UTILIZING FIRE DEPARTMENTS FOR FIRE PREVENTION WORK
The first question that presents itself for solution in giving consideration to this topic is whether or not the work of fire prevention has a proper place among the legitimate activities of fire departments maintained at public expense. In seeking for a satisfactory answer to this question, it becomes necessary to ask another and find the answer thereto, which is: What are the real functions of a fire department? To my mind, a satisfactory and comprehensive answer to the latter question is that fire departments are organized and supported for the purpose of protecting life and property from fire; therefore, any activity in which they may engage which will assist in achieving these aims constitutes a proper work for such departments. Now if the work of fire departments is to protect life and property from fire and we concede that fire prevention work does prevent fires, then it follows as a logical conclusion that fire departments should do fire prevention work, and answers our first question.
Fire preventionists in general and fire marshals in particular are in agreement that a large per cent, of the fires which occur in this country are preventable. The Actuarial Bureau of the National Board of Fire Underwriters has compiled a graphic comparison of fire causes for the year 1915 arranged according to States. In our judgment, the Bureau has been quite conservative in stating the percentage of strictly preventable fires, yet an analysis of this chart supports the contention of preventionists that a latge per cent, of the fires in this country can be prevented. Fire preventionists believe that by legislation, inspection, arson investigations, and education, a large number of fires can be stopped while they exist in the latent state or in the form of fire hazards.
Have you ever seriously asked yourself the question: Why is it that America has the greatest fire waste of any country on the globe despite the fact that she has the most expensive, best equipped and most efficient fire departments? May we not find the answer to this question in the fact that we have directed most all our thought and our energies toward fighting potential fires, and have neglected the correction of the fire hazards which made the potential fires possible. Is it not a fact that in many of the countries of Europe which have made such great progress in. reducing fire waste, consideration is given first to fire prevention, and second to fire extinguishing; and have they not, by legislation, investigation, and education made the occurrence of a preventable fire a very difficult thing? In this country we note bond issues and tax ourselves to the limit to provide what vve believe to be effective weapons with which to wage war against the fiery serpent, and then, instead of taking the offensive and conducting a head smashing campaign in the lurking places and on the breeding ground of the fiery serpent, we wait for him to attack us and exhaust both our treasury and our energies in a defensive campaign by striking him on the tail while he destroys. Moreover, there is a big advantage in fighting a latent fire instead of waiting for it to become potential. First, it saves a property loss and perhaps the loss of life. Second, it saves wear and tear of fire department equipment. Third, it subtracts from the dangers to which firemen subject themselves in answering alarms and fighting fires. Therefore, it is easy to conclude that the least expensive, the least dangerous, and the most efficient way to fight a preventable fire is to fight it before it starts. When we come to understand the tremendous possibilities which may be accomplished by fire departments doing fire prevention work, we shall marvel why it was that we have so long neglected the use of the most effective organization at our command, and were satisfied that they concentrated their energies upon the function of fire extinguishment, wholly neglecting the proper function of fire prevention, and in many cases have actually seen our fire waste increase where we had a right to expect that it would decrease on account of the fire fighting facilities provided.
It has been asserted by well informed advocates of the doctrine that fire departments should be, first of all, fire preventionists, that if one-tenth of the money and energy expended for fire extinguishment were expended for practical fire prevention, the results would be almost marvelous. After an investigation of what some cities have done along this line, whose officials have gotten the larger vision, I am prepared to say that I believe such a statement is not overdrawn.
But how are we to get fire departments to assume the performance of this neglected function? While we believe it to be true that most city officials and nearly all progressive fire chiefs are convinced of the value of fire prevention work, at the same time it seems that they are of the opinion that the only way the fire department can undertake such work is by having an additional force, which would require additional funds, and since, in these latter days, most municipalities are at the limit of their income, we get thus far and no farther. The thing to be done it to convince city officials and fire chiefs that fire prevention work is as much the duty of the fire department as is potential fire fighting, that it is responding to still alarms, if you please, and that the fear which is sometimes expressed that firemen away from the station doing inspections would seriously cripple the department in answering potential fire alarms, is unfounded. I am glad that we have some splendid examples of what cities can do along this line, whose experiences we may use in arguing our contention.
In the City of Portland, Ore., when the fire department first began real fire prevention work, every member of the force was required to do inspection work. Not all at the same time, of course, but some member of every fire company in the city, every working day in the year, was busy discovering fire hazards and having them corrected. After the city was once thoroughly cleaned up, the number of regular inspectors was reduced to 41, or one man from each company, who kept up fire prevention work not only in the business district but in the residence district as well. 1 need only to mention that Portland, by this character of work, was able the first year to reduce her alarms more than 50 per cent, to prove that fire prevention in Portland has been worth while.
Milwaukee has, for a number of years, carried on fire prevention work through its fire department. About lour years ago, I believe, the State of Wisconsin passed an act compelling all cities in the State to have their fire departments to make quarterly inspections of the business sections, and semi-annual inspections of other sections. Chief Clancy of the Milwaukee Department is my authority for the statement that the city is divided into seven districts, each district having an assistant chief. From each district, an inspector is detailed for daily inspection work, all of whom report to the captain of the inspection squad every morning. These seven inspectors report all defects which they find to the captain of the squad, who immediately details one of his follow-up men to see that the defects are remedied. By reason of this work, Milwaukee was able to decrease its fire alarms in 1915 as compared with 1914 by 29 per cent., and reduce its fire loss from $770,945 to $498,009. The city officials, the fire department, and the citizens of Milwaukee are all convinced that fire prevention pays.
In the city of Cincinnati, all uniformed firemen do inspection work, and during the last fiscal year, these firemen rfiade over 60,000 inspections; and in 1915, as compared with 1914, reduced their alarms 20 per cent., and their fire loss nearly 50 per cent.
In each of these cities, this work has been done without increasing the force of the fire department, with the exception of what are termed “follow-up men,” and in most cases they arc also members of the fire department who have been retired from potential fire fighting because of some incapacity, but who are competent to do fire prevention work.
What Portland, Milwaukee, and Cincinnati have accomplished, every other city in the country can accomplish by use of the same methods. It is our candid judgment that any paid fire department which is not engaged in active fire prevention work is not discharging its whole duty to the citizens who are taxed for its support, and is leaving unused its most effective weapon for the protection of life and property, which protection is the only reason for the existence of any fire department.
Firemen at Davenport, la., have asked for a second raise in salary.
*Excepts from a paper before the convention of the Fire Marshals’ Association of North America, held at New Orleans, La., November 14 to 10, 1917.