The adoption of a suitable standard form of electric signal light indicating the location of each fire alarm station, each telephone station and each exit. These signal lights should be on independent circuits from the general subway lighting system, and so provided for that in case of failure of the normal current source the emergency source will automatically be resorted to. The adoption of a vapor-proof type of rigid fixture for all electric lights throughout the subway except at station platforms where fixtures are required for special illuminating purposes. Such reconstruction of splicing chambers as may be necessary to effect a complete segregation of all electric wiring systems and to prevent the escape or smoke or gases into the subway. A better system of battery inspection and upkeep to insure successful and continued operation of emergency lighting in car with an approved number of portable electric lamps.
Adequate Means of Escaoes.
The committee submit the following recommendations: The subway should be divided into two or (preferably) four separate tubes by longitudinal walls wherever the space between tracks admits of such construction without seriously increasing the danger to gangs of trackmen and others whose duties require them to work in the subway while trains are running. Protected openings should be provided for exits through such dividing walls at 500 foot intervals. An exit to the street from each tube thus formed should be provided at each local station. Additional openings to the street should be provided at several locations throughout the subway as more fully defined in the appendix to this report, and in these additional openings fans should be installed to increase rapidity of ventilation in case of emergency. There should be installed in each ventilating chamber between Atlantic avenue and 96th street, where practicable, two five-foot iron stairways leading from the track level to the street. Gratings where used should be so designed as to be easily opened from the chamber or from the street.
Training of Employees.
The committee recommend that the following topics be included in the book of rules and regulations issued to the employees by the operating company: Train crews should test emergency lighting of trains before each trip. Each employee on the train should become familiar with the use of portable electric lamps, ladders and extinguishers, of which it shall be ascertained before each trip that the train is equipped with a full supply. Employees should become familiar with the use of the fire alarm equipment and the subway telephone system. The emergency telephones should be used to enable the guards to learn the cause and seriousness of a block. The fire department should be called immediately in case of fire. Employees should become familiar with the location and arrangement of all exits.