The Role of the Fire Service In National Defense

The Role of the Fire Service In National Defense

IN a report entitled “Civilian Defense,” prepared by the Advisory Committee on Fire Defense and issued by the Division of State and Local Cooperation of the Office for Emergency Management, the following statement appears:

“In these days of total defense, a Nation’s secondary lines of defense, including the organization of fire services and the provision of police protection, are almost as important as the military or first line of defense. In some cases, these secondary lines of defense may be of equal importance to the Nation.”

Civil Defense and Fire Defense

The experience of the British fire service would seem to indicate that up to date civil defense is fire defense. It need only be pointed out that the London fire department alone has averaged 700 fires a day, with a top of 2,000 fires in one night, to appreciate the tremendous task with which they are faced. These figures do not include incipient fires that are extinguished by fire wardens, police or the public without the aid of the fire department. The multiplicity of fires was not all that taxed the fire department. In addition to the fires, water mains were crippled by high explosive bombs, streets were littered and in some cases impassable, due to debris. Roadways were blocked by bomb pits, gas mains were ruptured and gas ignited, and communication systems seriously damaged .

Experiences Abroad

In discussing the role of our fire service in national defense, it will be helpful to review briefly the experiences of our brother firefighters abroad, particularly with regard to what they had to face during aerial attack, for, after all. that will likely represent the major problem to be faced here.

Recent blit bombings in England show a definite pattern or plan, though this plan may be varied from time to time. First to arrive are the planes which drop flares. These flares light up the area to be bombed; then come the planes carrying incendiary bombs, and these bombs are strewn over the area. Following the incendiaries, high explosive bombs are dropped. These latter bombs drive to cover those who may be trying to extinguish fires started by the incendiary bombs and also serve to wreck buildings and thereby make them easier prey to fire. And then in some instances oil bombs are subsequently dropped to spread fires over wrecked areas. Where fires have gained headway, enemy planes ofttimes machine gun the firemen to hinder their operations and thus aid fires in spreading.

That America will ever be subjected to the same intensified air attacks that England has experienced seems to the layman most improbable. Surely the general use of high explosive bombs on a big scale on other than military objectives would not be in order, due to the cost of these bombs, the cost of transporting them and their limited range of effectiveness. But the use of incendiary bombs, where a $10 bomb might start a $10,000,000 fire, would prove attractive to an enemy. The use of incendiary bombs is therefore indicated if we become actively engaged in the war and if any bombing whatsoever is done.

Set Fires

* Editor of FIRE FNGINEERING and Headquarters Manager, I. A. F. C. Excerpts of paper presented before first Civilian Defense Course, Chemical Warfare School, Edgewood Arsenal. Maryland, July 9, 1941.

A London Street After Bombing. This Street Is Impassable for Motor Fire Apparatus.

In considering incendiary fires, we must not overlook the saboteur. Sabotage by fire is effective, and evidence of the crime is frequently destroyed in the fire. But sabotage can be controlled largely by vigilance, and a multiplicity of fires at one time within a city is improbable. On the other hand, air attacks can neither lxchecked by vigilance, nor can the numlx-r of fires caused be reduced bv the same means. The fire department, with its auxiliaries, must lxprepared to extinguish them, for if it fails in this, conflagration tnav result. l our and a half square miles area in one British city was leveled by fire during a single air attack.

Even though the enemy planes which bomlx-d Ixtndon had but a short distance to travel from their base in France, just across the English Channel, and thus could carry on a sustained bombardment with high explosive bombs, it is interesting to learn that the damage done by incendiary lxitnbs in Omdon was far greater titan that done by the high explosive type.

To fill its role, and fill it with full effectiveness, the fire service must first look to its apparatus. Specialized fires require, specialized apparatus, a multiplicity of fires require widely distributed apparatus, and large fires require apparatus of large capacity.

The first step is to bring the department up to its full strength by replacing obsolete machines with new; and by restoring the full personnel to fire companies. After this has been accomplished, then special auxiliaryapparatus may be provided.

Experience in England has shown that the small trailer pump is effective and economical for war-time service. Because of its small size, it can be stored at convenient points within buildings and thus will be near at hand when needed. Its capacity is such that it can handle any small fire, or it can serve, when used in numbers, with good effect at larger blazes.

The number of trailer pumps employed in London is on a basis of twenty-five to thirty for each regular fire company. In American cities where there are relatively more companies in proportion to population than in London, the ratio would be smaller. Furthermore, with less intensified bombing as expected here, the number of trailer pumps needed would be even less. Possibly ten to fifteen trailers per regular company would be sufficient for American cities.

