THE FIRE NATION
It is with a feeling of considerable diffidence that I venture before this distinguished audience of scientific fire protectionists for the purpose of making protest, as the representative of my great organization, against the extravagant offerings which the American people are daily making upon the altar of Vulcan. In casting about for a subject, I accidentally discovered that the French, at the time they with several other nations, were venturing upon the soil of newly discovered America, fell in with a tribe of Algonquin Indians, whose speciality must have been juggling with fire, for the French promptly christened them “The hire Nation.” While ;t is said that that tribe is practically extinct, I believe there must be a strain of their blood filtering through the veins of us Americans, for today it would be proper that we be known as “The Fire Nation,” outstripping as we do every civilized and uncivilized peoples of the world in our sacrifices to fire. Recognizing that I can add nothing to the great cause which has brought us together by attempting to discuss its problems along technical lines, but feeling that the work of the association I have the honor to represent will interest you so far as it touches that of your own association, I will endeavor without, I trust, any vainglory, briefly but carefully to review what we have attempted in the direction of educating business men, whether members of our association or not, as to the necessity of protecting themselves against fire loss, as well as in arousing them to the fact that they, through contributory negligence, are largely responsible for the major part of the national ash heap. The National Association of Credit Men is of about the same age as your association, but strangely enough, each of us existed for a dozen years before discovering the value of one to the other in making cause against that which perhaps more than any other physical fact is tending to impoverish the nation, or at least to hold it back from its rightful sphere of power and influence. The fundamental object of the National Association of Credit Men is to improve conditions in credit granting, which at the time of its forination were far from satisfactory. Fifteen years ago the nations was in the balance as to the comparative importance of manufactures and trade as against agriculture, with the pendulum swinging slowly but surely toward the two first named. Such conditions meant that the methods of doing business were being readjusted. It was at this time that the credit man, as the responsible head of one of the distinct departments of a house, first made his appearance in the business world and rapidly became an indispensable factor therein, specializing in the field of credit just as you gentlemen specialize in the field of fire protection. With the advent of this new functionary, whose duty it is all the time to lay his finger upon the weak spots in commerce, little time was lost in discovering that among the many and complex items going to make up the determination of credit standing, none appeared to have received less attention than that of fire insurance. If some houses here and there had given consideration to this element of credit, they had not created any deep impression, because here, in unusual degree, it is a fact that individual effort counts for little, but much can be accomplished where united effort intelligently applied is direeled against unsatisfactory conditions. The first venture we made as an association into this field was in attempting to impress upon our members the necessity of knowing something about the fire insurance habits of their customers. We urged that when they asked for a statement of a man’s financial condition, specific information be required as to the extent he protected his business with fire insurance. In many instances this line of inquiry has gone into such detail as to include the names of the companies writing the risk, for in proportion to values involved, the credit grantor is as interested in the soundness of his debtor’s fire insurance as the debtor himself. Taking advantage of the best means at hand to assist him in his educational work, the credit man added to the salesman’s already multitudinous duties that of inquiring about his customers’ insurance, and instructed him as to the line of information he particularly wanted.
Address delivered at the fifteenth annual meeting of the National Fire Protection Association in New York,
May 24, 1911.
