Page images

nity; you will prevent the commission of crime, and thus promote good morals; and you will save the brave men whom you command from wanton exposure to danger and death.

These facts show you, gentlemen, that underwriters labor under disadvantages from which you are free. It has incidentally come to my knowledge that one of your members, a representative from Baltimore, is to make a report to you upon the general subject of incendiarism, and his interest in and knowledge of the subject will enable him ably to present the matter. From his report you will gather that it is the duty of each head of a fire department, unless there shall be a separate officer distinctly charged with that duty, to examine carefully the circumstances attending fires, and the causes of each fire, so as to detect incendiarism if that is the cause; to expose and correct carelessness if that has produced the burning, and to vindicate innocent sufferers by conflagrations.

It may seem to you, from what I have said respecting the frequency of incendiarism, that underwriters must regard the whole community as so far demoralized that almost any one is ready to apply the torch whenever he thinks he can gain by doing so; but this is not the case. The honest men of the community vastly preponderate over the dishonest. There happens annually one fire to about each one hundred and twentyfive policies issued. Assuming that to be the proportion of ordinary losses, and let one policy-holder extra in each two hundred and fifty be so depraved and desperate as to burn his property, then the losses would be much more than doubled; for the accidental fires include nearly all of the small and partial losses, while when an incendiary gets at work he means that his work shall be thorough and profitable to him, though he may burn out a dozen honest neighbors. It follows that if each five hundred policies include one extra incendiary, the losses are magnified over fifty per cent.; and if there be but one to each one thousand policies, the increased loss is over twenty-five per cent. Policy-holders are far from being, as a rule, incendiaries. Is it not an outrage that so small a portion of the community should cause so much loss and cost to the great mass?

Many of us have stood shudderingly near to noble men whose lives were suddenly crushed out of them at fires, by an unexpected explosion, or at the premature crumbling to pieces of the burning building. While it is the high and eagerly performed duty of a fireman, at his own peril, to preserve the property and lives of his fellow-citizens, it is an unspeakably wicked act when an incendiary subjects him to that peril, for purposes of revenge or of gain. There often comes to my mind an instance which occurred some years since—a fire, which those who adjusted the claim were thoroughly satisfied was intentionally caused for a mercenary purpose, and which sent hurriedly to their death a half-score of firemen and others. The party believed to be guilty was occasionally seen for years after, and his appearance seemed to show that he never forgot the ghosts he had made.

The National Board of Underwriters deserves commendation for having, by offers of reward, secured the punishment of incendiaries, until their aggregate terms of imprisonment reach to hundreds of years. Those underwriters who aided to secure the passage of the New York City Fire Marshal Law are entitled to public credit; and so is the officer who fills this office, and has under that law within five years sent thirtytwo incendiaries to the State prison.

When you, gentlemen, realize your duty and perform it, your fellow-citizens who are judges of your courts, or constitute your juries, will learn to sympathize with their suffering selves, and with their fellow-citizens as a whole, instead of with a criminal claimant upon a corporation. Your legislators will not encourage incendiarism by declaring that, no matter what may have been the depreciation in value of a building from use,

[graphic][merged small]

neglect, or abuse, since it was insured, nor if it was excessively insured by misrepresentation of the policy-holders, the amount of the policy shall be the measure of damage. Nor will they declare, as has in effect been done, that no misrepresentation, however gross, shall void a policy.

