The Boston Committee Report.
The long looked for report of the city council joint special committee appointed to inquire into the causes of recent fires in Boston was submitted to the Board of Aldermen Monday, in print. Substantially it says :
“ The order to provide for the appointment of the committee was introduced in the Board of Aldermen, February 13 last, in view of the fact that articles had appeared in the public print commenting more or less severely upon the Boston Fire Department and its failure to control fires that had recently occurred in the city, notably what is called the Hecht fire, on Federal street, January 10 of the present year. Certain communications and petitions were also received by his Honor the Mayor.
“ In view of these facts, and inasmuch as the efficiency of the fire department was seriously questioned, your committee, upon their organization, were impressed with the feeling that a careful and thorough inquiry should be made to ascertain the truth of the claims of the petitioners, and whether or not the department had been subjected to undeserved censure.
“ From the tone of the petitions presented to his Honor the Mayor, the committee were prepared to listen to criticisms of the severest character relative to the management and working of the fire department. They expected to hear the department held solely accountable for the extensive fires that have occurred, and blamed for permitting them to spread to such a disastrous extent. They also expected to be furnished with a number of gratuitous and valuable suggestions, whereby, if adopted, the efficiency of the department might be enhanced to such a degree that conflagrations would become things of the past, and our department would furnish a model for all other cities to emulate.
“ But in all these expectations the committee are in candor compelled to admit that they were disappointed. The petitioners were present, Almost to a man, before the close of the hearing, and were individually invited to make Any criticisms that they wished to make concerning either the management or working of the department, and submit such suggestions as occurred to them for increasing its efficiency and securing the best results with the material at hand.
“ The committee, instead of restricting an expression of opinion from the public, freely invited it, and even went so far as to compel the attendance of all persons who had openly complained of the efficiency of the fire department. Accordingly, they feel that if the testimony submitted has any appearance of being either one-sided or unfair, it was not brought about by any effort, or lack of effort, on their part. The expert testimony, it is true, comes largely from memliers of our own department, but the committee can sec no objection to it on that account. These men are surely honest and sincere in their opinions, and if they are not qualified to give expert testimony, the committee are not aware to whom they should apply for such testimony,
** So far as the department itself is concerned, the committee believe that any fair-minded person, on reviewing the testimony, will admit that the investigation has resulted very decidedly to its advantage. It shows that if is composed of brave and faithful men. commanded by an experienced and efficient chief, with its affairs administered ami maintained by a board of commissioners of unquestioned honesty, excellent judgment, and who have the city’s interest solely and entirely in view. It includes in its equipment apparatus of the most modern and improved pattern, and the most powerful that can be procured. In its equipment and working the committee confidently claim that the Boston department will not suffer by comparison with any other department in the country, upon whatever basis such comparison may be made.
“ The committee feel called upon, in justice to the chief of the fire department, to refute certain statements made in the newspapers which reflect upon his character in a manner entirely uncalled for and undeserved. The statements were to the effect that the chief had been seen in a beer saloon eating and drinking and having a good time, to the neglect of his duty. The character and habits of the chief have not hitherto been made the subject of criticism, and the unjust slur upon his character which the committee refer to would, in all probability, never have appeared except upon the principle that when a man is under fire his enemies seek an opportunity to assist in the attack. The only basis for the slander—for such the committee consider it—exists in the fact that Chief Webber has been in the habit of taking some of his meals at a well known restaurant on Avery street, on account of its proximity to his headquarters. He goes there publicly and openly, and can while there be readily and quickly summoned in time of fire, or whenever his presence is required. It is not an unusual thing for him to receive visits from members of other fire departments and officials from other cities, who are interested in the department, and apply to him for information concerning it, or an opportunity to witness its practical working, These gentlemen he has been in the habit of entertaining at his own expense in a simple manner, according to his means, at the restaurant referred to. They are undoubtedly invited to exercise their tastes and preferences in the choice of food and drink, and a decent and respectable interchange of common hospitality has become the foundation for an unwarranted and unjust attack upon the personal habits and character of the chief. It is proper to state in this connection that no such criticism was made at the hearing before the committee, the comment there referring only to his management of fires, and the extent to which he should be held accountable for the results. On this matter the committee do not admit that the results should be taken at all times as a fair and proper measure of the ability of the chief, for the reason that there may be, and almost invariably are, circumstances connected with every fire which he could not have foreseen or controlled, and which should be carefully considered before the chief should be subjected to criticism or censure. In the committee’s opinion the present chief is, in respect of experience and capability, the equal of any official in the country holding a like position.
