The Fire Service.
The situation that confronts me, according to the preannounced programme of this convention, is not without its embarrassments to a modest man. I have found, since it was too late to gracefully withdraw, that I am expected to enter into competition, that can be little less than ruinous to me, with gentlemen of rare and universally acknowledged gifts and accomplishments as platform orators. It would be a serious loss to you, but great good fortune for me, were these gentlemen to have imperative engagements elsewhere to-day. Yet that is not the only obstacle, and possibly it is not the greatest, in the way of success in the part assigned me. I come before you an official whose functions are in a very large degree administrative. To justify my acceptance of your kindness and hospitality, and the honor that you have conferred upon me, I ought to be able to develop some new and valuable theories, and add something to the sum of those ideas which are constantly contributing to the advancement of those important public interests which we are assembled to seriously consider. Yet I cannot forget that I am addressing a grand and representative aggregation of executive talent—men of mechanical genius, of long and wide experience, and of conceded skill in the fire department service of the Commonwealth. In many of the practical details of the business you are my masters, and I feel that it would be more becoming injne to humbly bow to your superior wisdom than to assume to furnish you instruction or profound edification. But while the position is not one of my own seeking, I appreciate and respect and am grateful for the courtesy which has brought me here, and which seemed so like a summons to duty, that I did not feel privileged to disregard it.
I shall not attempt to pose as a heavy-weight in the topical discussions of this gathering, I shall rather confine myself to the restatement of an old but an important truth, and shall be satisfied if l can impart to it any fresh vitality and emphasis. Our failures, not only in the fire department, but in all the relations of life, are due more to our forgetfulness or neglect of old and well-established truths than to our inability to uncover those that still lie concealed. You have seen a single tuft of thistle-down floating through the amber-tinted ether of a September afternoon, and it seems a very inconsequential force, an impotent factor in our system of social economy. But finally it alights in a fertile meadow ; the dainty germ expands, and sends out roots that take a firm hold upon the soil ; the vigorous plant charges bayonets upon the tender vegetation around it, until it occupies the land and defies dislodgement. If I can set free upon its winged way a single feathery atom of truth that shall find welcome and nurture in the minds of any here, I shall not feel that I have altogether wasted your time or my own.
The social incidents of these conventions are very pleasant features, and possibly indispensable to the maintenance of your organization. Still the serious business of this occasion is, or ought to be, the discussion of such measures as shall render the fire departments of the .State more efficient in their respective fields, and add to their dignity and standing. No thirty-nine articles bound or formulate my faith in the genius of progress as manifested in the improved fire service of the commonwealth and the country. My confession is broader than Augsburg, more comprehensive than Westminster. I believe in an ample and concentrated water supply for every city and town ; I believe in the light and powerful modern steam engine, even in our large cities ; I believe in chemical engines as light skirmishers, spark chasers and preventatives of much water loss ; I believe in aerial ladders, water towers and fire boats where there is a water front to defend ; I believe that every department should be brought under a strict and inflexible system of discipline ; I believe in shut-off nozzles and relief valves ; I believe in hose wagons as substitutes for the old and cumbersome carts and carriages ; I believe in jumping nets, and in every practical device for the saving of life ; I believe in stimulating to the utmost the inventive genius and the restless enthusiasm that are adding so much to our equipment, and promise so much for the future—but above and beyond everything else I believe in men. We welcome the better methods of fire fighting that have come into use. Improved appliances are important. But unless they are in the hands of the right kind of men, appliances and methods, like faith without works, are dead and valueless, and they must remain so until invention reaches such a height that our fire departments will work automatically.
* Address by Hon. Robert G. Fitch of the Board of Fire Commissioners of Boston, before the Massachusetts State Firemen’s Association aFHaverhill, September, 1888.
In the beginning of that struggle, whose conclusion made us a nation, there were given at I^xington and Concord striking illustrations of the value of men depending upon the might of their own just and lofty purposes and the strength of their principles, but practically deprived of those artificial resources upon which their oppressors relied, ami which at that time were the latest product of the world’s civilization. War had been invoked, and the welcome adage of white-winged peace hail to be reversed. The pruning hooks were turned into spears. No dazzling scarlet covered the sturdy forms of the colonial defenders ; no emblazoned banners waved above them. Their uniforms were the hoine-spun of the fields and shops ; their bayonets were pitchforks ; their batteries were the old fowling pieces and the muskets that had, perhaps, seen service in the French and Indian wars. Yet—
” You know the rest ; in the books you have read,
How the British regulars fired and fled;
How the farmers gave them ball for ball,
From behind each fence and farm-yard wall—
Chasing the red coats down the lane,
Then crossing the fields, to emerge again
Under the trees at the turn of the road,
And only pausing to fire and load.”
The poet who listened to the landlord’s tale seized the sword that had been in the fight and hung on the walls of the wayside inn, and said :
“ It is the sword of a good knight,
Though home-spun was his coat-of-mail.
What matter though it be not named
Joyeuse, Colado, Durindale,
Excalaber or Aroundight,
Or other names the books record.