But, as has been already indicated, you have other important duties to perform, to which the restraint of incendiarism is but incidental. To properly perform those duties requires "full-length men," both mentally and morally. He must be both born and made a fireman who is to be thoroughly qualified for his work. Without that steadiness of nerve, that coolness in presence of danger, and that power of prompt decision wrhich are natural qualifications, no education can make a man a first-class fireman, and no man with these only is adequately fitted for the performance of that duty. Nor can the knowledge how best to perform these duties be acquired in a day. To lead men to project a ladder from the top of one high building to the roof of another, the upper stories of which are on fire, and are otherwise unapproachable, thus forming a bridge across a chasm thirty or forty feet wide and sixty or eighty feet deep; to qualify them in the darkness of the night, made more dark by stifling and blinding smoke, to cross that narrow bridge, carrying pipe and hose with them; and to enable them when they have crossed to use these effectively, requires natural courage, coolness, and discipline. And yet such things, and many others requiring equal bravery and firmness, have been done and will be done again. The fireman in the ranks needs such qualifications; the officers in command of the companies need them more; and the engineer-in-chief Qualifications of Firemen and Officers. 281

needs them most of all, for no man fit for that important office will command a subordinate to do what himself would shrink from doing. What fireman has not performed acts in the presence of extreme danger, with deliberate but unhesitating promptness, and without apprehension, the recollection of which caused him involuntary shrinkings a day or a week, yes, years after? Is it not amazing that at times such men so qualified are displaced by petty politicians, who dare to act in defiance of the best interests of their constituents?

We shall, I think, agree that the duties of the head of a fire department are important, and are worthy of the best efforts of manly men. The insurance officer who is willing to wind along in his slow and dreary way through his official life, never deviating from the well-trodden track of his predecessors, without effort to discover the principles of his business, how more equitably to adjust his premiums with reference to the hazards incurred, how better to secure those who pay premiums for the policies he issues, may be abundantly competent to draw his salary with a regularity equally undeviating; but he is not necessarily entitled to be called an underwriter. The world needs no such satisfied sloths, who know only that they know everything worth knowing; but it does need conscientious underwriters, who study diligently to make the business more elevated and more secure to policy-holders than they found it.

So with a chief engineer; for him simply to follow the lead of those who went before him, or even of those who are his contemporaries, without earnest study for himself, is a waste of opportunity, a neglect of duty. Whatever of good can thus be inherited should be clung to; whatever can be gained from contemporaries should be promptly employed; but each should do much solid thinking for himself, and thus not only improve his own department, but be ready to contribute to the advancement of all. Perhaps the greatest of all the advantages of your organization is that it affords this opportunity to communicate to all the results of the experience and study of each. In the absence of such gatherings as this, and of the information they disseminate, each isolated fire department of the smallest town, though its apparatus consists of but a single ladder truck, is ready to declare that it is the best department in the land; and the worst of it is that what is thus declared is believed. Ignorance is always the mother of self-conceit.

If the authorities of the cities of this country had anything approaching an adequate conception of the advantages the chief engineers of their fire departments would derive from attending this Convention, they would make it their imperative duty to do so, and regard the expense as the wisest outlay they ordered for the benefit of their own departments.

A large portion of your duties are everywhere understood: such, for instance, as knowing well what constitutes, in men, engines, hose, and water, your equipment and facilities for fighting fires, and having your men well disciplined and your apparatus in complete order. It is equally important, however, to know what that equipment ought to be; to know all of its defects and its deficiencies. In many instances, in our large cities, streets formerly bordered with dwellings or small stores are now lined with massive warehouses; the water-pipes which were adequate for the former condition are quite insufficient for the present. The engines which were powerful enough for buildings sixty feet high are not equal to the demands of those of ninety feet. The hose well able to endure the pressure of the former height cannot withstand the strain of the latter. The extension of cities and the enlargement of buildings impose severe labors upon firemen and fire-engines, and call for an increase in their numbers. Such defects as these should be, but seldom or never are, promptly remedied by the authorities; they call for the expenditure of money, and to secure that expenditure often requires "line upon line and precept upon precept" from the engineer-in-chief, and that line and precept should be repeatedly and impressively given. The city authorities change nearly every year; the chief engineer is more permanent, and ought to be absolutely permanent, so long as he performs his duty well. Therefore, both the knowledge of the facts and the responsibility for defects rest upon the engineer.

