For Practical Discuuion of Current Fire Department and Fire Management Problems


FIRE officers are in general agreement that the use of gasoline blow torches in paint removing constitute a hazard to life and property. They agree, further, that there should be some regulatory measures in communities to control the use and abuse of such products. A few chiefs would like to see blow torches outlawed completely; others recognize their need in paint removal and believe more carefully controlled operation would suffice. A very few report the number of fires from this cause as inconsequential and have no complaint.

Although there is widespread agreement on the advisability of some form of control and regulation there is not quite the same unanimity on the measures to bring this about. A few sceptics doubt that any workable controls can be set up, pointing to the fact that torches can he bought anywhere, by anyone, and to the difficulty in limiting their use by private citizens, on their own property.

Some chiefs who have studied the problem believe that the best method is to require issuance of permits for paint-burning. They do not differentiate between the painter or other commercial user and the private citizen. Nor do most of them suggest how it will be possible to check up on painters and painting jobs in a community. One chief suggests inclusion of a clause in insurance contracts to the effect that payment of loss would be withheld where fire was caused by use of a gasoline torch without a permit.

In addition to control by elimination of use, and by permit, control by license to operate is suggested. This, of course, applies only to the commercial painter. It will not apply to the homeowner or other itinerant user. One chief believes that even if it is impossible to regulate use by the latter means, it will be well worthwhile if the “wholesale” use of burners is regulated.

Readers are invited to send in their comments on this subject which will be continued in the October issue. Address communications to Round Table Editor, FIRE ENGINEERING, 24 West 40th Street, New York 18, N. Y.

Discussion of the Topic

Herbert F. Travers, Chief, Worcester, Mass.: In Massachusetts, control of fire damage caused by the practice of using torches of various types for the purpose of removing paint is through regulations issued by the State Fire Marshal. Our State has a Board of Fire Prevention Regulations whose function is to create such controlling regulations. At this time no such regulations exist.

I would say that we definitely should have regulations to control this practice. The type fire caused by painters’ torches is such that high loss is sustained. The fire is a hidden one which works its way unnoticed for some time up through concealed spaces, inside exterior walls, and many times up into the attic before it is discovered. Much ripping out of interior finish, plaster, roofing and walls results with considerable damage to interiors.

In Worcester we have fires of this type on too many occasions and many of these fires get a good foothold because the painters attempt extinguishing them before calling for help. They do not realize that the fire has worked in concealed places and has extended to upper floors, into blind attics, etc.

I would suggest that a permit be obtained for each paint-burning job from the head of the fire department subject to such conditions as he may prescribe. Such conditions should include the requirements that adequate first aid extinguishing equipment be maintained on hand to put out incipient fires and should also include tools such as axe, hook and similar small tools. Hours for such burning should be regulated to provide against the hazard of loss of life to persons within the structure. All painters be holders of a certificate of competency attesting that they have adequate knowledge of the hazards involved, knowledge of building construction, likelihood of fires from such practice, how to prevent the occurrence of fire, how to detect that a fire has started, what to do with the tools at hand and finally to realize the importance of promptly calling the fire department when needed.


  1. Do you believe that fire damage, resulting from painters using gasoline torches for paint removal, warrants some form of control by municipalities?
  2. If so, what method of control would you suggest?
  3. How would you control painters from out of town who do not do business regularly in your community?

Painters from out of town, being required to have a certificate of competency to work in their own community, would know that it was necessary to live up to the requirements of whatever other community they might enter to do their work. The conditions should be as nearly uniform as possible and only persons with a proper certificate should be allowed to do whatever burning is done in any community. This should bring about a much better understanding of the hazards of the work and result in reduced losses and fire occurrences from this dangerous practice.

Thomas H. Cotter, Chief, Providence, R. I.: I do believe a form of control is needed by municipalities to alleviate dwelling house fires caused by painters’ torches. Inasmuch as there is no other means of removing paint as economically as a gasoline torch, I think it only fair not to consider its entire elimination which would be the easy way out as far as the fire departments are concerned, but to call a meeting of the insurance company heads and the painting contractors of a municipality together for the purpose of drawing up an ordinance which would call for the licensing, of all painters who contract to paint dwelling houses or other non-fireproof buildings, therefore placing them under control.

It could be stipulated in the ordinance that any person causing fire to a building by use of a gasoline torch for the removal of paint, not holding a bonafide license, would be subject to a fine of five hundred dollars ($500), this would tend to eliminate the fly-by-night painter who generally causes this type of fire. I say this after having observed various painters at work.

The responsible contractor painting a house wants no part of a fire, therefore he will look for openings which allow fire to enter inner walls and secure them. In all other respects through past experience and his general knowledge of the painting business, it would tend to make him a safer person to handle a gasoline torch. I also believe a method to tighter control and which should be incorporated with the licensing of painting contractors would be to make it compulsory for painting contractors to secure a permit to burn paint off a building, with permits being issued only to licensed painters by the fire prevention bureau of their respective municipalities. The fire prevention bureau before issuing permit would notify the insurance company that the burning of paint was being contemplated on one of their holdings.

This method would consummate the following:

1st. The non-licensed painter would legally be eliminated from burning paint.

Responsibility for loss in the event of fire caused by the burning of paint could be agreed upon by the insurance company and the painting contractor, thus eliminating law suits.