Your ancestor who bore this sword
As colonel of the volunteers,
Mounted upon his old gray mare.
Seen here, and there, ami everywhere,
To me a grander shape appears
Than old Sir William, or what not,
(.’linking about in foreign lands,
With iron gauntlets on his hands.
And on his head an iron pot.”
Pardon this little digression. The age of the story seems to me to detract nothing from its moral, which applies as well to the men who constitute our fire departments as to unorganized bands of patriots a hundred year* and more ago. We want brave ami manly men. Our lire departments are no places for drunkards or dullards, or drones, or skulkers, or slanderers, or conspirators, or mischief-makers of any kind. Give me men who respect themselves and respect others. By a self-respecting man I do not mean one who has been in the department a month, and feels that he knows more and deserves lictter than the veteran. That is not self-respect, but self-deception. I mean a man who feels and knows that he is trying to act a man’s part in whatever position he may be placed ; whose purposes and ambitions w ill stand the test of his introspective gaze, and satisfy his conscience ami his higher ideals. Give us men of that stamp, backed by the certificates of honest and competent physicians, and we can afford to dispense with all the civil service rules that were ever formulated. They may not be able, on the first trial, to successfully perform the monkey trick of pulling themselves from the earth to the eaves on a dangling rope. They may lack many other simian accomplishments. According to the most exact classic standards, their waist girth may be a sixteenth of an inch scant in proportion to their height. Their limbs may not conform strictly to the lines of perfection upon which the Apollo Belvedere was chiseled, they may not serve as the best models for either the tailor or the sculptor; but when the fire alarm sends forth its dread warning you will find them on the ground, showing themselves able and valiant defenders of your lives and property.
An adequate physique is the first requisite of a worker in this service. Without it no one can hope to succeed as a fireman, no matter how well disposed toward the business he may be. But even with that point settled, we have not yet attained our object. He is as yet but the machine. He must have character and courage as well. Without these qualities, though he be perfect in every muscle and member, he is as valueless as a locomotive without steam. There is everything in the associations of a good fire department to strengthen and quicken the higher attributes of humanity. A spirit of comradeship and of emulation prevails that ought to lift even the average man to a higher level. The fireman who is not stimulated by these influences, who plots to lay upon the shoulders of his fellows the duties and responsibilities that belong to himself, who is a shirk in quarters, a coward at fires and a fomenterof strife and discontent everywhere, proves himself as mean a man as ever sought the devil’s aid to beat his way into a noble organization for selfish and dishonest purposes. But show me (he fireman who is always cheerful and obedient, who acknowledges duty as his master, who regards his uniform at all times as a robe of dignity and honor, which he is as careful to keep unsullied as the judge is his ermine, and I will show you as good a citizen and as good a soldier as ever came from the omnipotent hand of God.
But you will say it is comparatively easy to state what a good fireman should be, and ask how this ideal is to be attained. I confess that that is the problem. Still, we should not be entirely discouraged. The first thing is to establish proper standards, and then come as near to them as possible. I believe that if these standards were always borne in mind, there would be fewer glaring departures from them than is now the case, though 1 maintain no State in the Union can show a more creditable average in this respect than the State of Massachusetts. We arc none of us infallible judges of human nature. We arc all liable to inaccuracies as character readers. The most reliable signs will sometimes deceive. But let us start right, and go right as far as we can. Examine your candidate well, if he is new to you. Ix>ok into his eye and see whether it is frank, and clear, and honest, or shrinking and mean. Sec if his hands bear the traces of duty. Perhaps it would be well to turn him around and see whether the seat or the front of his pantaloons is the more worn. Learn, so far as you can, what his record may have been in a less pretentious calling ; for if a man has been untrue in a humbler duty, he is not likely to prove staunch in a higher one. See what use he has made of small opportunities, and you may judge of the manner in which he will handle larger ones. You have, doubtless, all heard of the rural swain who fell in love w’ith a neighboring farmer’s daughter, and went up one evening after chores to ask the old gentleman for her hand. The task was a new and difficult one for him, and he picked up a stick of the morning’s kindling wood from behind the fireplace, and whittled, and whittled, anil talked on indifferent subjects for an hour or so. Finally, when he had whittled the stick down to the last fragment, and covered the family hearthstone with chips and shavings, he mustered courage to ask the momentous question. The old Ilian’s reply was : “ I’ve watched ye while
ye’ve been working on that stick, and if you had made anything out of it, you might have had my daughter ; hut you hain’t made so much as a cider-plug, or even a toothpick, and you can’t hev her.” I think the old farmer’s horse-sense might adopted with profit by those to whom belongs the duty of selecting men for our findepartments. Study the motives of applicants. Encourage enthusiasm. Distrust greed. Strive to make merit the test. Put no man on simply liecattse his friends think the department would be an easy and profitable place for him. Leave politics out of the question. Make men feel that their own merit is the key to unlock their destiny, If even these simple rules were invariably observed,
I think that, noble as the service of our fire departments is, we should yet find, year by year, a noticeable and gratifying improvement.