THE LESSON OF THE SALEM CONFLAGRATION

THE LESSON OF THE SALEM CONFLAGRATION

The Boston “City Record,” the official publication of that city, in a recent issue published the following on the Salem conflagration, written by Fire Commissioner John Grady, of Boston, who, as a call and paid firemen for nearly half a century, filling every position in the Boston fire department from the lowest to the highest, and with the single exception of former Chief W. A. Greene, being the only one who has done so, is eminently qualified to pass judgment on that fire and to point out the lessons it teaches. He is the only fireman that has so far written of that fire for publication. He was in charge of the Boston fire apparatus at the fire until it was under control, and writes from personal knowledge and observation:

Early in the afternoon of Thursday. June 25, 1914, the stage was set in the city of Salem, Massachusetts, for a conflagration that was to destroy over one-third of the city, to consume about sixteen hundred buildings, to make homeless approximately fifteen hundred families and to throw out of employment four thousand persons. As the curtain rose, in the foreground might be seen a group of manufacturing buildings, wooden in construction, one of which was four stories in height and 40 by 200 feet in ground area; another, four and one-half stories, 30 by 150 feet in ground area, and a smaller, lower building, 60 by 40 feet. In the larger buildings were housed industries relating to the manufacture of shoes, while in the third or smaller buildings was housed an industry in which celluloid scrap, alcohol and amyl-acetate were used in the manufacture of a preparation for coating leather. In the background, extending to the east, is seen the city of Salem, bisected by the Boston & Maine Railroad running north and south. To the left of the picture is the mercantile section, while in the immediate front and right is the manufacturing and residential sections, more or less intermingled. The construction is largely wooden with hundreds of shingled roofs, which have been baking and drying in the sun for weeks, for no rain has fallen in that time. Dotted here and there throughout the city are engine houses, quartering, all told, four second-size steam fire engines, four hose wagons, one large auto combination, one horse-drawn combination, one aerial ladder truck and one ordinary ladder truck. At the time the curtain rises, of the twenty-three permanent men of this Fire Department, a scant dozen are on actual duty. The rest are either on day-off or at their meals. About the city are scattered eighy-odd call men. A flash of flame and a puff of smoke comes from the smaller building in the foreground and almost instantly the building is in flames. In response to the alarm which is immediately sounded, three engines and hose wagons and a ladder truck left their quarters. The first engine company took a hydrant close to the burning building, and before they could get water on the fire they were forced to withdraw the engine and take up a new position. This, in brief, is the story of the Salem fire. The reader can picture to himself the same general lay-out in almost any city or town in New England; in some cases, perhaps, picturing more men and apparatus ready to respond, but the picture will be substantially the same in other respects—acres and acres of wooden buildings waiting for just the conditions to send them into smoke. No one factor can be blamed independently for this conflagration. It was the result of a combination of many factors.

No one has hinted or can truthfully hint that the chief of the Salem Fire Department was not an able official or that his men were not as brave and hard working as their brothers in other cities. It was not their fault that the City Government, in spite of repeated warnings, had refused to enlarge the personnel of the force. Lulled into security by the fact that time and time again this handful o* men, a maximum of twenty-three permanent and eigffity call men, had extinguished without serious extension all the fires which had started in Salem previous to this time, the city fathers failed to heed the warnings of what might come. The building conditions and the layout of the city cannot be blamed to the present generation, nor to any one past generation. It is simply the thoughtless growth which has characterized all our New England cities. -Nothing could have been done except, after a long period of years, to have materially improved or bettered this building and street construction. It was there, and must be made the best of. The same conditions eNist to-day in most of our large towns and cities and will exist for many years to come unless visited by a conflagration such as visited Salem. Within twenty minutes from the rise of the curtain, calls were sent to outside cities and towns for aid, which aid began to arrive shortly after two o’clock and continued through the early evening, so that before the fire had been finally extinguished, or rather, had reached Salem harbor, and found no more material, there were at work twenty-five engines, both steam and gasolene, the former predominating. The out of town apparatus met many obstacles, which would probably be met under similar circumstances to-day almost anywhere in New England. Chief among these obstacles was the lack of fuel for the steam fire engines, horses with which to move them after they were unloaded from special trains on which they reached the city. Many of the hydrants in Salem are of the “flush” type and require a portable hydrant or “chuck” which most of the out of town engines, excepting Boston, did not have, with the result that in some cases hours were lost in getting apparatus to work. And right here may be said a good word for motor propelled apparatus and its value at a time like this. In the first place, it can respond from any distance from which it might reasonably be called, without the necessity of special trains for its transportation, without the necessary but frightful delays incident to their making up and loading of these trains. In the second place, its fuel is so compact that a large supply can be carried and gasoline needed can be obtained at any one of a dozen or more places in any town of reasonable size. The picture which vie have seen is substantially a fireman’s standpoint, the same picture we saw at Chelsea, that of the conflagration being confined more or less laterally but mowing a path straight for the water. It was not, however, a continuous march, but like Chelsea, it was the “flying brand” conflagration— those shingled roofs could mean nothing else. It availed little, even if there had been administration and organization to accomplish it, to form a battery of streams across the fire and check its sweep—those flying brands go far above the water and hundreds of them find lodging in gutter, cornice, piazza or projection of the wooden buildings far to the front, and it is not long before there are many fires, each of which eventually develops into a small conflagration. As a practical matter it is believed that once started, with the condition that existed in Chelsea, and Salem, it is impossible to stop such a fire. In a city the size of Boston, in the Dorchester. Roxbury, or other suburban districts it might be done, in theory at least, by forming a battery of heavy streams across the front of the fire and sending forward, ahead of the fire, as a line of skirmishers to follow the flying brands, every available ladder truck and chemical engine—but Boston could concentrate from her own resources at least forty engines to form such a battery and could send forward twenty or thirty such skirmishers. Until the method of construction changes, and that cannot come in our day in sufficient quantity to have any effect, water in immense quantities is the only safeguard, and to get water in such quantities we must have large mains and either a high pressure system or a number of pumping engines entirely out of proportions to the normal demand. As we iook over the scene just before the curtain drops, we see some examples of foresight and realization of condition—notably the power station of the Electric Light Company and some of the storehouses of the Naumkcag Steam Cotton Company. These buildings were of modern fire resisting construction and stood the test and to-day stand as mute witnesses of the efficiency of concrete, brick, wire glass, sprinklers, etc. The time will probably come, but long after the oldest living fireman cannot remember having seen horses used to draw fire apparatus, when all our mercantile and manufacturing buildings will be of this construction, and when our dwellings will have non-inflammable roofs. The time should come, and come long before horses have ceased to draw apparatus, when we should have a standard hose coupling and hydrant connection, and the time should come, and in not more than a matter of weeks, when every Chief should realize that what happened to Spencer (Chelsea) and Arnold (Salem) may happen any day to him. Realizing this, he will get a typographical map of his own town or city, will study it carefully, will plot on it the various buildings of fire resisting construction, the water mains, the worst hazards where the fire is Jiabic to get the jump at the start, and then lay his plans accordingly; not where each Ihfcihte be set, in general where his defense will lie and the lines where he can make the best resistance; for when his time comes, it will not be a question of piecemeal fighting; he must make up his mind quickly that he is going to lose a good many buildings, perhaps let them burn while he is placing his apparatus to make a grand stop.

FIRE COMMISSIONER JOHN GRADY, OF BOSTON
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