High Building Protection

When a high explosive bomb strikes the top of a building, the water tanks thereon supplying the sprinkler and standpipe systems of tlie building are put out of commission, as are also both systems. For that reason, fire fighting operations in these taller structures are made difficult. To speed up operations and to enable the fire department to get streams quickly in operation on the fire, the use of aerial ladders, preferably of tbe metal, power operated type, is essential. So effective have these aerial ladders proven in British cities that one aerial ladder is being provided for each pumper in the service. It is recommended that the ratio of aerial ladders to pumpers be also increased in fire departments of cities along the Atlantic and Pacific seaboards.

hire hose, the medium through which water is carried from its source to the fire, is the most important tool of modern fire departments. Without hose, the most powerful fire engines are worthless as fire extinguishing machines. Where a large number of fires are burning at the same time, a single fire company mayhave to stretch three or four lines. Unless there is a reserve supply of hose, this cannot be done, for each fire engine carries only from 1,000 to 2,000 feet of hose. Present hose supply of fire departments within the probable zone attack should be doubled. And because long stretches will be common, and high pressure at engines will be required to produce satisfactory pressures at nozzles, only high grade hose should be considered. Where each engine and each line must perform, during a multiplicity of fires, the failure of a single line of hose may prove disastrous.

When a Building Is Demolished by Bombs in London, the Basement, If It Is Tight, Serves as an Emergency Reservoir for Fire Fighting.Surface Mains Have Been Laid in London to Supplement Underground Pipe Lines. Five Hose Lines May Be Taken from Each Manifold

In connection with the use of tire streams during air attack, certain devices have proven especially valuable. The deck gun, mounted on a fire engine, or other piece of apparatus, delivers a large stream under high pressure and holds its direction without outside aid. It can be aimed to deliver a stream at any point desired, and, left by itself, it does not change this direction. This characteristic is particularly valuable when firemen operating on a fire are driven to cover by enemy planes. The stream will continue to do its work while the firemen take shelter. Pipe holders, placed on the ground, have proven equally valuable.


The proper use of the proper types of extinguishing agents has a very important part in the role of the fire service in national defense. A brief review of these agents, with a word about their limitations, may be of interest.

Probably the most novel extinguishing agent today is water fog. This fog is produced by the discharge of water, usually under fairly high pressure, through a special atomizing nozzle. In some cases the extinguishing effect is produced by quenching, that is. the cooling of the combustible material to a point below its reignition point; in other cases, particularly in confined fires, the result is brought about by the smothering of the fire, the fog being vajxirized by the heat of the fire and the steam so produced smothering the fire. At heavy oil fires, the fog produces an emulsion on the surface of the burning oil and this emulsion aids in the extinguishment of the fire.

Hut of particular interest to us today is the effectiveness of the fog nozzle in combating fires involving the magnesium, or electron metal, incendiary bomb. While the fog tends to increase the intensity of combustion of the bomb, it does not cause the violent reaction (sputtering) produced by a solid water stream striking the burning bomb. And at the same time the fog extinguishes the fire in any combustible material which may be in contact with the bomb.

The stirrup pump is used very widely abroad for handling incipient fires caused by the one-kilogram bomb. The proper use of this pump, which employs water, requires three persons: one operates the pump, one handles the nozzle and the third carries water for the container in which the suction of the pump rests. Properly used, it is safe and effective for small magnesium bomb fires.

The knapsack typc extinguisher, which consists of a five-gallon tank curved to fit the hack and carried by straps, is fitted with a hand-operated piston pump, by which the operator can deliver a stream a distance of thirty feet or more. This is .a oneman extinguisher and has proven very effective on the incipient fire.

The soda and acid extinguisher consists of a cylindrical tank with 21/2 to 3-gallons capacity, and fitted with hose and nozzle. Bringing together within the extinguisher a sodium bicarbonate solution and sulphuric acid creates carbon dioxide gas. which provides the expelling force for the soda solution. This extinguisher is about as effective in extinguishing tires as plain water in an amount equivalent to the fluid contents of the extinguisher. It is safe for use on all fires on which plain water might be used.

The carbon tetrachloride extinguisher is not safe for use on incendiary bombs.

Carbon dioxide gas fire extinguishers are not effective on magnesium bomb fires, for they increase, rather than decrease, the intensity of combustion.