“ The management of fires, or what is more familiarly termed * fire fighting,’ has been made the subject of some discussion during the course of the investigation, and various theories have been advanced relative to the proper method of procedure by the department when an extensive conflagration is in progress.
‘* It is true that these theories and suggestions are presented after the fire has occurred, and their value may be determined in the future when another fire breaks out; but this fact did not deter a number of the critics of the department from ventilating in the newspapers and before the committee their infallible theories, many of them evolved undoubtedly in comfortable offices, often in a spirit of prejudice and unsupported by actual experience.
” The idea of laying down certain fixed rules for attacking and subduing fires seems to your committee very absurd. There can be no settled rules for fighting fires ; the difficulty being that no rules would apply in the same manner in any two particular instances. There are always circumstances connected with each fire that the firemen must apprehend or be governed by, immediately upon their arrival on the scene of action.
“ For these reasons none but those accustomed to fire fighting can, as a rule, pass a judgment upon the management of any particular fire that is entitled to serious consideration, and with respect to the fires that came up for review in this investigation, expert testimony has been conspicuous by its absence. Such as the committee has been able to obtain, whether from in town or out of town, has been a vindication of the methods and conduct of the department. Laymen have found the holes cut in the wall at the Hecht fire, for more direct attack upon the seat of it, a favorite topic of criticism. Hut it transpires that cutting holes under proper safeguards has been a common custom among the most successful fire fighters in the prominent cities of this country, and that results have shown the wisdom of it.
*’ The idea of a one-headed commission is not a new one, but it has usually emanated from theorists, and has not been approved by the judgment of practical fire fighters or those experienced in the management of fire departments.
** In the first place, nothing would be gained on the score of economy, at least in the city of Boston, even if the salary of the one commissioner was no larger than that paid now to each of the board of three. The extra deputy and clerical force necessary would easily make up the difference, and to a much greater extent would this be true with the salary fixed at more than two-thirds the amount now paid for the commissioners’ services.
“Certainly one man could not cover, and cover thoroughly, the work now j>erformed by three, no matter how ingenious a system he might he able to formulate, and to delegate the special duties now attended to by members of the board to subordinates would have a tendency to produce inferior service, whatever might be the result as regards concentration of responsibility. At the present time each member of the board is equally responsible for the acts of the whole, because every measure affecting the department must have the approval of all. On general principles, the carefully considered ideas of three men ought to produce better results than the unaided and unchallenged judgment of one.
“Our present Board of Fire Commissioners is strictly nonpanisan. It keeps the department out of politics as far as possible. It shows political favors to no one. Its rules against taking part in politics are strict, and any infringement of them is punished, if known, no matter what side it may favor. A one-headed commission would give a much better opportunity to make a political machine of the department. There would be a constant temptation and pressure in that direction which do not exist now, and cannot exist under present conditions. All these reasons seem conclusive that a change such as is proposed would be inadvisable from every point of public policy.
“Under the head of new apparatus, etc., the committee recommend, for repairs, new apparatus, alterations, the purchase of land for new buildings, etc., the expenditure of $285,900.
“The criticism in regard to hose the committee consider unfair and not warranted by the facts, for the reason that the commissioners testify that they purchase only the first quality of hose. It is carefully inspected, and rejected whenever it becomes defective or shows signs of wear. The system made use of in the department for testing hose seems reliable and sufficient, and the committee do not know how it can be improved upon.
