WORK OF THE FIRE PREVENTION DEPARMENT
When the Massachusetts Legislature in 1914 established the Fire Prevention Commissioner for the Metropolitan District it did not provide for him a corps of inspectors. It authorized the appointment of a deputy, who, in the absence or disability of the commissioner, shall exercise all his powers, and who, at other times, shall perform such inspection, or other duties, as the commissioner may direct.” In addition it authorized the employment of a secretary and of office employees who should keep the files, the card catalogues and records and attend to the correspondence. No inspectors were given the commissioner, but he was authorized in doing the work of his department to require the assistance of the head of the fire department or any other designated officer in any city or town in the Metropolitan District. His duty was to co-ordinate and direct existing agencies. The legislature approved the attempt to lessen the fire loss, but sought to do the work with a minimum expense. This system may well be called the Massachusetts system. It has now been under trial for a year and I am ready to admit that, In the main, it has been successful, and its success has been due to the splendid spirit of city and town officials, who have cheerfully assumed the extra work, and have intelligently performed it. The system is producing excellent results to-day, but as time passes it is certain to develop more and more, and to accomplish more and more satisfactorily the results sought. At the start it faced danger of shipwreck. Some officials were inclined to resent a request for their services; others were already overburdened with work. Consideration and forbearance on all sides alone made a successful start possible. The dangers are now passed. City and town officials have learned that the State Department is not a master but a powerful assistant, always adapting itself to local needs and local views, and supporting local officials to the utmost in their efforts to better conditions. Under the Massachusetts syste’m for fire prevention the commissioner is all important. He is compelled to work through local officials and his work will be a failure unless the local officials arc in hearty accord with him. Every letter that he writes, every word that he speaks may be pregnant with disaster. He must always aim to be self-centred and request instead of demand the assistance that the statute authorizes him to ask. The work is wholly under his control and will be only as forceful as he is; it will be as deep and as wide as he may make it. For success in fire prevention, under the Massachusetts system, the full sympathy of the community is essential. To win and hold that sympathy the commissioner must be no respecter of persons—by that I mean that exactly the same treatment must be given to the powerful and the humble. It has been the constant effort of the Fire Prevention Commissioner, during the year that he has been in office, to see local fire conditions through the eyes of the chief. From the chief he has learned the localities and the premises where conditions existed that were likely to cause fires, and then he has done whatever was in bis power to remove those conditions. The first way in which the Fire Prevention campaign has been waged, then, has been through the fire departments of the various cities and towns—by means of their inspections and reports, and in the execution of corrective work that they have recommended. Their assistance on this side has been splendid, but inspection is slow work, and when the inspector has turned his back the bad conditions are very likely to return. For that reason the commissioner felt that something should be done to enlist the assistance of proprietors of hazardous premises. With that in view action of one kind or another has been taken during the year. At the present time the Fire Prevention Department is engaged in the following work; It is well known that store and shop basements are the places where very many fires, start. The fire is caused by disorderly or unsafe conditions and the loss is frequently very much increased by the fact that the basement is so cluttered that it is difficult for the firemen to move around with their chemicals and hose. Some measure was needed that would improve these condtions without the necessity of frequent inspections. Here is what is being done. The following circular has been prepared and it is being mailed to persons engaged in certain lines of business throughout the Metropolitan District:
Circular Relative to Basements.
Dear Sir:—Your attention is called to the fact that a very large percentage of fires start in basements. These fires are largely caused or made more disastrous by disorderly conditions—that is, the accumulation of excelsior, paper, packing boxes and general rubbish. The task of extinguishing such fires is made difficult, and sometimes impossible, by failure to provide suitable passageways for the firemen.
I am making an effort to remove these dangerous conditions. At the end of two weeks, and occasionally after that, the Fire Department will inspect your basement and report through the chief to me. On those reports made to me from time to time I shall decide whether the installation of sprinklers is necessary. Avoid the expense of sprinklers by keeping conditions correct in your basement.
Here are some of the matters on which the inspector will report:
- —Keep no rubbish, excelsior, paper or other inflammable litter in the basement.
