SAFEGUARDING LIFE FROM FIRE
A—In School Buildings; B—In Hotels; C—In Theatres.
At the very outset, I desire to express my most sincere thanks for the valuable assistance rendered me by the staff of that splendid organization, the National Board of Fire Underwriters, to whom I am indebted for most of the data and very many of the suggestions contained herein, and without which I am afraid this paper would have been without value and of very little interest.
In the “Youth’s Companion” about three years ago there appeared an editorial which said: “Every year we Americans spend for new school houses a doilar for every person in the country and then let the school houses burn down at the rate of more than one for every school day in the year.” This is a strong indictment and it is believed that since these words were written there has been considerable improvement in the situation. That there is ample room for further betterment, however, there can be no doubt. In New York City, where there are said to be 540 elementary high schools, fires about three years ago were occurring in these institutions on the average once every two weeks, according to a newspaper statement, and in 1917, according to the New York Fire Marshal’s Department, there were twenty-seven fires in the public schools of the big city, which is an average a shade higher than the earlier one.
Importance of Safeguarding Schools.
Safeguarding life naturally covers accident prevention as well as fire prevention, but as fire is the most common cause of fatalities in schools, it merits the chief consideratoin. I am indebted to the report of Mr. Benjamin Richards, representing a sub-committee of the National Fire Prevention Association, for a comprehensive survey of the school house situation and feel that his recommendations should be given wide consideration. Records from many different sources according to Mr. Richards confirm the value of fire drills as a means of clearing school buildings and getting students safely to the street and out of the danger zone. Newspapers constantly feature the fact that fire drills, in the case of specific fires, have prevented catastrophes of awful magnitude. All of this is encouraging. It indicates an accumulating appreciation of the need of safeguarding life.
All Buildings Should Be Made Safe.
All buildings, but particularly those in which little children are assembled daily, should be made as safe from fire or other accident as it is possible to make them by every method of protection known to modern architecture and engineering. A school building that ⅛ so defective in design or in construction as to be little better than a fire trap, is a menace to a community against which public sentiment cannot be too quickly aroused. The subject of safeguarding the lives of pupils in schools has been given ample thought by fire prevention authorities and there is no excuse for ignorance of preventive measures on the part of educational officials or others most directly concerned. Nowadays, schools are being constructed for the most part so that they are not likely to catch fire. Exits are more carefully planned, stairways are built with a view to the maximum demands that may be made upon them and other necessary measures are taken to prevent such catastrophes as have occurred in in the past. It is unquestionably the moral duty of city officials to protect the lives of the children of their community. Selecting a site for a school building is an important matter and should be carefully chosen with a view to the exposure hazard from surrounding properties. A vacant lot with plenty of space on all sides is considered the best location for a school, with a corner plot as the next best choice. Where there is likelihood of fire danger from nearby buildings there should be special protection in the way of wire glass windows, and metal shutters and, perhaps of outside sprinklers over the windows. A novel sort of school building has been tried out in Rochester, New York. This consists of a one-story structure with a saw-tooth roof which permits the entrance of the maximum amount of daylight. Being but one story in height there is no need for stairs or fire escapes. This type of school building is feasible only where sufficient ground is available.
“Excerpts from a paper read at the annual convention of the State Fire Marshals of North America at Sioux Falls, S. Dak.
Exit Doors Should Not Be Locked.
Fire drills are extremely important but perfection of drilling is of no value if doors are carelessly allowed to remain locked. The loss of 22 lives in the St. John’s School fire at Peabody, Massachusetts, about three years ago, was caused by “the locked door.” A still more terrible fire occurred at Collingwood, Ohio, ten years ago in which there were 173 victims. School fires are said to start more often in the basement than anywhere else and it may not be out of place to suggest that this is a good season to stir up the school officials and require janitors to observe stringent clean-up rules and to keep all rubbish, waste and inflammable oils in metal receptacles. It is a good idea, too, for all schools to have a student fire chief appointed each month, in the upper classes, whose duty it shall be to lead the others out during drills and to become familiar with the fire alarm system, extinguishing apparatus and so on. As is already the custom in many localities, it is advisable to require schools to furnish monthly reports of fire drills, and the time required by each class to reach the street, so that the practice will not be allowed to lapse into cobwebbed disuse.
