Popular Science Monthly/Volume 74/March 1909/Fire's Havoc a Senseless Waste
|FIRE'S HAVOC A SENSELESS WASTE|
WASHINGTON, D. C.
WE have reason to be proud of the phenomenal growth of our American cities, the beauty of their buildings and the vast volume of building construction that is yearly carried on in the process of that growth. But a careful analysis shows us that that great volume of building is not all growth, but is, to a very great extent indeed, the replacing of buildings that have been destroyed by fire. And that destruction, a most senseless and cruel waste, has had a proportionate increase, year by year, far in excess of the pro rata of our new buildings or indeed of many other details of our rapid growth. In this country we deal in big figures and it would almost seem as if we were as proud of our appalling wastes as we are of our mammoth productions. At least one would judge so by the complacency with which we contemplate a drain upon our resources that would be deemed positively intolerable in any other country.Statistics from all over the world for the year 1908 are now pretty nearly complete. Let us see what that year has meant in this fire matter. In the forty leading cities new buildings and repairs to old ones, building construction, reached a total value of $478,000,000 in that year, or a grand total in all the cities and towns of $510,000,000—the biggest year we ever had in our history, 1905-6 showed a total of $667,000,000. Now then, during the same period we permitted to be destroyed by fire buildings and contents to the value of $'3 18,000,000. Incidentally, the reader will please remember that in most transactions where "losses" occur, those losses resolve themselves generally into transmutations or exchanges. In financial matters where one man loses the other gains, in more scientific affairs fuel, for instance, is consumed but produces steam, power. They say that nothing is utterly lost, but we also know that in this fire proposition nothing is left but ashes and smoke. It is not an exchange. The destruction of value is absolute for so far we have exceedingly little use for ashes, and smoke has not yet been turned into anything commercially or scientifically valuable. Add to the value of property destroyed the cost of maintaining fire departments, fire-fighting apparatus, high water pressure, city and private efforts at stopping fire when once it has started, something like $300,000,000. Then, in a further effort to recoup ourselves after fire has laid waste our property, we have gambled with the insurance
companies in a bet that our buildings would burn. During the year we have paid those companies in fire-insurance premiums $316,000,000. They have paid us back in adjusted losses $135,000,000, so that the difference between those two sums, $181,000,000, is the amount we have paid those companies for the privilege of getting back a little over half of the value of the property we have permitted to be destroyed by fire. Applying the paid losses of $135,000,000 on the burned value of $218,000,000, the net loss in property value was $83,000,000, the cost of fire "protection" of all kinds was $300,000,000 and the amount we have the insurance companies to guarantee us some
reimbursement for our losses was $181,000,000, so that the total of destroyed values and incidental costs of fire for the year was $564,000,000. Compare this figure that we might call destruction with the new buildings added, $510,000,000, or what we might call production, and the result is not one of which we have any reason to be proud.Eliminating the consideration of the cost of fire-fighting, we have destroyed in property values $1,258,000,000 worth in the past five years! Again eliminating all incidental expenses fire alone has cost us in 1908, $2.72 per capita. Compare that to the fire losses in European countries and you will realize how far behind them we are in fire prevention. In France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Austria and
Denmark the general average is a trifle less than 33 cents per capita. In Italy it is as low as 12 cents and in Germany it has never been above 49 cents. In thirty of the principal foreign cities the average was 51 cents, while in 25'2 of our cities the average was $3.10! In New York City in 1908 there were 14,000 fires and-the property loss amounted to $7,250,000, and the cost of maintaining the city fire department was $7,000,000; in St. Louis, there were 3,200 fires with a loss of $1,298,000, and the cost of the fire department was $1,018,000, and so our cities run with a general average of the cost of fire departments almost the actual combustion of property. In Europe, Rome may be taken as a fair example, an average. There fire losses amounted to $56,000 in a year in 270 fires and the maintenance of its 200 firemen costs $50,000 and Rome is a city of 500,000 people, or nearly the size of St. Louis.
Let me add just one more comparison and then we will leave tabulations alone, for statistics are always more or less wearying. In this country in January of 1908 the total amount of building and repairs done scarcely reached $16,000,000; during that same month fire destroyed $24,000,000 worth of property.
