THE FIRE HAZARD IN NEW YORK
In a paper on the subject of “The Conflagration Hazard in New York, printed in McClure’s Magazine, A. E. McFarland says:
The New York fire-alarm system is the worst in the United States. It was installed in 1869. Ninety per cent of it is in the exact pattern of that period; and most of the boxes are the original boxes. It is, practically speaking, forty-two years old. In cities like Rochester and Detroit the type has been super seded for a generation. The Gamewell Company, which installed its signal-boxs, gave up even making them years ago. The New York investigators began work in May, 1905. They found that in March, 1905, there had been 171 cases of “alarm troubles,” and March, they reported, was in no way exceptional. On an average, eight per cent, of the whole system was out of order all the time. On April 21 the severance of a cable left a quarter of Manhattan island without fire-alarm protection for an hour and forty minutes. The trouble, they found, came from two sources—the signalboxes and the wires. The antique signalboxes of New York, when they are opened, cause a gong to ring—an arrangement planned in 1869, to call attention to the ringing in of signals, and so prevent false alarms. But the fire alarm itself does not ring until a lever in the box is pulled. In a city like New York, where hundreds of thousands of people cannot read the English instructions on the boxes at all, the ordinary ringer of an alarm believes he has finished his work when he hears the ringing of the gong. But this is not his only chance of failure. On the inside of the box is a lever that must be pulled down to send in the alarm. But it must be pulled down all the way, it must not be held, and it must not be pulled twice, or the antiquated machinery will not do its work. After many bad fires, those who suffer swear that they sent in an alarm, and that for ten, fifteen, or twenty minutes— until other alarms were rung in—the firemen did not respond. But the fire-alarm boxes are no worse than the system of wires that connect them with fire headquarters. The investigators of 1905 started to follow the individual alarm wires out to the main cables. They found 77 per cent, without rubber insulation, protected only by some cheap and porous fabric. Many were carried in the same ducts with high tension light and power wires. In the section below Fifty-ninth street, where lies eighty-five per cent, of the property exposed to fire on Manhattan Island, the small branch cables are gathered into two main cables—one on the east side of the city, suspended from the Third avenue elevated railroad, one on the west, suspended from the Ninth avenue line. The protection of eleven hundred thou; sand people and nearly two billion dollars’ worth of property depends upon the Third avenue cable alone. In many cases it hung, and it hangs now, within a few inches of light and power wires. It lies within a few feet of the third rail of the elevated system. Where its first fastenings have rotted away, it is tied to its guide-wire by pieces of twine or old rope. In places it sags for forty, sixty, or even ninety feet. In 1905, in entering fire headquarters— as the investigating engineers pointed out—it was so exposed to electricity and imflammables that there was great danger lest New York’s principal fire-alarm cable might set fire to its fire department headquarters. The fire-alarm situation in New York was far worse than it was in Baltimore. For three years, in spite of all that insurance men could urge to better it, nothing of any sort was done; and in 1908 the Merchants Association of New York joined the underwriters in their atetmpts to secure a proper fire-alarm system. Their report was even more severe than that of 1905. Its summary description of the conditions of the firealarm system was adopted bodily from the report of 1905. It said, in part: “It has been found that the telgraph system of the Borough of Manhattan is fundamentally wrong in design and is in bad physical condition. It is not constructed in accordance with any proper engineering plans, and its physical condition is so bad that it must be characterized as being in an advanced stage of decay. The only remedy for the present state of affairs is to establish in the Borough of Manhatan a new firealarm system separate and distinct from the present one.” The last paragraph in the report of 1908 says: There is an imminent danger that, before a new system can be supplied, the present defective fire-alarm system may so delay the arrival of the department or throw it into such a headway as to get beyond control, and thus develop into a disastrous conflagration.
New York has office buildings enough. But in her typical twelve-story “lofts she has a kind of skyscraper containing a vastly greater quantity of combustibles than any office build jug The “loft” is factory and a warehouse Floor upon floor, its heavy work-tables and endless tiers of shelving, are piled high with everything that will burn, from celluloid to cotton And there are hundreds of these build ings. They surround the old wholesale district, the retail shopping district, the great hotels and theaters. The whole central district of New York—two miles long and two-thirds of a mile wide—is now known as the “loft zone . And it is rapidly penetrating the tenement districts. It is the loft building that would have one of the largest parts in burning New York. A building is allowed to mount one hundred and fifty feet in the air on the supposition that it is “fireproof that, in case ot fire, it can take care of itself. Far from being able to take care of themselves in a conflagration, New York’s “lofts’ cannot even take care of themself in ordinary fires. According to the New York building laws(, every loft, every loft window above the first floor, when it is within thirty feet of any other building, should be provided with fireproof shutters. As was the case in San Francisco, even this measure of safety is in general disregarded; or common iron shutters are used, which are almost worthless. By law, the loft building must have a four-inch standpipe, an adequate roof tank to supply it, a cellar engine to keep the roof tank full, and hose on every floor for the use of the fire department. When the ten story Asch Building loft burned in New York, and one hundred and forty-six factory girls lost their lives, the heat cracked the iron pipe from the roof tank and let all the water out. And, until the firemen learned what had taken place, it was of no avail for the high-pressure system to pump water into the stand-pipe from the street. Until the upper valves could be shut off, the water simply “geysered” out through the break at the top. For the most part, the hose hung up in these buildings is of such a quality that no New York fireman will for a moment trust it. Every company takes two coiled lengths along with it and laboriously carries them up by hand to the seat; of the lire. By law, there must be one elevator in service for the firemen, in case of fire by night; but this law is not enforced. And the fireman trusts the tank on the roof as little as the hose. He knows that to be sure of anything he must attach an engine or a high-pressure pipe to the connection that leads to the standpipe in the street, and from the beginning find the supply of water himself. And here, again, time after time he is baffled. I he cap ends on these connections are supposed to be removed and tested at regular intervals by the engineer or superintendent of the building. As a matter of fact, so firmly are many of them rusted on that often, to use them at all, the fireman has to break them with the back of an ax. This is equally true of most of New York’s skyscrapper apartment-houses. And even in the finest and highest office buildings of the financial district conditions are not much better. It is not so long since, in a fire in one of the most famous of them, the firemen could neither get water down from the roof tanks nor up from the street.
All those who have to do with the twelvestory loft know what it is. The insurance company that risks five thousand dollars on any floor below the sixth will, at most, risk only three thousand above the tenth; and, as was brought out in the testimony of George W. Haves, in some cases they will risk nothing at all. The professional incendiary has learned what opportunities they offer. He is leaving his old warehouse rookeries; for his purposes the upper stories of the loft building are both surer and safer, it is supposed by many that New York’s steel-frame factories and warehouses would in some way constitute fire barriers for the city. No expert believes this. “Almost all of them are at least conflagration feeders, ’ said Captain Sewell to the writer, “and many of them would be conflagration breeders.” In October, 1910, at a meeting of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, they were made a subject of discussion by Professor Ira H. Woolson, for twenty years head of the fire-testing laboratory of Columbia University, and at present chief engineering adviser of the National Board of Fire Underwriters. “This type of building.” he said, “would offer very little resistance to a conflagration. Blasts of hot air from near-by burning buildings would ignite the window frames and break the windows in a whole front at once. Under such conditions, complete destruction would be certain. Whether the occupancy was domestic or commercial in character, the buildings would burn with equal fierceness.