Buildings Should Have Watchmen.
Important school buildings should never be left without the care of a careful janitor or watchman. Statistics show that many school fires start after the janitor has left the premises. Watchmen should be required to make regular rounds and record visits upon an approved clock register. Watchmen should particularly keep a sharp eye open for rubbish piles or improper waste containers whose contents might ignite from spontaneous combustion. Of course the personal hazard differs. In schools, more or less permanent bodies are being dealt with and can be trained to follow certain courses of action in case of fire, while in hotels the occupants are mostly transients and in theatres there is a still different problem to consider.
In safeguarding life in a residential building such as a hotel, the special hazard lies in the fact that the people are in the building at night and that if a fire occur and fire or smoke spread rapidly, there is every possibility of some of the occupants being suffocated before they are even awakened. The first essential, therefore, seems to be that of preventing fire from spreading rapidly. Hardly less important is the providing of adequate exits; the protection of heating and lighting apparatus; good housekeeping generally throughout the building, the isolation of oil, paint, bedding and furniture storage and similar special hazards. Elevator shafts and stairways should, of course, be enclosed with fireproof material. If ornamental stairways are desired in the lobby, engineers do not object to permitting them for one or two stories, provided they are fire-stopped above these points. Several floors in the Hotel Lennox in Boston were burned about four years ago from a fire which started in one room and spread by means of an open stairway, although there was little combustible trim. Stairs enclosed with only thin wooden partitions have, in several cases, prevented the spread of fires by shutting off the draft.
Private Protection Necessary.
There should be fire alarm systems and extinguishers. If proper care be taken to prevent the rapid spread of fires, the next essential is that of exits. There should be at least two separate exits from each building, and these should be at or near the end of corridors. In the larger buildings, even if there be three or four stairways, there must be no blind alleys in which a person may be cut off by smoke.
Seventy Per Cent of Fires at Night.
Seventy per cent of all hotel fires are said to occur during the night, and most of these between midnight and 3 a. m. In 1913 it was reported that there was a hotel fire somewhere in the country every thirty hours. Resort hotels are particularly vulnerable. Defective electric wiring is a common cause of fire, but many blazes also start in the kitchen from careless rendering of fat and ignition of grease in the vent from the range. Heating apparatus also causes many fires. It is suggested that the heating plant be put in a fireproof compartment by itself. In hotels of the older type fire escapes are often found on the outside of the building, which can be reached only through some private room. It Is easy to contemplate walking up to a door in daylight, but when a man is crawling along the floor of a corridor in the middle of the night, half blinded by smoke, how is he to tell which door he is to batter down to make his way to the escape?
Responsibility of Hotel Inspectors.
There should be exit lights and signs and careful directions in each room as to action in case of fire, with a diagram showing the location of the room. It is suggetsed that lights for fire exits should have current supplied from some outside source, so that in case of damage to the power plant, guests can find their way out. A fire occurred a few years ago in a Canadian hall where guests rushed into the halls, and many, being unable to locate exits, were suffocated by smoke. The intelligence of hotel employees is believed to average rather low, but it is considered advisable, nevertheless, that they should be drilled in methods of fire extinguishment so as to be of value in saving life and property in case of fire. As many hotel fires occur from exposure, there should be special protection, where _____eeded, in the shape of wire glass windows. fire shutters and perhaps outside sprinklers over windows. The hazards from guests is also important. Many fires are started by careless smokers, users of electric heating and curling irons, and also, in the smaller towns, by oil lamps and heaters. Hotel proprietors should be made to realize their responsibility for safeguarding the lives of their guests. It is suggested that traveling men refuse to stop at fire-trap hotels, and in this way force hotel keepers to remedy defects of construction, etc. Formal action by organizations of traveling men would assist this effort.
