THE RELATIONS OF FIRE EXTINGUISHMENT TO THE INSURANCE RISK.

THE RELATIONS OF FIRE EXTINGUISHMENT TO THE INSURANCE RISK.

At the regular quarterly meeting of the Insurance Journalists’ Association, held in New York last week, the editor of THE JOURNAI. read by request the following paper. The association includes in its membership the editors of the principal insurance newspapers of the country, and as the address excited considerable discussion, and treats a subject of as great interest to Firemen as underwriters, we print it in our columns. Following is the address as delivered:

It is very much like “carrying coals to Newcastle” for me to attempt, in this presence, to discuss “The Relations of Fire Extingui hment to the Insurance Risk.” It is a topic with which you are all familar, and has for years b en one of your stock subjects to write about. Whenever you have found a dearth of topics upon which to concen rate your editorial intelCets, the subject of fire cx’mguishment has always been ready at hand for you to discourse about, even as the Jews form a ready and convenient subject for callow clergymen to berate when their supply of more pertinent ammunition is exhausted. Hut there is one thing to be sahl about the subject of fire extinguishment – it can never be too much talked about for the good of the general public. It is, indeed, to be regretted that its discussion Is confined so closely to that class of journals which we represent, for the annually increasing fire losses of the country constitute a eiiotis drawback to the prosperity ot the nation. Could they he prevented or materially reduced, every Individual in the community would be benefited. As the great proportion of fires are due to ignorance, recklessness, or carele sness, so pronounced as to be almost criminal, those great daily, weekly and monthly disseminators of wisd in and news could not do a better service to their fellow men than by devoting a portion of their time to expounding the gospel of fire prevention. G vc us the prevent on and the ques’ion of extinguishment will take care of itself. In what I shall have to ;ty at this time, I shall not confine myself very closely to the text assigned ntr, but shall endeavor to forget for the moment that I am identified with either an insurance or r fireman’s paper, and stiive to consider the question of lire prevention, fire extinguishment, fire losses and insurance risks from the standpoint of a citizen taxpayer whose burdens are made heavier by fire losses.

Fin s have occurred at all stages of the world’s history, and under all the varying conditions of civilization. Man’s ingenuity has never been able to devise adequate means for enforcing proper measures of prevention, and probably never will be, at least in this life ; and it the fire hazard in the world to come is not greatly increased, many of us will be happily disappointed. The prevention of disastrous fires is possible, of course, by the proper construction of buildings and cities, but that such construction will ever be attained is far from probable. Hence we must continue to regard constantly recurring fires as inevitable under existing conditions, and resort to the best means po sibie for reducing their disastrous effects to the minimum. To do this, we need to pay more attention to the science of fire prevention than to fire extinguishment. Buildings can be constructed of slow-burning material so put together at to render them very nearly fire-proof. There arc many such structures in European cities, and a few in the cities of this country. But it is impossible to make their contents fire-proof, and hence fires are liable to occur in them. But in buildings of this class, it is possible to burn the entire con tents of one portion of them without disturbing the occupants of the other portions. When buildings generally are so construct#d, the fire losses will be reduced to the minimum. Under existing conditions of society, however, it is impossible to secure this nearly fire-proof construction. Property-owners will not expend the additional sums necessary to erect such buildings, and no set of iaw-makers has ever been assembled that possessed the requisite practical knowledge to enable them to frame laws prescribing the methods of fire-proof construction. Experience, especially in this city, has demonstrated that it is impossible to enforce even such precautionary measures relative to building construction as have been enacted. Incompetent, careless or corrupt officials have neglected their duty in the matter, property-owners are opposed to restrictive laws, and architects and builders evade them whenever it is made their interest to do so. As a consequence, our cities are now filled with badly-constiucti d.highly-inflammable and dangerous buildings, and their number isbting added to day by day. The constantly increasing fire hazard has rendered necessary more elaborate and cos ly means of fire extinguishment. In this city it costs about $1,500,000 a year simply to maintain our fire department, involving a tax of nearly $1.50 a year upon every man, woman and child within the limits of the city. A tax in nearly the same proportion is rendered necessary to support the fire departments in other cities. The losses by fire in New York average about $4,000,000 a year ; the amount paid for firc-pren iums annually averages $2,225,000. while the uninsured 1 sses bring up the aggregate cost of fire losses, fire insurance and fire protection to very near y $10,000,000 a year. This is what we pay in this city for the blessed privilege of erecting cheap, flimsy and inflammable building for ignorance, recklessness and canlessness. Apportion this sum among the taxpayers of the city, and it makes a tax of $100 upon each, and probably more.