- —Keep the merchandise neatly piled up.
- —Allow reasonable passageways for the firemen.
- —See that smoke and heat pipes, chimneys and furnaces are in good condition.
- —Keep no inflammable fluids except in fireproof rooms.
- —Install basement sprinklers.
- —Have no gas meter under or near a stairway.
- —Wire lath and cement plaster the ceiling of the basement.
- —Place hand extinguishers at convenient points.
- —As far as possible, remove wooden closets that may become receptacles for waste or rubbish.
- —Make your janitor responsible for conditions.
Observance of these precautions will be much more effective in saving you the expense of sprinkler installation than any efforts made after the order has been issued.
Very truly yours,
Fire Prevention Commissioner for the Metropolitan District.
On this matter, I have consulted very fully with the chiefs and they suggest that this circular be sent to five, ten and twenty-five-cent stores, dry goods stores, drug stores, furniture stores and grocery stores. The circular will work in this way: Proprietors now realize that the installation of automatic sprinklers is no vague dream. It is an actuality and the expense is considerable. Here is a good, fair warning to them to put their houses in order. Meantime an inspector from the fire department will drop into the basement some day and a copy of this report will reach the commissioner. If conditions are not satisfactory in will go the necessary sprinklers and the fact that sprinklers are ordered will become public and will have a salutary effect on others.
Improved Building Construction.
Improved construction is one of the most permanent kinds of work in fire prevention. Where a fireproof building takes the place of a wooden building the community is made a safer place in which to live and do business. It is no answer to say that Edison’s cement buildings were destroyed by fire the other day. They were destroyed by fire because of the vast amount of inflammable material stored in them and because of the great areas exposed to the sweep of the flames. Here were two conditions that created an irresistible heat. These conditions are not often found existing together. The restriction of large floor areas in garages is an indication of the way in which this danger is being met. The Fire Prevention Commissioner has advanced improved construction in two ways: First, by advice and action with city and town councils looking towards improved building laws; second, by insisting on a high grade of construction in buildings over which he has control, as in garages. No more large garages will be erected in the Metropolitan Fire Prevention District to stand as a constant menace to surrounding property—a menace that in the case of a garage with a wooden roof extends to property a iong distance on all sides. For example—in the city of Lynn at the present time four public garages are being built. Two of them are in residential neighborhoods and not a stick of timber will be permitted in their construction. A third one is in a business locality and it will be built equally well. The fourth garage is on the very outskirts of the city of Lynn, near the town of Swampscott. This locality is rapidly being built up and it seemed to the Fire Prevention Commissioner and the chief of the Lynn fire department that inferior construction should not be allowed even there. The result is that that garage will be built with brick or cement walls, cement floor and a mill construction roof with noncombustible covering. The fire loss is largely the result of bad habits and bad customs. A thoughtful Fire Prevention Commissioner must attempt the change of these bad habits land bad customs. This cannot be done by edict; it cannot be done by regulations. It can only be done by education. That brings us to one of the most promising fields of fire prevention work—the educational work. We must not believe that educational work is limited to the schools. It is carried on through the press, through addresses, through the everyday conversations between men on this subject. It is assisted by showing that fire losses are not paid by insurance companies, nor by the men who pay the premiums, but by the common people, almost per capita; by showing the destruction of life by fire; by showing the causes of fires. Very promising results may be expected from work in the schools. A very large percentage of fires are caused by children; we hope to reach many of these fires. But over and above that, the children will carry home the lessons they have learned, and we may feel certain to a large extent these lessons will correct home conditions. A lack of simple books suitable for school work, and the expense of buying books were obstacles encountered at the start. These obstacles have been largely overcome. The Boston “Post” has agreed to publish on Monday of each week a talk on fire prevention. Each talk will be on a separate cause and will be so arranged as to furnish the teacher a guide for work. This arrangement will save the necessity of buying books to a large extent and will place the lesson each week within easy reach. It is likely that these talks will interest persons outside the schools. It is a disgrace to a community to have a large fire loss; it is evidence of ignorance or carelessness. To a certain extent it is an