What the Smaller Fire Department Is Up Against

What the Smaller Fire Department Is Up Against

Problems in Fire Protection Which the Authorities Must Meet— Largely of Financial Nature—Evolution of Small Fire Department

THE problems of the small city or town fire department are distinct in themselves and are largely of a financial character. The following paper gives some interesting phases of the matter:

In our consideration of the problems of fire protection we are too often tempted to restrict our attention to the larger cities. Consequently, we rejoice in the opportunity today of asking you to consider with us those peculiar problems which we of the smaller cities and towns of the country have to face in safeguarding lives and property.

After all. the vast majority of the American people and a large percentage of the property values are to be found not in the large centers of population but in the smaller communities that dot the nation. Moreover, the statistics will disclose that the heaviest fire losses are sustained in the small cities and towns.

Three Classes of Small Departments

Viewed from the standpoint of organization, the fire departments of the smaller communities may be thrown into three classes:

1—The volunteer department.

2—The volunteer-paid department.

3—The full paid department.

As a rule every community in its growth from a village to a sizeable city passes through the three successive stages of fire department organization given above. When a village first begins to feel the need of organized fire protection, it makes a modest beginning with a volunteer personnel. The equipment of such volunteer departments varies with the progressiveness of the community, ranging all the way from an untrustworthy bucket brigade to comparatively modern apparatus.

Evolution of the Small Fire Department

After a spell of growth the village begins to realize that fire-fighters whose services are altogether volunteer cannot be relied upon to give the instantaneous and continuous service that the growing needs of the community require. This realization brings about the next stage of expansion which involves the introduction of a few full paid men. In this way does the community attempt to secure more dependable protection against fire while making concessions to economy. As the town grows and acquires more of the estate of a city, there comes the change to a full paid department. This change may be sudden; usually, however, it is tediously slow.

Those who have watched the encouraging improvement in the methods, personnel and apparatus of the fire departments of the smaller communities during the past ten years agree that the smaller cities and towns have kept pace with the general progress in fire-fighting which has marked the past decade. The statistics revealing the increase in apparatus, for instance, will prove that the smaller communities have not lagged behind. They have been every whit as alert as the larger cities.

Financial Problems of Smaller Cities

Nevertheless, this increase has not been rapid enough and large enough—and perhaps it will never be rapid and large enough—to place the average community in a position to cope with a real emergency. This is the particular problem which we w’ish to discuss today.

Large fires, even conflagrations, are just as apt to develop in small communities as in larger cities. In fact, the records will probably show that the majority of the serious conflagrations during the past decade have visited towns and cities of modest size.

The reason for this is quite obvious. No city is so small that it hasn’t enough buildings to furnish fuel for a conflagration. On the other hand, the average small community is not in a financial position to maintain the reserve of men, apparatus and equipment adequate to combat large fires. A threatening blaze in a large city will bring into play ten trucks and a hundred men. There is perhaps not a single city of the population of 25,000 in the country which has ten trucks and a hundred men in its service. The consequence is that such fires which are easily controlled in the larger cities get out of control in the smaller cities and gather the proportions of a conflagration.

The further result is (and the statistics will bear us out in this) that the per capita fire loss in the smaller communities of the country is vastly larger than in the larger cities.

Reciprocity One Solution of Problem

Of course, if the smaller communities are to be protected against ungovernable conflagrations, some arrangement must be worked out by which the reserve fire-fighting strength of the smaller centers of population can he increased without bankrupting the municipal treasuries.

In the more populous sections of the nation where small cties abound side by side, this reserve can be easily provided through reciprocity. The fire department of each town in the cluster becomes the reserve of the fire departments of the neighboring towns. The principle of reciprocity has not been worked out as completely as it should be. There ought to be specific agreements between groups of communities by which each may feel free to call on the other and each will know for a certainty what it may confidently expect from each other. There ought to be a feeling that the aggregate fire-fighting facilities of the area are pooled and can be quickly diverted to any point of grave danger.

Sparcely Populated Sections Must Rely on Themselves

Such reciprocity reserve is not possible in the less densly populated sections of the country, such for instance as we have in North Carolina. Let us take our own state for illustration. It is a large state covering 48,580 square miles of territory. It has a population of 2,750,000. It is comparatively speaking a rich state. Certainly it is a progressive state, yet in all of this vast expanse of territory with its untold millions of property we have only 84 fire departments, 160 pieces of motor apparatus, 192 paid firemen and 1,800 volunteer firemen.

It must be quite apparent to all that there isn’t much reserve to go around. When it is further considered that most of our cities are located at considerable distances from each other, it becomes painfully manifest that our communities must rely on themselves for their reserve. In fact, there are only three cities in North Carolina that are located in such proximity to each other that their fire departments can be of the slightest service to each other in eases of emergency.

Lays Heavy Responsibility on Chiefs

This state of affairs lays a heavy responsibility upon every fire chief in our state, a responsibility which we must accept but which we are not always able to discharge. As long as we are able to keep our fires within the limits set by our men, equipment and apparatus, all is well hut when a fire exceeds these very narrow bounds, we are helpless. We have mi large neighboring departments to which we can turn for help.

“If the smaller communities are to be protected against ungovernable conflagrations, some arrangement must be worked out by which the reserve fire-fighting strength of the smaller centers of population can be increased without bankrupting the municipal treasuries.”

This was brought home to us tragically two years ago by a conflagration which visited the little city of Newbern. This fire consumed $2,000,000 worth of property before it was subdued. The fire speedily got beyond the control of the local department and there were no neighboring departments that could be imported in time and with sufficient strength to check the flames.

While we have been speaking of the conditions in the state with which we are most familiar, this same situation exists in varying degrees in most of the states of the Union. It constitutes for the chiefs of the smaller cities their most frightening problem

(From report of Committee on Small City Fire Departments by its chairman to convention of the International Association of Engineers.)

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