“ The amount of premiums received in New York during ten years has been about $65,000,000 ; the losses paid out by the insurance companies for the same period have been over $44,000,000. The premiums received in Chicago for the same time have been between $35,000,000 and $36,000,000 ; the losses paid out by the insurance companies have been from $20,000,000 to $21,000,000. In Boston, for the last ten years, the premiums received by insurance companies have been about $24 000,000 ; the losses paid out by the companies during the same time have been about $12,000,000. In Brooklyn, St. Louis, Cincinnati and other large cities, the business of the insurance companies has been, in many cases, poorer than in the three cities we have cited.
“Boston insurance companies have lost fifty per cent of their premiums, New York sixty-six per cent, and Chicago sixty per cent. Our city, although the insurance rates are from twenty-five to forty per cent lower, has produced better results. We believe that this is, in great part, owing to the excellent work done by the fire department of Boston.
“ The inquiry of the committee, as before intimated, branched out in many directions, but upon the chief subject of their investigation—namely, the causes of fires—they were unable to obtain much exact or definite information. Accordingly, they have been compelled to draw their own conclusions from the testimony which was submitted. The causes of fire may be understood, or th?y may be various and difficult to discover ; but the serious results ensue from the spread of the flames from an insignificant blaze to a disastrous conflagration, so that, to the committee’s mind, the most important inquiry is not so much to determine the origin of the recent fires in our city as to discover how and from what causes they have spread with such extraordinary and uncontrollable rapidity, and, for a time, completely baffled and overcome the department in its efforts to subdue the flames. The real cause for this condition of things is not far to seek ; it comes undoubtedly from the erection of extensive and high buildings on our narrow streets, w’ithout sufficient regard for the building laws in their construction ; with immense undivided floor spaces, packed to the ceilings with inflammable goods of every kind ; meagre and insufficient and often total disregard of fire precautions ; buildings assumed to be fireproof, but, as a matter of fact, constructed very much on the principle of a blast furnace, with the fuel all laid within, and only waiting for the application of a match or a spark of fire to convert it into a roaring and resistless mass of flames, which must inevitably doom not only the building itself, but those in its vicinity, to destruction, despite the most heroic and determined efforts of the firemen. These are the causes which exist in our city, and which are occasioning the extensive and destructive fires in our midst, concerning which so much has been said and written of late.
“ Your committee, before concluding their report, desire to call upon all citizens to aid the fire department, so far as lies in their power, in exposing and suppressing the faulty construction and carelessness referred to, which the underwriters have countenanced and taken risks upon. The fire department should have the right to inquire into the manner in which underwriters place risks, and why they assume risks for owners and others who are careless and neglectful in guarding against fire. It is the hazardous and high-rate risks that should be inquired into—risks affording a large commission fee. The more hazardous the risk the higher the rate of premium, and, as a matter of course, the larger the commission, which is the incentive that actuates these men in the transaction of their business. The committee are informed that there are instances wh-’re insurance brokers assume risks and write policies upon property which they have never even seen or inspected. After the insurance broker places a risk his service generally ends, for he seldom visits a building afterward to see how the merchandise is stored or what amount of rubbish and refuse matter is allowed to accumulate in the attic or cellar, or whether any precautions are taken to guard against fire. No ! But when the fire does come it is the fire department that is blamed for not arresting its progress immediately, and the brokers, in order to cover up their own lack of judgment and shortsightedness, straightway proclaim that the fire department is inefficient and badly managed.
“ The committee has prepared orders providing for an appropriation of $70,00c to put the department on a permanent basis ; $285,900 for repairs, alterations, new apparatus, etc ; for free water in stand pipes and roof hydrants ; for action looking to the burial of wires’; for the shutting off of gas ; for increasing the water supply in the business sections ; for a more exact method of keeping accounts ; a system of inspection oik goods and storage, and more stringent fire lines.”
The report was accepted and the orders referred to proper committees.