Before entering upon the subject of Public Fire Brigades, I will call attention to the course to be pursued by inmates of the house on fire, and their neighbours.
When all available means of fire prevention have been adopted, the next thing to be considered is a supply of water. In the country, or where there are no waterpipes or engines, this ought to be particularly attended to, and a hand-pump should be provided. Where no water is kept solely for the purpose of extinguishing fire, such vessels as can be spared should be regularly filled every night, and placed in such situations as may be most convenient in case of danger; and no master of a family ought to retire to rest, without being satisfied that this has been attended to. If it had no other advantage than merely that of directing the inmates of a house to the possibility of such an occurrence as fire, it would be worth much more than the trouble such an arrangement would cost; but, in addition to that, a supply of water would be at hand, in most cases more than sufficient to extinguish the fire immediately on its being discovered, and before it had become either alarming or dangerous. But when no such precaution has been adopted, when even the bare possibility of fire has not been considered, when no attention has even been paid to the subject, and no provision made for it; the inhabitants are generally so alarmed and confused, that the danger is probably over, by their property being burned to the ground, before they can sufficiently recollect themselves to lend any effective assistance.
In most cases of fire, the people in whose premises it occurs are thrown into what may be called a state of temporary derangement, and seem to be actuated only by a desire of muscular movement, no matter to what purpose their exertions are directed. Persons may often be seen toiling like galley-slaves, at operations which a moment's reflection would show were utterly useless. I have seen tables, chairs, and every article of furniture that would pass through a window, three or four stories high, dashed into the street, even when the fire had hardly touched the tenement. On one occasion I saw crockery-ware thrown from a window on the third floor.[F] Most of these extravagances take place on the first alarm. When the engines have got fairly into play, people begin to recollect themselves, and it is at this time that most of those "who go to see a fire" arrive. By the exertions of the police there is then generally a considerable degree of order restored, and the most interesting part of the scene is over.
What remains, however, may, from its novelty or grandeur, if the fire is extensive, be still worth looking at for a little, but much of the excitement is banished with the confusion; and if the fire and firemen seem to be well matched, the chief interest which is excited in the spectators is to ascertain which of the parties is likely to be victorious. Few people, comparatively, have thus an opportunity of witnessing the terror and distraction occasioned by the first alarm of fire, and this may probably account for the apathy and indifference with which people who have not seen this regard it.
When a fire actually takes place, every one should endeavour to be as cool and collected as possible; screams, cries, and other exhibitions of terror, while utterly useless in themselves, have generally the effect of alarming those whose services might otherwise be of the utmost advantage, and of rendering them unfit for useful exertion. It is unhappily, too, at the commencement of fires, that this tendency to confusion and terror is the strongest, when a bucket of water, properly applied, is generally of more value than a hundred will be half an hour afterwards. It is the feeling of total surprise, on the breaking out of a fire, which thus unhinges the faculties of many individuals. They have never made the case their own, nay, one would almost imagine they had scarcely thought such an occurrence possible, till, coming on them almost like a thunderbolt, they are lost in perplexity and terror. The only preventive against this is to think the matter over frequently and carefully before it occurs.
The moment it is ascertained that fire has actually taken place, notice should be sent to the nearest station where there is a fire-engine. No matter whether the inmates are likely to be able to extinguish the fire themselves—this should never be trusted to if more efficient help can be had.
It is much better that an engine should be turned out twenty times when it is not wanted, than be once too late. This may cause a trifling expense; but even that expense is not altogether lost, as it teaches the firemen steadiness and coolness.
The person in the house best qualified for such duty should endeavour to ascertain, with as much precision as possible, the extent and position of the fire, while the others collect as much water as they can. If the fire be in an upper floor, the inmates should be got out immediately, although the lower part of the house may generally be entered with safety for some time. If in the lower part of the house, after the inmates have been removed, great care should be observed in going into any of the upper floors, as the flames very often reach the stair before being observed by those above. The upper floors are, besides, generally filled with smoke, and, in that case, there is great danger of suffocation to those who may enter.
This, indeed, is the principal danger attending fires, and should be particularly guarded against, as a person, when being suffocated, is unable to call for assistance. In a case of this kind the fire took place in the third floor from the street, and all the inmates immediately left the premises except one old woman.
