THE WASHINGTON FIRE DEPARTMENT
Specially written for FIRE AND WATER ENGINEERING
The fire department of the District of Columbia occupies an unique position when compared with other fire departments throughout the country, in that appropriations for its maintenance are made by the Congress of the United States, instead of by the municipal government, as in other jurisdictions. The District of Columbia has an area of seventy-two square miles and a population of 329,500. The number of brick and frame buildings is estimated at 75,000. It is provided with high and low-water pressure, with a maximum of 125 lbs. and a minimum of 15 lbs. Four thousand tire hydrants have been set. I he District is governed by three Commissioners, two civilians and one United States Army officer, all appointed by the President of the United States and confirmed by the United States Senate. The term of office of these Commissioners is three years, or until their successors have been appointed. The present Commissioners arc Hon. Henry 11. F. Macfarland, Hon. Henry L. West, and Captain Jay J. Morrow. Mr. Macfarland, president of the Hoard of Commissioners, has direct supervision over th•• lire department. The lire department was first organised in July, 1864, and consisted of three engine companies and one truck company, one chief engineer, one foreman, one engineer, one assist’ ant engineer, and one d iver for each company. Six extra men and six supernumeraries were also nrevided for each company. For the truck company there were also provided one ti.lerman, one driv r. six extra men. ami six supernumeraries. All of these men received a small salary, with the exception of the supernumeraries, who served without compensation. At the present time the department consists of one chief engi nc r, one deputy chief engineer, three battalion chief engineers, and 404 other officers and men. The department is divided into twenty engine compani s, ten truck companies, four chemical companies, one lifeboat company, one 75-ft. Champion water tower, with two large turretpipes on its frame, ten double 35-gal. chemical tank combination hose wagons, fourt tit twohorse hose carriages, and three extra steam fire engines which are kept in reserve. Seven of the combination chemical and hose wagons, which are located in the center of the city, are equiped with powerful wagon-pipes. All of the trucks are aerial, and they are equiped with ladderpipes, which practically makes them water towers. The department now has in service 197 good active horses, and there are 700 fire-alarm boxes and telephone stations in the District. The tire alarm system in use is the Gamewetl, and is considered one of the best and most up-to-date in the country. The manner of receiving alarms is by a joker System, a large house-gong, and an indicator. The system is strictly non-interfering. William T. Belt, the Chief Engineer of the District of Columbia fire department, is a great advocate of the use of rubber tires on fire-department apparatus. The great majority of Washington’s streets are paved with asphalt, and in winter weather this asphalt, when coated with sleet or a thin layer of snow, causes the hind wheels of the engines to slew from side to side. This has frequently caused the engines to turn over, and, in some instances, drivers and cngincmcnt have been seriously injured. Again, in the summer time, the asphalt pavement becomes softened from the heat and rubber tires have a tendency to adhere to it, making it extremely hard for the horses to pull the apparatus and considerably retarding their speed in respending to alarms. To overcome these difficulties Chief Belt has equiped several of his engines, and all of his assistant chiefs’ buggies with rubber tires. The rubber tires are used in the winter from October 15 to May 15, and the steel tires in the summer, from May 15 to October 15. By this means th; difficulties have been overcome and the repair bills of the department greatly reduced. In course of time the chief calculates to have all of his apparatus eauiped with tw’o sets of tires. The District of Columbia is better situated than most jurisdictions for the installation of a gravity highpressure system, and for several years past the chief has been earnestly beseeching Congress to make the necessary appropriations for the installation of such a system. The water supply of the District is stored in two reservoirs, one with a capacity of 35,000,000 gals.; the other, with a capacity of 4,500,000 gals. The reservoir from which it is proposed to feed the high-pressure system is situated 415 ft. above mean tidelevel and six miles from the business center of the city. Practical demonstrations on a 12-in. main from this reservoir resulted in securing from a single lire hvdrant, eleven squares north of the area to be protected, eight large and effective streams. This indicates very clearly that, if Chief Belt’s project is carried out, by installing truck-mains in the business area of the city, from forty to sixty effective fire streams could be obtained from seven or ten fire hydrants in an area of 700 ft. This system would not require the installation of a single pumping station, and would be purely a gravity high-pressure system.