Dry sand and powdered talc are useful in controlling the burning magnesium bomb, though they do not always stop the burning. Quite recently a powder has been developed by a magnesium manufacturer and an extinguisher maker which is said to extinguish the fire involving an electron metal bomb.

Wafer Supply

Despite the many extinguishers and extinguishing methods developed, water still remains the first line in fire defense. In fact, it is the only agent that can today he used in the control of conflagrations. Hence, its great importance in civil defense. There’s not a city in United States that has not a water supply that will meet ordinary peace time fire fighting needs. Hut, unfortunately, every water supply system is highly vulnerable to aerial attack. It is not the reservoirs that suffer. It is the under ground mains carrying the supply throughout the city. During a heavy aerial attack in London, the breaks in water mains may exceed one hundred. As water mains in this country arc buried at depth of only 2 to (i feet, it does not take a large bomb to penetrate the pavement and earth beneath it and rupture a main. And unless the water main system is cross-connected and valved, so that any broken section may be segregated. serious bleeding of the water system may result from pipe rupture caused by bomb. In one British city, nearly 60% of the water system was put out of commission during a blitz attack. It was four days beforc service was entirely restored.

The Stirrup Pump Serves in London; Here a Crew of Four Operetes It.

Provision of water supply looms as a vital problem in civil defense.

In the event of serious damage to the water system, reliance must be placed on other sources of water. Hence a thorough study should be made into the various sources of auxiliary supply that might be used. These sources should be tried out in actual practice to assure the familiarity necessary for most effective use. Auxiliary sources which should he investigated and catalogued might include: rivers, brooks, ponds, lakes, pools, cisterns, wells, roof tanks, tank trucks, private storage tanks, industrial water plants, swimming pools and other available sources.

Relay Lines

In connection with the use of auxiliary sources at a distance, men must be fully instructed in the use of relay lines. The only limitation as to the distance water can be delivered through fire hose is the number of pumping engines available, and, of course, the supply of hose on hand. At the hig London fire, water was taken from the Thames River and sent through hose lines miles in length.

The men should he fully informed, too, in the bridging of broken sections of water mains by use of hose lines. If, upon isolating a break in a main by closing valves, the main on the far side is deprived of water, it is necessary to supply this main by use of hose, preferably of large diameter, stretched across the break from hydrant to hydrant.


Periodical inspection of hydrants should be made by members of the fire department to make sure that they are in good condition and ready for operation It is desirable to have hydrants painted white, so that they can be readily located during a blackout. Hither the size of main to which the hydrant is attached, or some other symbol indicating the probable flow from hydrant, should be painted on the hydrant barrel or hood. It is also desirable to paint a white line across the street at hydrant location to facilitate the location of hydrant during black-out.

To conserve water supply, when many fires are burning, water should be reused. That is. water flowing from a building, industrial plant or other structure should be reused for fire fighting operations. It is not recommended, however, that this practice be followed at oil plants. For at a London fire the officer in command was amazed to note the fierceness with which a fire burned when a stream was directed on it, only to find that the pumper was picking up oil with the water from a sluice. The oil found its way into the ditch from a bombed oil storage tank.

The work of the fire department in water conservation does not end with its own efforts. It should, by available means, urge the public to keep water stored in tubs, bathtubs and other containers for use in the event of attack by incendiary bombs.

Training Private Brigades

In its role in national defense, the fire service must reach beyond its own confines. The organization and training of private fire brigades in industrial plants must be undertaken and carried to completion, for in the event of numerous fires being created by incendiary attack, the municipal fire department will have its hands full in combatting fires in commercial and business buildings and dwellings. The industrial plant may have to take care of its own fires.

Furthermore, industrial plant brigades can be of material assistance to the municipal department if they are well drilled.

Mutual Aid

In this day of high speed motor vehicles and good roads, mutual aid between neighboring municipalities, in the event of disasters of major pro-portions is not only possible, but is practical and highly effective. County emergency plans of cooperation have been in operation for several years, with outstanding success.

In a plan for mutual aid, an inventory of equipment available is the first essential. Then a code of signals must be formulated to secure efficient operation. With such a system properly developed, it is possible to call just such equipment and personnel as is needed.

A well ordered mutual aid plan includes not only fire appartus, demolition equipment, rescue apparatus, ambulances, first aid cars, and other special duty equipment, but also a roster of skilled artisans, such as mechanics, welders, electricians, and utility employees.

From the standpoint of fire fighting. it is imperative that hose adapters he provided so that each fire department can use the hose and hydrants of all other departments in the group.