Again, the credit man bethought himself of the mercantile agencies, enlisting them in the effort to rouse up those who slumber in the feeling that they are immune from the ravages of fire. Where entire absence of insurance or a dangerous inefficiency was found, the facts were reported to the association, which undertook, through a process of education, consisting of a series of letters written by credit men, to show the delinquent the necessity of protecting his cred t through carrying reliable fire insurance of a proper amount. While some results followed such efforts, they were, as was to be expected, desultory. The next step carried us a little farther, for we undertook to analyze the local causes which were often responsible for the absence of insurance, and in some cases endeavored to bring together the seller and the would-be buyer. Here obstacles of a serious nature, generally speaking, confronted us. Towns and villages were found to be provided with little or no protection against fire, where a 60-mile gale ought to cause every inhabitant a sleepless night, for an outbreak of fire would have acted like a Hash of powder in a pan. In such towns, merchants complained that insurance cost them too much to protect themselves amply. We found, for the most part, that the people had grown careless and indifferent to their surroundings, and worst of all, we were forced to combat ignorance on the part of those who represented fire insurance companies. I refer especially to rural districts, although the same conditions existed all over in a greater or less degree; butchers, bakers, constables, justices of the peace, jack-leg lawyers, superannuated preachers, and even undertakers, besides most of the derelicts of tile community, were sellers of fire insurance. Policies were bought from those who knew less of their contents than the buyer. It was simply a case of “in ignorance there is bliss.” Through the intelligent work of your great association, and through other forces at work, one of these causes of complaint is being gradually overcome and the insurance agent of to-day is, at least to some degree, an improvement over those of a decade ago. The fact is, that the insurance companies have come, in the last few years, to see the “handwriting on the wall,” and have adopted more rigorous rules in accrediting their agents than formerly, and the brainy leaders in policy writing see that they no longer can afford to write policies at the highest rate obtainable, but must act in an advisory capacity, suggesting changes to their clients which, if adopted, will lead to a material reduction in premium rates. This is the new interpretation of the agent’s place in affairs, ft is another exposition of the big, broad-minded way of doing modern business that is taking hold of men’s minds, the large business, with well-developed service but of small profits. On the side of services for the company, the better kind of agent is careful in placing business, careful in considering the financial responsibility there is behind the policy, as well as in seeing that the evil of over insurance, with its attendant temptations, is minimized. He casts oil upon the troubled waters when disagreements occur and this new type of agent has undoubtedly changed the feeling of the distrust which many in the past unfortunately held toward the insurance business in general. At the convention of 1007, the National Association of Credit Men gave special attention to the methods of vending insurance, the conclusion being that because the policy holder looks up to the agent, follows his advice and accepts the policy he offers at its face value, it is of the highest importance to the solution of our fire insurance and fire waste problems that agents as a class be better informed as to modern protection and the judicial interpretation of policy conditions which are vital in properly advising and protecting clients. While the agitation for licensing agents under the state is intended as a step in this direction, a bill to this effect being. I understand, before the Legislature of one state, the problem can be reached swiftly and simply by the companies and the better class of agents, backed up by such organizations as yours and mine working together to raise the standards and to keep out those unfitted to vend insurance. In this effort to professionalize, so to speak, the agent’s work, special attention ought to be given to the advantages the agent has to become a factor in bringing about the general adoption of fire prevention and protection measures.