(Photo by Harris & Ewing.)
The head of the fire department of the District of Columbia has been more or less connected with the fire-service ever since he was a hoy of eleven years of age, over fifty years ago. when he used to play truant from school and help to haul the apparatus of the National Capital to the scene of a fire. By the time he was sixteen he w’as elected a member of the cld Franklin volunteer company, when as yet both the city and the fire department were of much smaller proportions than they arc today. Massachusetts avenue was then the boundary of anything like a settled population, and all north of it was more or less wild. The apparatus had to he hauled to Florida avenue and dragged at full speed to the Navy Yard and Georgetown. The department was then purely volunteer, and the apparatus consisted of three engines, a few hose reels and a hook and ladder truck. Today there are seven times the number of engines, ten times as many trucks, all aerial, besides a fireboat and a water tower, chemical combination wagons and all the appliances that a first-class department stands in need of, besides a full-paid manual force of 404 officers and men. In 1864, when a paid fire department was established, he became a member of it and remained in its ranks till 1869, when for
personal reasons he left it, rejoining it as a pri vate in 1879. In 1886 he was appointed foreman. succeeding Chi f Parris, who in that tear was made chief of the department. In 1888 he was created assistant chief by act of Congress, and on July n, 1903, succeeded a newspaper editor whose political pull had hoisted him into the position of chief. As head of fire department of the National Capital, Chi,.’ Belt has to watch over the safety of over seventy square miles of territory and about as many thousand of buildings of every class, from the Capitol itself down to the humblest negro shanty. These buildings are being added to daily, and Washington is now no stranger to the skyscraper, with its accompanying perils. The city has many hazardous risks that have to be most carefully guarded. These include the White House, the Federal buildings, with their accumulated and costly treasures in the way’ of fittings and equipment, the Navy yard, the numerous religious and educational establishments, the Smithsonian Institution and other art collections, to say nothing of the magnificent hotels, apartment houses and private residences, with which the city abounds. There is, besides, the “hazardous” section, including the Government printing office and the business portion in the northwest part cf Washington. For all of these Chief Belt is held responsible, and of that responsibility he is deeply sensible—how deeply is shown by his continuous attention to the minutest details of everything that even remotely concerns his duty. He has a constant eye first to the selection of men to serve as firemen, their physique, their intelligence, their moral character, and then to their discipline and training, to which he gives personal attention, and their comforts, knowing, as he does from experience what are the many discomforts of a fireman’s life. After the men have been seen to, comes his care of the apparatus. fire-alarm telegraph system, and horses, all of which he insists shall be of the best and most up-to-date. In this way, he has organised, and maintains in most perfect order, discipline and efficiency a fire department which has no superior in the country—probably in the world. His heedfulness extends far beyond headquarters and the various fire stations. The water supply, the fire hydrants, the water mains, all are equally objects of his solicitude and expressive of his determination that nothing shall be found wanting however pressing the emergency. Nor does his watchfulness cease at that point. It extends not only to the building laws of the city, but to the vigilant and rigid inspection of the buildings themselves, in order that he may be able by personal observation and that of trustworthy aides to judge of the risks to which the particular neighborhood and. in some cases, the city itself may be exposed through faulty construction or thprosecution of hazardous risks, through carelessness cn the part of insured citizens, who imagine that their responsibilities cease with paying their insurance rates, or arc switched on to’ the shoulders of the fire department, whose lookout it is to protect life and property. To all t.iese multifarious details Chief Belt pays personal attention, his one idea being to do what is best for the District of Columbia. By that spirit Chief Belt is ruled. He is no politician, nor will he be subservient in any wav to the wiles of the politician. He is amenable neither to fear nor favor, and the same indomitable pluck that has distinguish’d him through his whole career as a fireman carries him through in the performance of his responsible duties as chief. As head of the department he shows the most rigid impartiality. All he requires of his subordinates is obedience to orders and conscientious work when on duty. These are the steppingstones to advancement, provided, of course, natural ability for higher work is present. One noteworthy feature in Chief Belt’s character is his modesty. He does his work quietly, without the accompaniment of the limelight of publicity or the blare of trumpets. He is always on the spot, when and where his services are needed, and shrinks from bold advertisement. He does his duty and is content with that.