It could also be made compulsory for all out-of-town painting contractors to become licensed in the municipality in which they intend to do painting, therefore the out-of-town painters would be compelled to comply with the laws of that municipality before the issuance of a license.

G. R. McAlpine, Chief, Oklahoma City, Okla.: The Fire Records in our City show an unusual number of fires are caused each year by removing paint, with blow torches.

I would suggest that the practice of removing paint with a blow torch be completely outlawed as being extremely hazardous, as borne out by Fire Department Records.

However, should a City not see fit to outlaw such practice, then, I would suggest that people or firms in the business of removing paint, and using the blow torch, be compelled by city ordinance, to obtain permits from the fire chief, or his constituted representative, and that such persons pay a fee for such permit, sufficient to justify inspection of the premises by a regularly constituted fire inspector.

An inspection will not eliminate the possibility of a fire, but it will have the effect of making some operators to realize the dangers of fire and maybe they will be a little more fire conscious. In some cases the permit would be denied due to hazardous conditions.

The people from out of the city would have to comply with city regulations, and failure to comply would mean a police fine, in addition to an inspection fee.

You can very easily regulate this business by city ordinance, but, as long as blow torches are used for removing paint, you will have the hazard of fire, and you will have the fires directly attributed to this paint removing by blow torch.

I, for one, believe the answer to this problem, is to outlaw it, as being extremely hazardous.

Clyde Dunn, Chief, Omaha, Neb.: While it is true that the removal of paint, by the blow torch method, constitutes a constant potential hazard we do have very few fires caused by this practice. A check of our records shows that we will not average six such fires a year and that at least four of these six will be the result of a non-professional painter burning off the paint on his own home.

I believe that the average professional painter is well aware of the seriousness of such a practice and, generally, exercises care in the use of the blow torch. In fact, many such professionals are now using electric sanding machines instead of the blow torch wherever feasible, or in hazardous locations.

I do not believe that in our city, legislative controls are called for. In the first place it would be difficult to enforce on either the non-resident or resident painter unless a permit system, backed by adequate inspection and enforcement, was in effect. Even this would not govern the work done by the individual on his own home and he is apt to be more of a problem than the professional painter.

Through regular fire-prevention educational channels we strive to reach both the professional and the nonprofessional painter as to the nature of the hazards involved and to set forth acceptable safe-practices to be followed. Locally, this seems to be bearing fruit and I believe is sufficient to control the problem.

Thomas J. Phelan. Chief, Trenton, N. J.: The fire damage, resulting from painters using gasoline torches for paint removal in this City, is negligible. We had six such fires in 1947. There is a danger in this process, but I see no way to control same, except by ordinance prohibiting such procedure, and I believe same would be very difficult to enforce.

As far as controlling painters from out of the town, the only way, I know, would be to license same and this, in my opinion, is somewhat farfetched.

Henry G. Thomas, Chief, Hartford, Conn.: Over a period of years we have had a number of fires, some of them serious, resulting from the use of gasoline torches to burn off old paint from frame buildings.

Most of these fires occurred when the burning was done on clapboard or, shingle siding. The sparks get into hidden areas where fire starts, often unnoticed by the careless workman.

Where extra precautions are taken by careful workmen, such as only burning on a solid side, keeping away from the cracks and joints and having a hand extinguisher or water hose readily available, the hazard is minimized.

Where we know the paint burning is to be done, our Fire Prevention requires these restrictions.

The practice is admittedly hard to control. It would seem desirable and reasonable for the City to require a permit for this type of work and hold the contractor liable for any damage from fire that might be caused by himself or, his workmen.

That most of our fires are caused by human carelessness is well known and it is quite .likely that the day will come when the person having such a fire will be called on for an explanation. If the average person were made to realize that he or she might have to suffer the costs of their own carelessness, we would have fewer such fires.

A start might be made by inserting a clause in all fire insurance policies to the effect that payment of loss would be withheld where the fire was caused by the use of a gasoline torch to burn off paint, without a proper permit.

George E. Hare, Chief, Jacksonville, Fla.: Jacksonville is undoubtedly fortunate in this respect, for conditions are such that there is very little use of these torches for paint removal, and I do not recall a single instance wherein the cause of fire might be laid to the same.

However, control of same could easily be set up by the passing of local ordinances forbidding the use of the torches by local or itinerant painters.

Charles A. Gill, Acting Chief Engineer, Philadelphia, Pa.: I do not believe there is any control that can be set up in municipalities as to the use of gasoline torches as they are used by professional painters and novices as well. Anyone can purchase and use them for many uses, but I do say owners of same and those who use them can be made conscious of their dangers. This can apply to the professional painter, as well as the novice, through education.

The educational program to be carried on by the manufacturer of the gasoline torch, through a pamphlet issued with the torch when bought, or published in some magazine of popular issue, or a metal plate placed on each torch with the hazards to be encountered when using same, should consist of the following:

Use only white gas in this torch.

Do not refill while torch is hot or burning.

Do not make repairs to this torch while it is filled. Empty before making repairs—make sure there are no leaks around connections before lighting.

After filling, wipe off all excess gas before lighting.

Refill outdoors whenever possible and keep away from inflammable materials.

When used to remove paint do not use torch near a hole or opening in the wood or metal as there may be a bird’s nest in same which you cannot see.

Remove all dust from horizontal surfaces above where you are burning.

Where wood has become decayed or rotten do not burn.

If you leave the torch, put it out. Do not leave it for a second out of your sight while lit.

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