Six Insurance Rate Reductions in Nine Years
Building of a Modern Fire Service in Puerto Rico Brings
A STAFF REPORT
The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico can today boast of a fire service that is second to none. It was not always thus. Ten years ago only three of the 77 municipalities on the island had fire stations, equipment and trained fire fighters. Today nearly every city and town in Puerto Rico has one or more well-equipped stations, and by 1954 none will be without at least one. And a modern fire college, plus an island-wide fire training program, has brought about a thoroughly trained personnel.
Credit for this remarkable achievement in fire defense falls largely to one individual—Chief Raul Gandara, head of the Insular Fire Service of Puerto Rico. How he engineered a major fire department improvement program with limited funds is told in the following article— Editor.
BY THE standards of fellow firefighting citizens in the United States, the Fire Service of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is a young organization. Its growth has paralleled the growth of the island over the last decade, wherein all facets of daily life have been improved to a peak not before believed attainable.
Under the impetus of the Commonwealth government’s “Operation Boot strap,” economic development program, Puerto Rico is undergoing a vast change, rooted deeply in the expanding industrialization of the island. Since 1948, some 250 new factories have been established, bringing direct and indirect jobs to nearly 40,000 persons. Multimillion dollar low-income housing projects, some completed and others under construction, will eventually clear 10,000 families out of slum areas. New schools, hospitals, roads, bridges, dams and hydroelectric plants, going up all over the Commonwealth, are drastically changing the face of the island.
With this growth and expansion, so too has the Fire Service been experiencing its own “Operation Bootstrap” with early development actually going back to the hottest days of the Atlantic and Caribbean submarine warfare waged by the German navy. In 1943 vast tonnage was sent to the bottom of the ocean by German U-boats right at the door of Puerto Rico. Ships going from San Juan and coming into the port were frequently blasted out of the water by torpedoes. To protect Puerto Rico against incendiary warfare, created by possible bombings or shellings from offshore subs, the government built a string of twenty fire stations ringing the island. This in effect was the real start of the present Fire Service of Puerto Rico, although the law creating it was approved by the Legislature in 1942.
Today nearly every city and town in Puerto Rico has at least one wellequipped fire station and, by the end of 1954, none of the 77 municipalities in Puerto Rico will be without one. The capital city of San Juan has six fire bouses, with twelve companies and a fire boat to patrol the waterfront and bay. But it was not always like this in the new Commonwealth.
The first fire department in the Island was organized in the City of Ponce in 1853. Made up of volunteers, it is still in active service afid had just celebrated its 100th anniversary.
Like almost every other country in the world, Puerto Rico went through the traditional stages in its fire fighting history. From the leather buckets stage it went to hand pumps and hose carts, before going into modern gasoline engines and aerial ladder trucks. During the second half of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth century, many small volunteer fire departments were sporadically organized throughout the Island, usually after the occurrence of a fire. But they lasted only while the people remembered the tragedy, and by the time a second fire struck a town, usually there was nothing left of the fire fighting equipment.
Up to 1943 nearly all Puerto Rican firemen were volunteers, with a great civic spirit but with little knowledge of the modern methods for fire fighting and fire prevention. Only the Capital of the Island had a group of paid firemen, which were changed with the changing political fortunes of one party or another. In this way, every firemanic group, organized from time to time in the various towns, operated as an independent unit, using different methods and equipment that made difficult help and cooperation between them.
With this background, it was natural for fire losses to be heavy and fire insurance rates accordingly high. It is not possible to estimate fire losses previous to 1942 because no records were Kept. At that time there were only 3 cities with fire stations, equipment and personnel, leaving 74 others powerless against the ravages of fires.
A new era began in 1942 with the establishment by the newly elected Legislature of the “Insular Fire Service of Puerto Rico,” whose duties and responsibilities would cover the whole island with its 3,600 square miles and its 2,500,000 persons. In 1943, shortly after the inauguration of the Insular Fire Service, Raul Gandara was appointed Chief, and still retains the post. For 16 years he had been a Captain in the Ponce Fire Department. Immediately after his appointment as Chief, hfc went to New York where he attended the Fire College of the City of New York. There he took the Officers’ Course. To his credit is the only book on the subject of fire fighting ever written in Spanish, which is being used widely in all fire departments throughout Central and South America.