arraignment of the entire population. It marks the community as an unsafe place in which to live or trade. In this matter, the true test is not the amount of loss, but the number of alarms. The carelessness of a community is marked by the number of alarms. Why should not an appeal be made to the pride of a community to better its record? That is to be done in this way. At the beginning of each month, from the records in the commissioners’ office the number of alarms per thousand of the population in each city and town in the district will be figured out and the standing of the cities and towns given. This list the Boston “Herald” has kindly agreed to publish. The city or town having fewest fires per thousand will be known as “the safest community in the district.” An interesting consideration in connection with the work of the Fire Prevention Commissioner is this:—The very close connection between it and the preservation of life. Automatic sprinklers have been ordered in about 150 buildings and in every case the sprinklers have been ordered primarily to protect life, not property. The statute expressly requires that at least four persons must live or work above the second floor in a building before the commissioner can order sprinklers. The removal of blacksmith shops, paint shops, carpenter shops, rag shops and other similar places from dwelling houses, or from the neighborhood of dwelling houses, has been done to protect life. As the department develops and the work grows this part of it will become of the greatest interest and importance to the cities and towns that .have become parts of the Fire Prevention District. This gives a very brief and incomplete view of the work that has been done and is being done in the fire prevention department. The work is not yet a year old. The department was not fully organized until last November. Now what are the results? It is impossible for the Fire Prevention Commissioner to prove that he has prevented a single fire. But a perfectly fair test is this-—has he been doing the kind of work that is likely to prevent fires, and if so, has any change taken place in the fire loss, and in the alarms. The kind of work done by the Fire Prevention Commissioner has been indicated. Now for the fire losses.
•Abstract of paper read at Convention of the Massachusetts State Firemen’s Association, Haverhill, Mass., Sept. 29 Oct. 1. 1915.
For the last six months of 1913 the fire loss in the city of Boston was $1,044,194; for the last six months of 1914, bringing us down to January 1st of this year, the fire loss in Boston was $1,054,254. Here was an increase of about $10,000 during the last six months of last year over the amount for the last six months of the year before. Let us now compare the first six months of the present year with the first six months of last year. During the first six months of last year the fire loss in Boston was $1,959,014; during the first six months of the present year the fire loss has been $1,095,300. Let us now turn to the matter of alarms. It will be recollected that the month of March of the present year was. an exceptionally dry time. No rain fell. Fires started and were blazing everywhere; the danger was the one public subject of conversation; things came to such a climax that the Governor issued a proclamation extending the close season for certain kinds of game in order to lessen the terrible danger of fires in the woods. In estimating the alarms for March of this year, in comparison with the alarms of March of last year this fact must be taken into account. The two months cannot be compared with any fairness. Leaving out of account the month of March for 1914 and 1915, and com-paring the other five months in the first half of each of those years we get the following figures for fire alarms, including bell alarms and still alarms: The number of alarms for those months in 1914 was 5,823; in 1915 the number had fallen for the some months to 4,913. It remains for me to say a word about the expense of fire prevention under the Massachusetts system. This system reduces the expense to a minimum and it must be regarded as extremely satisfactory if with that light expense good results can be obtained. During the present year the expense of fire prevention per capita throughout the Metropolitan District has been about one and one-half cents. The fire loss in Haverhill last year was about $3.29 per capita. The expense of fire prevention is a small amount to hazard on the chanc of reducing so large a loss. For the first six months of 1914 the per capita fire loss throughout the Metropolitan Fire Prevention District was $4.25; for the first six months in 1915 the per capita fire loss throughout the same district has been $3.00. A final word about the fire alarms in recent months. In May, 1914, the number of alarms throughout the Metropolitan District was 1,085; in May, 1915, the number of alarms was 975. In June, 1914, the number of alarms throughout the Metropolitan District was 1,337. In June, 1915, the number of alarms had fallen to 935. These facts would all seem to meet successfully the test that I mentioned above. The Fire Prevention Department has been doing exactly the work that was calculated to lessen fire loss and fire alarms, and, as a matter of fact, the fire loss and fire alarms have been lessened.