Surely we have had figures enough to clearly establish and to firmly impress even the layman that fire can be said literally "to be eating at the very vitals" of our economic structure. Many causes have contributed to this deplorable condition. One is that our people are naturally reckless and careless and build as they do much else, merely for the moment, temporarily. Then, too, until very recently our lumber supply has seemed inexhaustible and it was the material with which buildings could be erected with greatest rapidity and least initial cost. The pioneer couldn't be expected to haul brick and steel into the wilderness when he had trees all about him from which he could fashion his rude habitation. Pioneer settlements grew into villages and the villages into cities and the habit of building of wood stuck to them. Why, even last year, with the price of lumber a hundred per cent, higher than it was ten years ago and with incombustible materials available everywhere and at low cost we still built 61 per cent, of the year's, construction of wood. In the older communities, in Europe, they have got well over their pioneerdom and lumber has never been so plentiful as with us and the authorities have had more forethought and realized the necessity of better construction so that the general average of the buildings in cities, towns and villages is infinitely less inflammable than is the average here. But from that it must not be deduced that the science of building is carried to greater perfection there than here. That seems an anomalous condition but it's a fact nevertheless that our architects and engineers know a great deal more about fire-proof construction and practise it to a far higher degree of perfection than do the architects and engineers of Europe. They really have nothing to compare with our superior buildings. Take, for instance, the Singer Tower in New York and regardless of its height, there is nothing in Europe to compare with it in the way of fire-resisting qualities. The trouble with us is that there are so few of those buildings. We have something like 12,000,000 structures in the country, but of that vast number there are but 8,000 in which even the slightest effort has been made at fire-prevention! It is our average construction that is so poor and that makes such a bad showing compared with Europe. You can readily see that in a city composed of buildings that are not fire-proof, but that are comparatively incombustible, the fire hazard is much less than it is in a city of fire-traps with a few perfect buildings scattered here and there. And, too, in order to resist fire those fire-proof buildings have to be superlatively perfect because there is so much fuel all around them that a fire attack against them is vigorous in the extreme. In the European cities the big and important buildings need not to be so perfectly constructed because the danger of fire from within is always the minimum and the danger of fire from without is not very great on account of the superior general quality of construction. There it is seldom that a fire gets beyond the building in which it originates. Here, in spite of our splendid fire departments—and there are none superior to them, for none have the practise and the experience they have—fires frequently extend to neighboring buildings, entire blocks and indeed whole sections of cities.
Municipalities, states and even the country at large are beginning to realize the gravity of this fire waste and that something drastic has to be done towards fire-prevention. The great trouble is that whatever we may do now can simply be an abstaining from adding fresh fuel to burn because we have received such a heritage of combustible buildings that it will be yet many years before those old fire-traps will have all been destroyed or torn down to be replaced with better buildings. But a beginning has to be made some time and most of our cities have so revamped their building regulations that at least within certain districts nothing of an inflammable nature may not be erected. But that is not enough, because immediately outside of those districts we are permitting fire-trap construction that, in turn, will be the inheritance of our successors and will be in congested districts and prove almost insuperable barriers to real progress. The thing to do is to absolutely prohibit inflammable construction, the use of wood, in the structural parts of buildings erected anywhere within the jurisdiction of a city.
Many may deem this a great hardship upon the poor man and that it would be almost prohibitive in cost. That is a most popular mistake. The first cost of a fire-proof building is but 12 per cent, or 15 per cent, more than that of ordinary construction. But, considering the difference in repairs, the longevity of the better building and the lessened, if any, insurance that need be carried, inside of four or five years that Artistic Bricklaying.
Indestructible by fire; as effective as granite or marble and less costly. difference is wiped out and, as a matter of fact, the best construction is an actual economy, for in no case does the interest on the added cost of good construction amount to anything like the insurance premiums, the wear and tear and deterioration of the ordinary or allegedly cheap building. The only man who profits by the so-called ordinary or cheap building is the Buddenseick, the speculative builder whose business it is to put up the flimsiest kind of a contraption, paint it gaudily and sell it at a fat profit to the easily gulled individual who believes in buying ready-made houses.