It is a theory of fire insurance that premium rates are made to harmonize with ihe risk—the greater the fire hazard the greater the premium. If this theory was enrrird into practice, we should have little need to enact building laws, for it would then be to the advantage o( every property-owner to make his buildings as nearly fne-proof as possible, to escape the extra hazardous piemiums that would be required upon buildings of the class no# existing. As a matter of fact, however, the discrimination in premium rates is more a matter t f theory than of pr dice, and in reality the rate is scarcely higher on a building known to possess many and varied hazards than upon one that has few. There is, therefore, no incentive to fire-proof construction, and property-owners arc con’ent to put up shams that are attractive to tenants instead of substantial stmcturcs calculated to dt fy both time and flames.

A property-owner in Boston some lime ago stated this point very clearly in reply to a published letter written by Mr. Edward Atkinson. After sta’ing that he was (lie owner of several buildings he said that he would not spend one dollar for fire prevention or fire protecti n ; that he was willing to spend money freely to secure the best sanitary condition for his houses, and to make them attractive to his tenants, bu the fire hazard was cf no interest to him whatever; that he paid the insurance companies to assume the risk, and they w re responsible for it. He said, however, that it any company would make it an object to iiim to provide fire protection he would do so, but as long as he could get just as low’ rates without such protection as he could with it, he would not spend money for such object. This is the secret of the flimsy «haracter of Ihe but dings that disgrace our cities to-day, and jeopard the safety of whole communities. Insurance companies do not charge for the risk as they find i*. and by not discriminating, rob property-owners of all incentive to fire-proof construction. UnMI such discrimination is made, and property-owner* shown that it is to their pecuniary advantage to provide proper means for preventing and extinguishir g fires, the fire losses of the country will most cer_ tnmly increase year by year in f roportion to the increase ol population and the development of our commercial and Industrial resources. Insuran e companies now employ surveyors to inspect buildings and pronounce upon the.r fire hazards, but such inspections have far less influence upon the establishment of rates than does the excessive competition for business t ngendered by the active rivahy of numerous insurance companies. A few years ago the sanitary condition of buildings began to be actively discussed, and out of the interest developed in the subject there has grown a new protession, composed of sanitary experts, who are competent to remedy defective drainage, correct bad plumbing, and by other means convert a pestiferous house into a safe and wholesome domicile. When insurance companies encourage property-owners to adopt means for fire protection and prevention, we shall scon find another class of experts taking the field to advise property-owners as to the best means of providing against disasters by fire. At present, Instead of fire prevention being provided at the cost of individual property-owners. too much reliance is placed U{ on the means for fire extinguishment maintained at public cost, and upon the complaisance of insurance companies, that insure property for its fall value, or more, at absurdly low rates.