In about fifteen minutes after the arrival of the engines, the firemen made their way upstairs, and the poor woman was found dead beside a basket partly filled with clothes, which it was supposed she had been packing up for removal; had she made any noise, or even broke a pane of glass, she would, in all probability, have been saved; as the fire never touched the floor in which she was found, she must have died entirely from suffocation, which a little fresh air would have prevented. Had the slightest suspicion existed that any one was in the upper floors, they would have been entered by the windows or the roof; but as the fire took place in daylight, and none of the neighbours spoke of any one being in the house, it was thought unnecessary to damage the property, or risk the lives of the firemen, without some adequate cause. This, however, shows how little dependence can be placed on information received from the inmates of the premises on fire. Some of the people who lived on the same floor with this poor woman, and who had seen her immediately before they left the house, never mentioned her. I do not suppose that this negligence arose from apathy, or any feeling of that sort; but the people were in such a state of utter confusion, that they were unable to think of anything. But to return.
On the first discovery of a fire, it is of the utmost consequence to shut, and keep shut, all doors, windows, or other openings. It may often be observed, after a house has been on fire, that one floor is comparatively untouched, while those above and below are nearly burned out. This arises from the door on that particular floor having been shut, and the draught directed elsewhere. If the person who has examined the fire finds a risk of its gaining ground upon him, he should, if within reach of fire-engines, keep everything close, and await their arrival, instead of admitting air to the fire by ineffectual efforts to oppose it with inadequate means. In the meantime, however, he should examine where a supply of water is most likely to be obtained, and communicate that, and any other local information, to the firemen on their coming forward. If there be no fire-engine within reach, the person who has examined the fire should keep the place where it is situated as close as possible, till as many buckets of water as can be easily collected are placed within his reach.
Taking care always that there is some one ready to assist him, he should then open the door, and creep forward on his hands and knees till he gets as near the fire as possible; holding his breath, and standing up for a moment to give the water a proper direction, he should throw it with force, using a hand pump if available, and instantly get down to his former position, where he will be again able to breathe. The people behind handing forward another bucket of water, he repeats the operation till the fire is quenched, or until he feels exhausted; in which case some one should take his place. If there be enough of water, however, two, three, or any convenient number of people may be employed in throwing it; on the contrary, if the supply of water be insufficient to employ even one person, the door should be kept shut while the water is being brought, and the air excluded as much as possible, as the fire burns exactly in proportion to the quantity of air which it receives.
One great evil, and which ought to be strictly guarded against by people not accustomed to fire, is, that on the first alarm they exert themselves to the very utmost of their strength. This, of course, can last but a short time; and when they feel tired, which in that case soon happens, they very often give up altogether.
Now this is the reverse of what it ought to be. In extinguishing fires, like most other things, a cool judgment and steady perseverance are far more effective than any desultory exertions which can be made.
The heat generally increases in a considerable degree when water is first thrown upon a fire, from the conversion of a portion of it into steam. This is sometimes very annoying; so much so, that the persons engaged in throwing the water, frequently feel themselves obliged to give back a little. They should on no account, however, abate or discontinue their exertions in throwing the water with as much force as possible in the direction of the fire; it will in a short time cool the air and materials, and the steam will, in consequence, be generated more slowly, while a steady perseverance on the part of those employed can alone effect the object in view.
When water is scarce, mud, cow or horse dung, damp earth, &c., may be used as substitutes; but if there seems no chance of succeeding by any of these, and the fire is likely to extend to other buildings, the communication should be immediately cut off by pulling down the building next to that on fire. Any operation of this sort, however, should be begun at a sufficient distance from the fire to allow the communication to be completely cut off, before it gains upon the workmen. If this operation be attempted so near the fire as to be interrupted by it, it must be begun again at a greater distance; and, in that case, there is a greater destruction of property than might have been necessary.
If a fire occur in a stable or cow-house, surrounded with other buildings of the same description, or with the produce of a farm, there is much danger. The cattle and horses should be immediately removed; and, in doing so, if any of them become restive, they should be blindfolded, taking care that it is done thoroughly, as any attempt to blindfold them partially, only increases the evil.
They should be handled as much as possible in the ordinary manner, and with great coolness; the violent gestures and excited appearance of the persons removing them tending greatly to startle the animals, and render them unmanageable.
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