The space assigned me will hardly permit our going very extensively into the minutiæ of fire-proof construction. Suffice An Insufficiently protected Steel column after a fire. it to say that in general terms it means the avoidance of anything combustible. But farther than that it is also well to remember that many materials that are in themselves incombustible, non-inflammable, are most seriously damageable, nevertheless, by flame or great heat. Iron, for instance, can not burn but subjected to heat it will twist and contort and in column form, as an illustration, it will collapse to the utter destruction of whatever it is supporting. So that many materials have in turn to be protected from fire though they will not themselves burn. Many people imagine that stone represents the very epitome of safe and permanent construction, yet all granites, marbles, sand and limestones spall and go to pieces under severe fire tests. My idea of a perfectly fire-proof building, therefore, is one whose exterior walls are of undamageable material, brick and terra-cotta, products that have gone through intense heat in their process of manufacture. The internal framing, the skeleton, is of steel, thoroughly protected from fire by brick or hollow tile; the partitions and floors are also of tile; the elevators and stairways are enclosed and with automatically closing doors at every story so that each story is a unit by itself, virtually a separate
building. This is all-important. Fire's tendency is ever upward. Make it impossible for fire to travel from story to story and you have cut down your fire possibilities 90 per cent. And the same thing applies to each story. These should be so partitioned as to form as small units as possible. Fire can then do damage only in some small space in which it originates. The whole secret of fire-fighting is this isolation, this keeping of fire within the narrowest possible confines, where it can readily be extinguished and by any employee of a building without having to call out the fire department. Further, my perfect building would have all of its exposed windows or narrow alleys and streets wire glazed in metal sash. What is the use of stout brick walls if you provide openings for fire every few feet and offer no greater barrier in those openings than wooden sash and sheet glass? Forty-four per cent, of our entire fire loss is attributable to this lack of proper window protection. In San Francisco, nearly all the loss was traceable to that same cause, because after the earthquake fires only originated in a comparatively few buildings but spread from one to the other via the window route. My interior decorations would be of marble or metal, or even plain plaster tastily ornamented in color, anything rather than the heavy wooden wainscoting, wooden floors, beamed ceilings and all that sort of thing that means just that much well-oiled fuel or rather kindling for a fire. Such is a really fire-proof building. It is a type that has proved its value time and time and again. It is nothing new and untried; it is not a mere theory. The great trouble has been, however, that some one item or other has been neglected in our existing so-called fire-proof buildings. In one, the windows are unprotected, though everything else is well done; in another the elevator wells are open, some one thing that vitiates the whole, for, remember, that like a chain, whose strength is equal only to its weakest link, so is a "fire-proof" building only thoroughly fire-proof if everything about it is properly done. You can not have half-fire-proof or semi-fire-proof. Those are misnomers.Therefore, it is imperative that our authorities should demand good, incombustible construction. Left to their own volition it would be years before the people would build that way. It has to be made compulsory. The community must legislate for its safety and against the selfish or ignorant interests of the individual. But it may help the individual nevertheless by making it directly advantageous, to him to build properly. Supposing even that the regulations do not exact fireproof construction everywhere, taxes should be so arranged that a maximum rate should be assessed against inferior, highly combustible buildings. It is for their protection that the city has to maintain expensive fire departments and fire-fighting media; were it not for those buildings such expense would be unnecessary. It is nothing but right, consequently, that the owners of those buildings should pay their full pro rata of that charge. The rate upon first-class fire-proof construction should be the very minimum because those buildings require the least of that protection and their owners should not be made to pay as
much for it as are others. This would be but equitable in the first place and in the second place would encourage men to replace their combustible contraptions with better buildings. Next and immediately necessary the authorities should conspicuously label every building of public or semi-public nature, just as to its class of construction, "fireproof," "ordinary," "dangerous." As it is now, the term "fireproof" is cruelly abused. It is applied where there is not the slightest foundation for its use and is made the means of obtaining tenants and occupants under false pretenses. A man with "dangerous" affixed to his building would have difficulty in renting it and that would be a powerful incentive to him to at least make the building better if he did not absolutely eliminate it and build correctly. Then we should have the same municipal regulations that they have in most European cities relating to "neighboring liability." Here we have a selfish way of taking care of ourselves and letting the other man shift. There they make you responsible for any damage to your neighbors' premises or property that may result from a fire on your premises caused by your or your agents' negligence or carelessness. It makes people wondrously careful in handling their ashes, waste paper, etc. These neighboring damages are always collectible at law in Europe and the regulation is one of the most effective of fire-preventative measures.
These are not heroic or revolutionary methods and yet, wherever applied, they would work marvels in the way of bettering conditions There is too much apathy in this fire matter and the authorities who know what it really means are fearful of applying the restrictions that are needed because, forsooth, some of these might too nearly touch powerful constituents or friends. We may only hope to attain the desired ends by forcing these authorities to do what is right via the pressure of public opinion. It is passing strange how those things run, but interesting withal to find that in all reforms the masses have to be compelled to do certain things by authority and the authorities have in turn to be compelled to apply these compulsory measures by the weight of public opinion; public opinion in turn is molded, created by printers' ink and I know of no cause that deserves better at the hands of the press than does this one of fire-prevention.
The highest and best-constructed buildings in the world.