From the underwriters’ standpoint, the means available for fire extinguishment have no relation to the insurance risk. At least, that is the inference to be drawn from their practice. Just over in New Jersey there is a manufacturing city that is literally without water tor fire protection. A little stream passing through one end of the city furnishes sufficient water for numerous hat factories located on its banks, but is totally Insufficient to protect them from the flames, as has been demonstrated on numerous occasions. Its fire limits nibracc the main street at d twenty feet on each side of it. The front of the .street is lined with brick buildings, while twenty feet in rear of them there are any number ot frame sheds, tumble-down stables, and cheap wooden structures. When a fire occurs the people turn out to see the property burn, not with any expectation of saving it. Yet in that city, composed mostly of special fire hazards, and virtually without fire protiction, the rates of insurance are no higher than they are in Newark, where a splendidly equipped fire department gives excellent protection to property within the city limits. Other instances without number might be cited to prove that the means provided for fire extinguishment have no influence whatever upon insurance rates, whatever it may have upon insurance risks. We all remember how, some time ago, there was a hue and cry about the insufficient fire protection in Chicago, and how the insurance companies threatened to cancel their policies and withdraw from the city. How many of them actually did cancel their policies, or gave up their business there ? It was a long time before any bet er fire protection was provided; but what company refused a risk on that account during that time ? Possibly, if the entiie fire department of New York City was disbanded, the underwiiters might become frighttned, cancel policies, and slop writing in the city; but if one-half the appara’us only was disabled, who believes that one of them would refuse a premium tendered, or would give up business ? They would still trust to luck to bring them out all right, and the competition for business would be as active as ever. Whatever may be the theory of underwriters regarding fi-e protection, tn practice they certainly do not regard it as of any value, for be it good or bad, it has little or no influence upon rates. To ciMzens and taxpayers, however, an efficient fire department is of inestimable value. So it is to the underwriters, but they do not recogn’ze it as other citizens do. Only a few days ago a fire occurred in a wood-w. rking establishment up t >wn, which was filled with highlyinflammable mater’al. It originated on the top floor, in a paint shop, and in a few minutes the upper story was all ablaze. In an incredibly shoit space of time the firemen were at work, and their ; flo ts were directed by the cool, clearheaded judgment of officers of long expctience in the service. In a subsequent report of the fire, the daily papers extolled the skill and energy displayed by the fir men, by whose extraordinary exertions the fire was cor fined to the upper story. The only damige done to the property on the lower fl:ors was by water, and was incon iderable. But for the timely anival of the firemen, and their able and energe ic action, the buil ling with a’l its conb nts would have he rn destroyed. The actual loss was not more than tea per cent of what it wi.uld have been had the building been entirely consumed or the firemfn five minutes late in reaching the sc-ne. The value of the fire department to the underwriters in this instance was equivalent to ninety per cent of the amount of in mrance on the property. Instances of a similar nature cccur daily, and the ffficie cy of a fire department is an element that shou’d figure prominently in the es’ab’ishment of insurance rates. Nothing but the superior machinery employed in the fire depaitments of the large cities, and the celerity, experience and good judgment of the firemen, prevents conflagrations of magnitude occurring with frequency.

‘The means for fire exMnguishment bear a most important relation to the insurance risk, but if such importance is appreciated by underwri’ets, they do not recognize it in their dealings with the pub ic. It is not long sine : I heard the president ol a city insura’ce companv c mplain of the scarcity of fires in New York. Sail he, “if the flic department goes ; n putting out all the fir s so promptly we shall lose our busine s.” Another insurance president has written and said that “underw iters want plenty of small fires to keep the people alive to the value o insurance. We don’t want fire departments too well equipped; all we want is protection from large conflagrations.” This is (he underwriters’ view of the relations of fire extinguishment to the insurance risk. Yet these same men, as good citizens and taxpayers, admit that th s view of the question is opposed to public policy. In their own communities they advocate the best means attainable to protect their property from fire, and we know of some of them who have complete little fire departments of their own for the protection of iheir private residences. In one of my conversations with the president of a company who held these views, and who also said that over-ir.surance was responsible for fully thirty per cent of all fires, I said, ” then you must hold that fire insurance is a curse to the community.” “Most certainly I do.” was his reply ; ” it is a benefit to individuals, but a curse to the community.” The welfare of the ciiizen ar.d the taxpayer demand the most efficient means of fire pro’ection attainable, while ihe interests of underwriters is consulted by having plenty of fires but no confl igrations.