By the middle of 1944, Chief Gandara announced a policy aimed at the construction of at least one fully equipped fire station in each community, staffed by no less than four paid firemen. The first twenty stations had been constructed quickly in the vital coastal towns at the beginning of World War II, to protect them against fires from possible incendiary attack, in a cooperative effort between the Government of Puerto Rico, the Fire Service and Civilian Defense.
The job done to date by the Fire Service of Puerto Rico deserves mention if only to serve as an inspiring example of what a group of willing men, ably led, can do for its fellow citizens.
Fully supporting Chief Gandara’s program, the Government, in 1946, appropriated $40,000 from which it expected that at least four new fire houses would be built. Gandara called a meeting of all the mayors in towns needing fire stations and asked for full cooperation and got even more than he had bargained for. The mayors agreed to provide, without cost, the sites for the fire stations. Frequently the municipalities’ sanitation trucks could be seen collecting garbage and cleaning the streets in the morning, and hauling stone and sand from beaches and rivers in the afternoon or evening. Mechanics from the Fire Service’s repair shop assisted in the operation of concrete mixers; some firemen helped hand-haul heavy concrete filled buckets, while others, under the supervision of the Department’s inspectors, made electrical and plumbing installations. Still other firemen took care of the painting. And last, but not least, another group composed of mechanics and employees of the repair shop constructed fire trucks for the new fire stations. On new chassis, they mounted O. C. D. fire pumps—Chrysler Motor, Hale Centrifugal 500 G.P.M.— and the bodies were built around them and painted. Thus with heavy savings on labor, equipment and construction material, a total of nine complete fire stations were erected with the money allotted for only four. By 1948 a total of 39 towns had well-equipped fire stations and competent personnel.
The story of the Fire Service of Puerto Rico is a continuous repetition of the efforts, struggles, and enthusiasm of its first years. In 1949 another appropriation—this time of $80,000—was made for the construction of eight new fire stations, but Chief Gandara insisted that the words “or more” be added to the appropriation, based on the experience of the first grant. And it happened again! Twelve stations and eight new fire trucks were added to the Fire Service on money appropriated originally for “eight or more fire houses.”
By 1951 this progress had reduced to 18 the number of towns lacking fire stations, as each new appropriation was so handled by Gandara and his men that far more than was expected was accomplished.
The Fire Service conducts virtually a perpetual fire prevention campaign, which has paid huge dividends in reducing fire losses. At least 1,600 buildings each year—particularly hotels, restaurants, night clubs, schools, theaters and gas stations—are inspected by the department to enforce compliance with regulations. Plans for new buildings aqd housing developments must be approved by the fire department and must be equipped with whatever safety devices the department deems necessary.
As a direct result of the extensive fire prevention campaign the great increase in fire fighting facilities and the thorough training programs carried on, the fire losses have diminished from year to year.
In 1945 the Fire Department requested a revision of fire insurance rates from the insurance companies. BecaOrse the Government had provided better fire protection, and thus the possibility of fires had lessened, it was logical to expect that fire rates should be lowered accordingly. Fortunately the efforts made by the Fire Department were so obvious that every office connected in any way with insurance (Office of the Superintendent of Insurance and the Office of the Actuarial Bureau) cooperated fully, and in 1945 came the first cut in premiums—a whopping drop of 32%.
In 1949, two separate decreases totalled another 5% and in 1950 another 8% was deducted in two additional cuts. The year 1951 began with good news for insurance buyers. A new reduction of 6% on some fire rates was announced on_ New Year’s Day! Again early in 1952 a further-reduction of 10% became effective. The average fire rate reduction over the past 10 years has amounted to 25.9%, which means that Puerto Ricans are paying $1,020,000 a year less than they would have had to pay under 1945 rates.
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We visited Puerto Rico last year. We saw the great improvement in the firefighting facilities. We saw the firemen going through their drills in the morning and, during the rest of the day, working as masons, carpenters, plumbers, painters, and electricians, in constructing new fire stations. And the firemen are proud of their new stations because they were built with their own hands; enthusiasm was mixed with the concrete that went into the buildings. We also saw mechanics, welders and everybody that could help, working in the repair shop on fire trucks. And when we talked about all this and congratulated Chief Gandara on bis amazing accomplishment , in developing a highly efficient fire service for the entire island, he just answered with his Spanish accent:— “Well, you know it gives great pleasure to do things for others. We try to do as many as we can just so we can have more pleasure.” And he really meant it.