At our convention of 1909, the fire insurance committee brought forward a recommendation which seems to me to be so practical that it should enlist the earnest attention of your association. The committee had been investigating the matter of rates, and in doing so had its attention drawn to the local rating bureaus of the insurance companies, and was led to conclude that these bureaus should be turned into active fountains of information which should shower their benefits upon their respective communities. The committee felt that these bureaus, in charge of intelligent, enthusiastic men, could become positive active forces for improved conditions, first in individual cases, and then generally, because every individual improvement means district improvement. These bureaus could point out the sore spots in the community and suggest the proper kind of treatment; yet it was found in a great many cases that they were presided over by individuals whose chief function appeared to he to thumb over mechanically a mass of papers, and who had no ability to grasp the big meaning they contained. We have endeavored to get our members to insist that the insurance companies change conditions where weakness such as we have described prevails. I ask if this may not be another point where our two associations cun work profitably together. Each successive year we have urged that so far as possible our members get into the problem of fire insurance and fire waste first hand, by taking charge of the insurance of their concerns and thus giving this question that painstaking, analytical study which the credit man is trained to give all matters with which he grapples. As an example of the application of intelligence and diligence to fire protection in an individual house, I believe you would find interesting, as I have, the report of one of the leading members of the Credit Men’s Association, of his efforts to strengthen conditions at his plant. This man evidently realized that the destruction of a plant cannot he compensated for by insurance, but that the demoralization which follows in the wake of fire brings losses which are irreparable. He says for many years his concern occupied as co-tenant one half of a large building located in the “congested district” of his city. The building had been erected as strictly fireproof—as such construction was understood at the time of building. Between the two tenants was a division wall with no openings, so that the hazard of one tenant did not affect that of the other. Care was taken to provide fire shutters for the three exposed sides. Each floor was equipped with extinguishers, barrels, pails, fire fighting and fire preventing devices, but it was not a sprinkler risk, and because the owners of the building refused to make it so, the concern decided to build a factory for itself. In doing so the purpose was to provide the best fire risk that the location would permit, for the business could not well be taken from the socalled “congested district.” Our member says that nothing was spared in the erection of the new building which would help reduce fire hazards. All windows on exposed sides were equipped with wired glass and metal frames. The elevator wells and stairway areas were placed on opposite sides of the building and protected with brick walls, and all openings protected by standard fire doors. The building throughout was equipped with the sprinkler system, each floor having its separate cut-off, so that in the event of leakage it would be necessary only to abandon sprinkler protection on that particular floor, while repairs were progressing. Electric power was used, but the heating plant was installed in the sub-basement, and entirely protected with brick. Our member says that the owners of the business gave him free hand to install other improvements, and lie decided to erect a standpipe equipped with 50 feet of hose on each floor, carry it to the roof, where a twin coupling of standard size was attached with 100 feet of standard fire hose, interchangeable with the city equipment, in order that fire in an adjacent building might he fought from the roof. This provision, he says, has already proved wise, fire having been fought in a building across the street by using these twin couplings. The number of extinguishers requested by the board of underwriters has been installed, the members making it a rule to cooperate rather than oppose, when suggestions which seem reasonable are made, and the adoption of which would appear to make the risk better.
Not satisfied with the mere installation of the sprinkler system, out member made it his bus.ness to familiarize himself with all its mechanical parts and had every man of authority in the plant become equally familiar with it. A chart of the system was prepared for reference, and to fix the various devices, valves, etc., firmly in the minds of all concerned. It occurred also to our member that printed tags explaining the purpose and manner of using the valves, cut-offs, drain cocks, etc., would facilitate the use of the apparatus when suddenly needed. Therefore a tag explaining the use of each device in connection with the sprinkler system, wa., attached thereto, with printed instructions where necessary. On each floor, over the main aisles and cross-aisles, were hung signs pointing in the direction of the sprinkler cut-offs, so that in case of confusion from fire or a leakage, there would be no waste of time in finding the main supply valve. Precaution was taken to add outside sprinklers, which, by the way, were not required by the state board of underwriters, and our member says lie has made it his business to take charge of all tests of these sprinklers, in order to become thotoughly familiar with every device. Another precaution was taken in the shape of inviting the captain and his men from the nearest fire house to inspect the plant and become thoroughly familiar with its interior and particularly with its fire prevention devices.