It becomes him to know what additional aid and apparatus he needs, and to make a public record of that need. In case of a disaster a victim is always sought. Some one must be charged with causing it by reprehensible neglect. Each chief should see to it that his skirts are cleared by the warnings he has given, and, if need be, has reiterated year by year; and then, when the catastrophe comes, he has but to point to the dates and pages of his forewarnings to send the indignant complainers in search of some other as their victim.

Each city has its places of especial danger — places which are a cause of perpetual anxiety to the responsible head of the fire department. Sometimes these are of such character as to justify him in asking that the business which causes the danger be removed to some place where it does not so greatly imperil other property. Such dangerous places should be subjected to careful study. The action to be taken in the event of a fire should so far as is possible be determined in advance, and that with regard to the various directions from which the wind may blow at the time of the fire.

Buildings which are peculiar exposures to the limbs and lives of firemen need study. Such exposures come from defective construction, from heavy loading in the upper stories, or from the nature of their general contents. To know that their leader is aware of these exposures, and is carefully watching for the moment when from regard to his men he will order them out of a burning building, gives to firemen great boldness in the performance of their duty, as well as great confidence in their commander.

The circumstances attending fires need careful scrutiny. Often the first notice of a suspicious fire is received from the officer in command. It not unfrequently happens that a fire is extinguished before the machinery by which it has been intentionally caused has been burned up, and the features show clearly that owner or occupant has deliberately caused the burning. The reckless wretches who thus endanger the property of their fellow-citizens and make unnecessary demands upon the firemen deserve condign punishment, and it is your duty to see that they get the reward of their demerits. With such aid to your fellow-citizens in exposing fraudulent burnings, it may be that at some future day it will be regarded as a crime for an insurance company to pay anything for a fraudulent loss in order to save itself from costs and trouble. It maybe that in some coming year some wise legislature will create a disinterested and unpaid commission of patriotic citizens, and require that insurance companies, before making payment in such cases, shall lay the facts before that commission, and be constrained to resist claims when they shall be so instructed by it, or be liable to be declared public nuisances, and to forfeit their charters.

Over-insurance is a great provocative to incendiarism, and insurance agents have been known to over-insure with a seemingly willful carelessness. Wherever this is found to be the case, it is but simplest justice to the men you command and to the citizens of your town that such over-insurance, with the name of the offending agent, be recorded.

Among the many things requiring consideration is that of summoning the entire fire department to every fire which takes place, as is the practice in smaller cities generally. It is not many years since this course was universally pursued. Long after the cities were subdivided into districts for the purpose of showing by the alarm in what part of the city the fire was to be found, the entire apparatus of the place was taken to all districts alike. The first company which, in the city of New York, was restricted in its duty to a limited section of the city, was commanded by an underwriter, the limitation being prompted by the occurrence of a fire in the lower part of the city which destroyed a large portion of two blocks of mercantile buildings, the fire having been made so great by the absence at another fire more than a mile distant of all the city's fire apparatus. To that same company was committed, at request of the insurance companies which owned it, the control of the first steam fire-engine before spoken of. In


smaller places, such localizing of fire apparatus is unnecessary; but as cities extend, it becomes important that no one section be left entirely bare of protection by unnecessary attendance at small fires in distant places.

There is no need, at this day, of urging upon this body the importance of prompt and reliable notification of fires. You all know that seconds in the beginning of a fire are worth more than later minutes.

Some of the few points I have noted may seem of small account; but it is not so, for whoever gives attention to these minuter matters will be sure to give attention to those of greater importance. It is said that Michael Angelo was once charged with giving too much time to " trifles " in his sculptures. His reply was, " It may be so, but recollect that trifles make perfection, and perfection is no trifle." In your business, gentlemen, there are no trifles.

I do not wish unduly to magnify your office; my purpose is far from that. I do wish, however, to invest it with its proper dignity and importance, to show something

« PreviousContinue »