Modern architecture is rapidly outgrowing our present means of fire extinguishment. Ruildings are run so high up in the air as to be entirely out of the reach of the fire departments. No stream of water can be projected from the ground to their roofs, nor can ladders be built long enough to reach the upper floors. All the firemen can do in such cases is to wait till the fire burns down to them. Such was the difficulty they had to contend with at the great fire in Worth street a few years since. The fire was raging a hundred feet above the street, and no engine wis capable of throwing an efficient fire stream to that height. The water that could be projected that distance was merely a spray, and of no effect in putting out the fire And so the flames spread from one building to another, creeping behind the hollow iron front that projected beyond the division walls, till they had done their destructive work. Other buildings have so enlarged the areas between walls that when a fire gets started, it becomes such a formidable volume of flame and heat that it is both unapproachable and uncontrollable. Such was the case in the South street fire, and also in the Hivemeyer & Elder refinery. One or two brick walls divi ling the area of these buildings would probably have kept the fire confined so that it might have been controlled.

The buildings of to-day are as much beyond the capacity of our present fire exMnguishing machinery as those of twenty years ago exceeded the capacity of the old hand-engines. Either the:e must be limits put upon the.consiruction of buildings, or there must be improved means devised for extinguishing fires. There is not likely to be any reduction in fire hazards ; on the contrary, new ones are constantly being devised, but there has been no radical improvement in fire extinguishing machinery since ihe invention of the steam hre engine. New methods of utilizing these are being brought forward by firemen and inventors, but no machines of greater capacity for projecting water have been invented. What are necessary to control fires in large buildings, or even in small ones that imperil others, are large, powerful streams of water, sufficient to drown-out a fire at short notice. When a fire gets a good headway in one of a block of buildings, the object of the firemen is not so much to save the contents of the burning building as to protect those adjoining. To do this th^y must drown out the fire by the application of large volumes of water. This is proie ting the insurance risk to the best advantage. But to get these large and powerful streams an abundant water supply is necessary, and in this respect nine out of ten of the cities of this country are deficient. In certain portions of New York the water supply is wholly inadequate, and Brooklyn, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis, New Orleans, and many other cities are little better oft. Without an abundant supply of water there can be no efficient fire protection. The day will come when all our seaboard cities will have the high-pressure water service, delivering efficient fire streams of salt water directly from the hydrants, and these placed in such close proximity to each other that forty or fifty streams can be concentrated upon a single point. With such means at hand for fire extinguishment, the conflagrations so much dreaded by underwriters will be impossible.

It has been so frequently demonstrated that private fire extinguishing appliances are of little value that I do not propose to discuss them. It is absolutely useless to equip a building with standpipes, hose, extinguishers, etc., unless men of intelligence are placed in charge of them, trained in their use, and held to a strict accountability for them. I had the curiosity, a short time since, to unroll a coil of hose that had been in a building a number of years without being looked at. It was cotton hose, rubber lined. When stretched out, it was found that there were any number of holes in it, where the rats had carried off the cotton to make nests with, and the rubber lining had been so softened by heat that the inner surfaces of the hose were welded togethe’. In another instance 1 found a coil of cheap, unlined linen hose that would hold water no better than a sieve. You all remember, no doubt, that the Locust Grove Hotel was splendidly equipped with fire extinguishing apparatus, force pumps, pipes all through the building, hose on every floor, etc. The fire broke out in the oil room, adjoining the force pumps, and the fire extinguishing appliances were, consequently, almost the first things burned. About the only private appliances that I know of that have proved of value in extinguishing fires, are the automatic sprinklers, the use of which is required by the New England mill mutuals in all the mills they insure. These sprinklers have proved of immense service in putting out fires in large factories, and have been enthusastically commended by Edward Atkinson and Ivs associate officers in the mutual companies. It did not seem practicable to bring these into general use, for the reason that, working automatically under the eff-ct of heat, ,and releasing the water supply when a certain temperature was reached, there was danger that the uncontrolled flow of water would do more damage than the fire. But improvements have been made in them of late, and, among other things, they are so arranged that an alarm is sounded simultaneously with the starting of the water, and human intelligence is thus summoned to extinguish the fire or turn off the water, as circumstances may require. It seems to me that this means of fire extinguishment may be advantageously introduced in places that are now inaccessible to the firemen. By making the floors water-tight, and providing scuppers to carry oft the superfluous water through leaders to the sewers, there would be little danger of injury to goods or material located on the floors below where they were operating. Certainly any method that promises to control fires in buildings that are now, for all practical purposes, beyond the reach of the firemen, is deserving of careful investigation.