It is highly beneficial for an emergency plan, or mutual aid organization to carry out mock musters, so that in the event of an emergency, confusion will he avoided.

Oil Works Constitute a Constant Menace When Exposed to Enemy Attack. British Tommies Look On as an Oil Fire They Started Gains Headway.


No peace time fire department has the manpower to handle situations brought about by air attacks. In London it was necessary to develop an auxiliary force of fire fighters which outnumbers the regular department by twenty to one. An auxiliary force must likewise be established in American cities, and trained by the regular fire fighters.

Members for such an auxiliary force may be secured from among pensioned firemen, civil service eligiltles for the fire department, members of veterans, civic, fraternal and similar societies; members of trade unions and others employed in certain industries; tradesmen and others whose work does not take them from the district.

As noted previously, these auxiliaries must be trained by the regular department. Instruction courses should include the following: fire prevention, fire fighting, fire alarm operation, characteristics and functioning of incendiary, high explosive, and other types of bombs; detection and prevention of sabotage and arson ; use of fire apparatus and various types of fire fighting tools ; first aid and rescue work. The same training that is given regular firemen should be followed as closely as possible in these training courses. That is. the course should cover use of standard and mobile equipment as noted previously: use of hose and ladders: types of extinguishers, gas masks and other equipment.

Auxiliaries, properly trained, have proven themselves very capable fire fighters abroad. The experience here should be similar.

The auxiliary force should include look-out men. or spotters. who are ca|iable of handling incipient tires.

Normally, the first duty of the fire department is to save life, and to accomplish this effectively in the event of air raid requires both equipment and training. Each incident is a problem in itself and no general instructions might be given which could be applied to every case. But life saving does not include only the rescue of persons in difficulty. It includes preventive measures as well. In this category falls evacuation drills. Such drills should be conducted in schools, office buildings and other places where large numbers of persons congregate or are housed. Evacuation drills should be conducted under the direct supervision of firemen of the regular force, if possible.

Of utmost importance to the safety and health of a community is the maintenance of its utility service. Electric power, gas, water and transportation facilities, as well as oil supply, are vital to the operation of a municipal corporation. The protection of these utilities is one of the most important tasks of the fire service. Insistence upon good housekeeping. that is. the removal of waste and rubbish, and keeping of extinguishing equipment in good condition are essential requirements, in the protection of these utilities. Oil plants, because of their extremely hazardous nature, will probably be equipped with dikes and other safety features. Condition of such dikes and other emergency equipment should be checked.

Inspection Work

Periodical inspection of industrial plants, commercial buildings, places of public assembly and places of human habitation is a most essential part of civil defense. If premises are kept clean, the danger of fire spreading is reduced materially. Frequently, due to rush of work, combustible stocks are permitted to accumulate in factories, or waste materials may collect, and then in the event of fire starting, damage may be extensive.Inspection work should not only include the checking of common hazards. but the uncommon as well.

Educating the Public

It will be the duty of the tire service to inform the public in methods of cooperating with the fire departments so that fire losses may lie kept to a minimum. Many agencies for such public education are available and can be used with effectiveness. The use of newspapers, radio, and speakers from the fire department, are all in order. Informing the public on what to do to minimize fire hazards, what precautionary steps they should take to guard against fires from incendiary bombs, and what to do in the event of a serious fire situation should all be part of the program. Fire department members may address clubs, schools, busi -ness meetings and fraternal society gatherings to spread the doctrine of fire safety. Radio addresses are par ticularly effective in accomplishing this end.

In the larger departments, a speak ers’ bureau may be formed. Men of ability as speakers should be selected as members of the bureau. Not only can they instruct the public in fire defense, but they can develop cooperation on the part of the public and industry, and commercial and other groups in reducing fires.


The fire service has been fully aware of the great fire hazards brought about by modern warfare, and has been conscious of the responsibility it would have to bear if this country were brought into the world-wide conflict. Four years ago—long before the war actually started—the International Association of Fire Chiefs appointed a committee of its members to study the subject of incendiary attacks and sabotage. This committee has not only been active in the interim educating the fire service on the problems to be faced, but has co operated with the Mar Depurl incut and with the Advisory Committee on Eire Defense of the fflice for Enter genev Management in preparing instructional material designed to strengthen the fire defense of the tia tion.

Today the fire service is rapidly preparing for the work before it. and when the call comes it will be found ready and willing. It awaits the opportunity of matching the splendid courage, the efficiency of its brothers in the British Tsles.

Fire Wardens and Watchers in London Spot an Incendiary Bomb and Go Into Action.
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