In connection with the sprinkler system, attention was directed to the matter of watchman service, which was found to be a difficult question until it was decided to install the supervisory alarm system approved by the National Hoard of Fire Underwriters, which connects the plant with the local office of the American District Telegraph Company, which will know immediately of any flow of water caused either by leakage or fire, the lowering of water in the tank below a certain point, the flow of water into the tank above a certain point, the temperature, whether too low or too high, or the tampering with valves anywhere in the building. This was felt to be better than a watchman, who may not be where needed when accident occurs. The supervisory alarm system is required to be inspected and tested weekly, and our member requires that a signed report of each inspection be laid before him. By this system, it is not necessary to have valves either locked or strapped open, for it is positively known if they are open, for if one were closed, there would be a signal to that effect, so that there cannot be any tampering with the various devices of the system anywhere in the building without knowledge thereof. Our member says that the best result of the pains taken thus far is that there is a feeling of security, which has been purchased at the expenditure of a nominal sum. He says that if business men would hut awaken to the value in comfort and dollars of going to the pains his concern has, rates would not only be decreased, but the danger ot a business or a city becoming wrecked by fire would cease. Another restdt to which he calls attention is that he has established so high a grade of insurance risk that he is able to die tate somewhat as to lines of insurance he will accept, the size of his policies and the companies he will insure in. This remarkable illustration, which it has given me much pleasure to present, is in refreshing contrast to the opposition whicn has arisen so vociferously in New York City against all efforts to force the installation of sprinklers in our factory plants where tens 01 thousands of human beings work amid conditions of unspeakable danger, hundreds of feet above the pavement, and that, too, with the horrors of the Washington place holocaust, but a matter of yesterday. It is devoutly to be hoped that the officials who have command of the situation will allow nothing to unstiffen their backbone and thus forestall a repetition of one of the most horrible disasters that has ever visited this great metropolis. Now, while there arc few business men who will take the great pains that were taken by this member whom I have described, no one will question that the number is increasing and will go on increasing still faster than at present. To-day, as Secretary Wentworth has said, this member is indeed a “bright star in the mercantile firmament,” but I believe in a feuyears’ time it is going to be possible to discover many other just such bright stars, and that if our associations keep patiently at work along the lines they have laid down for themselves, there will be legions of them before many years. You can see clearly enough that if the intelligent efforts of which I have given an illustration could be given a wider application, that is, if a group of like-minded men could be induced to apply corresponding efforts to the improvement of the conditions of an entire community, one of the greatest advances conceivable would be made in solving the problems which our two associations are working upon, and it is just such groups of men that our association has been trying t i develop in the last year. One of the things which has helped us most, and I believe it has become a very important feature of our work, has been to be put in a position to distribute the literatuie issued by your own association and the reports of the National Board of Fire Underwriters. We have taken these invaluable underwriters’ reports on the various cities of the country as the special foundation of our efforts. We found that the public knew little or nothing regarding them, though prepared at great cost. We have urged that the fire insurance committees of our 70 or more affiliated branches endeavor by every means in their power to get other local business organizations to join them in advancing the recommendations made in these reports to the end that in every center of trade there be developed a wellinformed earnest body of workers zealous to protect their city from such ravages as Chelsea and Bangor suffered. We entered into an arrangement with the National Board of Fire Underwriters to secure copies of all their latest reports on cities where we were interested to the extent of having members. These reports were distributed, together with a recommendation that their contents be carefully considered and that the influence of the members be used to bring about the adoption of the recommendations contained in them. We have also received reports on cities where we are without a membership connection, and in such cases have gone so far as to place them in the hands of the Chamber of Commerce, Board of Trade or some representative citizen. We have also entered the field of literature ourselves, having prepared and published a series of six pamphlets under the title of “Burning Subject.” In these pamphlets we have endeavored to treat in the simplest and fairest possible manner the most important points regarding insurance. We argued:
In the first pamphlet for sufficient insurance, they key-word being, “insure and do it now— otherwise your assets to-day may be cinders tomorrow.”
In the second—that the merchant know the conditions of his policy, the key being, “Before the fire is the time to get out your policies and see that they fit the risk, for after the fire they are unalterable.”
In the third—for a knowledge of the company’s standing, the key being, ‘Insurance companis have character just as men have.”
In the fourth—rate making is explained, the key being, “Companies are apt to allow conditions to remain as they are in those communities which blindly demand lower rates and treat suggestions for improvement as impertinent interference.”
In the fifth—the subject of fire waste is the theme, the key being, “Must every town and city have a rude awakening before it will enforce precautionary measures ?”
In the sixth important policy clauses are set out and defended, the key being, “Your policy is a contract full of conditions. Your duty is to know the contract and to know that you are living by its terms.”