Theatres, as a class, present special dangers. The record for the first six months of a recent year (1915) listed 104 theatre fires, the majority of which occurred in motion picture places. An investigation made by Joseph K. Freitag showed that the cause of fire or panic in
theatres in nearly all cases was either carelessness, defects in equipment, or poor planning. He found that the stage constitutes the most dangerous feature and that the loss of life had been greatest in the top gallery and smallest in the orchestra. The paramount feature of theatre design and management should be that of safety to life and limb. Too often the architect is faced by the problem of packing the greatest number of seats into the least possible space, omitting everything in the way of approaches, lobby, et;., which the law does not insist upon.
Location and Construction.
In locating a theatre, as in locating the other buildings under discussion, the question of exposure hazard is an important consideration. In constructing a theatre, it is considered a good plan to have not more than eleven seats in a row between aisles, except where the seats ar: within twenty feet of exits, when thirteen are allowed. There should be not more than fourteen rows of seats without the introduction of cross aisles, and all aisles should lead directly to exits. It is considered important that all exits should have storm doors to prevent drafts from reaching the stage. They are held by engineers to be one of the grave dangers of the theatres. In the historic Iroquois Theatre fire, in Chicago, a draft created by the opening of doors leading to the street from the stage burst the curtain into the auditorium.
The Fire Curtain.
The effect of a fire of any size upon an asbestos curtain is to break down its fibre and cause a loss of from 60 to 90 per cent of its strength. An iron curtain is, therefore, considered better, and engineers maintain that there should be a smoke seal at the bottom and at tbe other edges of the curtain. On this point it is said : “A volume of smoke issuing from the stage section into the auditorium is liable to be as much of a panic breeder as actual flame. Numerous theatre fires have demonstrated that if the stage section could be completely isolated from the auditorium by a barrier sufficiently substantial to prevent the passage of both smoke and flame, the danger to life from fire or panic would be greatly diminished.” The rigid curtain (when built according to the National Board of Fire Underwriters’ Building Code of 1915) because of its merits as an efficient cut-off, has been installed voluntarily by many theatres in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and other cities. “The method of installation of the ordinary flexible asbestos curtain is such that volumes of smoke can easily pass around the edges. Although such curtains will not burn, nevertheless when subjected to high heat they lose a large part of their strength and become fragile. In this condition they may be broken by falling scenery or from other causes, thus tending to make them unreliable in time of emergency. A law which simply requires the installation of an asbestos curtain, without specifications as to quality, is pernicious, for it permits the use of low grade material which would furnish but a small part of the protection the public is taught to expect.”
The shops of the carpenter, property man, electrician, etc., should be isolated and protected by automatic fire doors and brick walls of ample thickness, while the dressing rooms and heating apparatus should be in separate structures. There
should, of course, be fire extinguishing apparatus and fire escapes with exits based upon the seating capacity of the house. Balcony construction with column supports has in recent years given way to cantilever trusses or plate girders. In ordinary practice, balconies should be constructed to withstand a load of at least 200 pounds to the square foot.
Moving Picture Theatres.
In movie theatres the operator’s booth should be constructed so as not only to confine all fires that occur, but also to keep smoke and flame from being seen by the audience, so as to avoid panic. For two machines a booth should be at least eight by six feet. Movie theatres are considered to represent a special haz ard owing to the inflammable nature of the film. In recent record of a number of moving picture theatres fires due to common causes, over one-half were charged against careless smokers. The jamming of projecting machines and electrical troubles also caused fires. Operators are generally considered reckless, as a class and often smoke while on duty despite the risk they incur. Some have sacrificed themselves to confine fires to their booths. One, however, kicked a burning film out of the booth and set fire to the theatre and to neighboring buildings.
Fine Department Should Be Called.
In all fires that get beyond the reach of the inside protective measures, reliance must be placed upon the public fire department and the local water supply. The morale of the fire fighters is therefore a matter of large importance as is the condition and capacity of the public apparatus and the volume and pressure of the water system. It might be well to impress upon the public the danger of delay in getting out of a building once a fire has started. There should be no dallying to secure wraps or other possessions. While the watchman of a theatre probably does not go on duty until after the audience has left the building he can nevertheless protect future audiences by examining the condition of exit doors, fire apparatus and so on. The watchman in a hotel can perform the same duty and in addition may save hundreds of lives by detecting and extinguishing fires before they have reached a dangerous point. In all cases of fire prevention the problem begins when the building plans are first drawn up, and never ends.