The fire losses of the country have reached such magnificent proportions as to demand the attention of every thinking man. They average, according to estimates of underwriters, about $100,000,000 annually. Add to this the large sums paid for insurance premiums and for the maintenance of file departments, and taking into account, also, the losses of the thousands of mechanics and others who are thrown out of employment by reason of the burning of the i-dtisfrial establishments in which they found employment, and we get some idea of what we pay every year for enjoying theluxuiy of burning up buildings. The efforts of every intelligent man shou’d be directed to overcoming the ignorance and carelessness that are responsible for this enormous waste of the nation’s wealth. In doing so, no one need be afraid that he is opposing the interests of underwriters, for however efficient may be the means adopted for fire prevention and fire extinguishment, there will always be a sufficient numbir of fires to keep alive that interest in insurance that is so necessary to the successful collection of premiums. Fires have always been plentiful and always will be sufficiently so to make insurance a necessty. The system of insurance has so grown into our commercial and industrial economy, that it has become an essential fac’or in cur national and individual piosperity. It is not dependent for its success upon the number and magnitude of fires that occur, but the character of the indemnity it offers against possible contingencies. Those contingencies are ever present, regardless ol any means that may be adopted for fire prevention or extinguishment. If there should not be a fire in New York City for a year, that fact would not reduce the volume of insurance premiums by a single dollar. The welfa’e of the community demands the very best means of fire extinguishment, and the best that can be obtained will in no way conflict with the interests of fire underwriters.

In these rambling rrmaiks relative to fire matters, my purpose has been to direct attention more to the subject of fire prevention than to discuss the relations of fire extinguishment to the insurance risk. I regard the insurance interest in the subject as entirely secondary to that of the community, but that interest is in no danger whatever of being impaired by any efforts that may be made tending to lessen the fire losses of the country. At present neither property-owners nor the companies derive any advantage from buildings being either fire-proof or extra hazardous. Either condition plays but an insignificant part in the establishment of rates, and has but little effect on the aggregate of premium receipts. While the fire hazard is an important factor in establishing rates for classes of risks, yet these rates are scarcely affected by the question of available means for fire extinguishment. It is fair, therefore, to assume that fire extinguishment is not regarded by underwriters as sustaining any important relation to the insurance risk.Consequently, if property-owners demand the best possible facilities for extinguishing fires, they cannot be regarded as antagonizing the interests of underwriters. If the latter show a little inconsistency in desiring fire departments equal to the prevention of conflagra’ions, which they do not want, but inadequate to the putting out of small fires, many of which they desire, th it is their fault, not mine, fori have simply quoted their public utterances. Having thus opened up this subject for discussion, I shall expect to hear other views expressed. Some of you, no doubt, will take issue with me on some of the points I have touched upon. If you don’t you certainly ought to. Hoping I have said enough to arouse your natural belligerency, I leave my remarks in your hands for dissection.

Previous articleTOURNAMENTS, PARADES, DRILL AND DISCIPLINE.
Next articleRANDOM SPARKS

No posts to display