THE OUNCE OF PREVENTION
The subject which has been assigned me is a subject which has been and is today the greatest question before the people who take an interest in civic affairs and deeply are interested in W’ays and means to prevent the awful waste which annually occurs in this country from fire. Fire department officials have tried to solve the problem by increasing the firefighting force, by more and better apparatus, and by more frequent and rigid inspection of public buildings, stores, factories and other places, which would be likely to furnish a starting place for a conflagration; but the number of fires and the losses have increased in proportion to the increase of population, regardless of the vigilance of the fire department. The Underwriters’ association has tried to help the cause along. It rated the large risks separately and allowed the owners a better rate, if automatic sprinklers were installed, with the result that sprinkled risks are the rule at the present time. The losses, however, have continued to increase. The underwriters then thought that the whole trouble must be with the fire departments and ordered an inspection of all the Metropolitan departments. Where the department was not brought up to the standard set, they compelled the taxpayer to foot the bill the other way by an increase of rates; but the losses are still on the increase. Legislators, who knew nothing of the question of fire protection or fire prevention, except what they saw in the newspapers, tried their hand, and in a large number of States passed laws creating the place of State fire marshal, and told him to find a remedy for high rates and large losses. The result of all of our efforts is that today we are burning up property at the rate of $600,000 per day—a sum which is simply appalling to the average mind. There is no doubt but that good has been done by our efforts—a great deal of good; but our w’ork has been superficial, as w’e do not seem to have reached the seat of the disease. Our insurance brethren thought that the whole trouble lay at the door of the fire department—it does, if you have not a perfect firefighting machine ; but all the fire department can do is to put the fire out when it is called. It was not there when it started. If the chief causes his men to do their inspection duty at frequent intervals, keeps the apparatus in good shape and the discipline of the department in perfect condition to do business, he has done his duty. Why do so many fires start ? Is :t because of carelessness, culpable negligence, or avarice? The business and the insurance policy can usually tell the story, not, perhaps, so that it can be printed, but in such a way that the men who honestly investigate can tell the why and the wherefore. I believe that our insurance brethren are working on the wrong end of the problem. “Over insurance” is today one of the crimes of the century. The insurance agent is honest; but he must make a living, and commissions on the premiums collected are his source of income. He does not know what he insures, and does not care, so long as the premium is paid. If there is a loss, he does not pay it and, perhaps, gets another commission for adjusting it. How long would a life insurance company continue to do business, if it were run on the same basis and accepted risks in the same way that fire insurance companies do? Such companies would not need any laws to compel them to apportion their surplus annually, if they did business as the fire companies do. Let anyone of you look hack at the number of fires of mysterious origin in your own city. Figure up the losses, and you have quite a respectable sum of the total losses from unknown causes. These fires figure on the report as mice and matches, electric wires, or unknown. The agent so reports to the company, and the company pays the bill. If the losses are large for the year, the companies get together and re-rate the city, raise the rates, kick a little about the capacity of the fire engines, or the quality of the hose, advocate civil service in the fire department, while the taxpayer is kicking on the rates—and there the matter rests. If, however, you look up the policy on the loss where the mice did their best work, you will usually find that it represents too per cent, or better on the property destroyed. The agent has not put a premium on crime; but he has on carelessness, and, where the owner or occupant is indifferent, all the inspection in the world will not prevent a fire at some time or other, even if the firemen carried mousetraps for extra-hazardous risks. Since the time our Master was on earth men have been susceptible to the lure of the thirty pieces of silver, and our present day civilisation has intensified the struggle to such an extent that some men will not stop at anything to help themselves along. This is not a charitable view to take of our neighbor; but our experience has made us callous when we are inspecting the origin of some of the fires that are charged to mice and matches. We know the motive of the mouse; but what was the motive that put the match where the animal had to eat it? You will find it in the insurance policy, and, if it is a businesshouse or store, and you can get at the ledger, you will find corroboration of your suspicions. You may not be able to prove it; but it can be prevented, and my method would be this: 1st. Have the legislature pass laws that, before insuring a piece of property, the agent should have to view the property and could insure it only for 75 per cent, of its value, and that the companies could be held only for that amount, in case of loss, whether it were buildings, household furniture, or stocks of goods, and have a penalty-clause in the law, so that agents would have to obey its provisions. 2nd. Have a law passed, so that all builders of chimneys should be licensed and have to give a bond to the municipality that all chimneys built by them should conform to the specifications set forth in the ordinance. The criminal avarice of some men who build chimneys and, for the sake of saving a dollar in the material, will endanger the lives and property of people trusting to them to do honest work should be punishable by a term in states prison. 3rd. Cause the legislature to pass a law to give the State fire marshal power to do certain things, to summon witnesses and employ counsel who are not amenable to local influences. Give him a contingent fund to pay his expenses and secure evidence, and he will produce results. In Massachusetts, New York, and Ohio 1 believe they have very good laws at the present time; but in our State, they passed a law taxing the insurance companies one-quarter of 1 per cent, on the insurance premiums for the maintenance of the office of State fire marshal. The law provided for salaries, but did not provide anything for expenses for traveling or investigating fires. What is the result? We have a State fire marshal, and he has an office in the capitol and a stenographer; but his usefulness is limited to an annual kick about the altitude of insurance rates and a circu lar letter to he careful about Christmas trees. I do not say this in criticism of the very estimable gentleman who now occupies the position, but merely cite it as a sample of legislation passed, where the man who drew up the law did not know anything of the condition about which he was going to legislate and, perhaps, whose only motive was to provide a place for a friend. When laws of this kind are drawn, the chiefs of the larger cities of the State should be consulted and allowed to frame a bill along practical lines, so that the people shall get something for their money. It will take some time to reform the present condition and start right. In conclusion, I wish to state that I believe that, if the insurance companies will take hold of this thing and reform from within by not overinsuring the property, that the fire department will take care of all other conditions, and the result will mean more than an ounce of prevention for a large number of fires.
•Paper read at the convention of the National Firemen’s association; Chicago, 1908.