But, of more effect than reams of literature spread broadcast among business men has been the opportunity given them to get into touch with the man whose name comes to every mind in considering the fire waste problem, through the tour arranged by the National Association of Credit Men for your brilliant secretary, Franklin H. Wentworth.
Our part was to prepare for Mr. Wentworth’s coming to each city by engaging the fire insurance committee of each of our local associations in the work of preparing for meetings by bringing together members of Chambers of Commerce, Board of Trade, and all local organizations generally, to meet Mr. Wentworth and hear his vivid description of the frightful conditions existing in practically all American cities and learn the way out from those conditions. Everywhere Mr. Wentworth went he produced upon his audiences a profound impression which, if followed up. will go a long way toward arousing business men to the opportunity they have to serve themselves and their communities by creating safer conditions for life and property. It is my sincere hope that the two associations may again join hands during the coming year in this magnificent work which we were privileged to undertake together this year. The fire insurance committee of the National Association of Credit Men has for several years been gathering information regarding the workings of the fire marshal’s department, and after being convinced of the possibilities of that department and of the fact that the state ought to take official cognizance of the evil of preventable fire waste, ami exercise its great police authority to cope with it, the committee has asked the conventions of the last three years to urge our affiliated branches to work for the law in the various states. The association recognizes that the law is objected to in some quarters because political influences have been allowed to prostitute the department in some cases, but this fact, to our mind, is not sufficient to condemn the law, for certainly in some states the beneficient results which may flow from the careful administration of the fire marshal law are not hard to find. In such states it is found that the department has accomplished much in protecting life and property, and the association feels that it is justified in working vigorously for the adoption of the fire marshal law in every state, as one of the means given us to reduce fire losses, and at least as providing a channel through which organized bodies of citizens can urge the removal of bad conditions. The fact that in twelve states bills to establish the fire marshal’s department, in four of which success resulted, has given my association considerable encouragement and perhaps quite as encouraging has been the fact that superintendents of insurance and insurance investigators, notably in Illinois and New York, have come out flatly in endorsement of the fire marshal law. Your own association has already declared itself favorable, and we may well work together to the end that, at least in those states where property values are largest, there shall be given the protection which comes from a well-conducted lire marshal department. I have given you briefly an idea as to the manner the National Association of Credit Men has approached the same great problem your association is grappling with so intelligently. In the conclusion of my talk let me catalog the specific lines of effort which my association has pursued and is pursuing, nationally and through its many local branches. It has been our endeavor: First. —To get business men to approach the questions of fire waste and fire insurance with earnestness, but with fair and open mind; to dispel that prejudice which the buyer of insurance has too generally had against those who make insurance their business. This we consider fundamental to all progress. Second.—To make clear that as an essential element of credit, business men must carry insurance of proper amount and understand the provisions of heir policies. Third.—To insist that the state supervision of insurance shall be as strict as possible, in order to protect the public against the sale of policies by unsound companies, and that insurance departments shall be free from political domination. Fourth. We have considered the methods of vending insurance, and urged that without legal compulsion companies lay down more rigid rules as to the qualification of their agents. Fifth.The association has made earnest efforts to arouse business men to a sense of their individual responsibility in the country’s fire waste problem, has urged its local associations of credit men all over the United States to give their attention to the recommendations of the engineers of the National Board of l Fire Underwriters upon their respective communities to the end that they shall be adopted, and has urged them also to insist that proper building laws and ordinances shall be enacted, and that efficient salvage corps be created in order that American cities may be made safer places in which to live and to do business. Sixth.—The association has, through its widely distributed literature, spread the gospel of the safety match. Seventh. -It has urged that rating bureaus of the insurance com panics shall be so organized as to become positive forces for reducing fire waste. Eighth.—It has used all the influence it could command to arrest fire waste through the establishment in every state of a fire marshal department. Ninth.It has urged its leading members in various parts of the country to equip themselves to address meetings and conventions of retailers with a view to introducing better conditions, particularly in the smaller town and cities of the country, most of which are ill prepared to battle with the flames.