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Public Fire Brigades And The Duties Of Firemen

The best public means of arresting fires is a very wide question, as the only limit to the means is the expense. Different nations have different ways of doing the same thing. On the Continent generally, the whole is managed by Government, and the firemen are placed under martial law, the inhabitants being compelled to work the engines. In London, the principal means of arresting fires is a voluntary association of the insurance companies, without legal authority of any sort, the legal protection by parish engines being, with a few praiseworthy exceptions, a dead letter.

The best public means of arresting fires is a very wide question, as the only limit to the means is the expense. Different nations have different ways of doing the same thing. On the Continent generally, the whole is managed by Government, and the firemen are placed under martial law, the inhabitants being compelled to work the engines. In London, the principal means of arresting fires is a voluntary association of the insurance companies, without legal authority of any sort, the legal protection by parish engines being, with a few praiseworthy exceptions, a dead letter.

In Liverpool, Manchester, and other towns, the extinction of fires by the pressure of water only, without the use of fire-engines, is very much practised. The advantages of this system are very great; but, to enable us to follow this system in London, the whole water supply would require to be remodelled.

In America, the firemen are generally volunteers, enrolled by the local Governments. They are exempt from other duties, or are entitled to privileges, which appear to satisfy them, as the situation of fireman is eagerly sought in most of the American cities.

Which is the best of these different modes it is difficult to say; perhaps each is best suited for the place where it exists.

It is now generally admitted, that the whole force brought together to extinguish a fire ought to be under the direction and control of one individual. By this means, all quarrelling among the firemen about the supply of water, the interest of particular insurance companies, and other matters of detail, is avoided. By having the whole force under the command of one person, he is enabled to form one general plan of operations, to which the whole body is subservient; and although he may not, in the hurry of the moment, at all times adopt what will afterwards appear to be the best plan, yet it is better to have some general arrangement, than to allow the firemen of each engine to work according to their own fancy, and that, too, very often in utter disregard as to whether their exertions may aid or retard those of their neighbours. The individual appointed to such a situation ought not to be interfered with, or have his attention distracted, except by the chief authority on the spot, or the owner of the premises on fire. Much valuable information is frequently obtained from the latter, as to the division of the premises, the party-walls, and other matters connected with its locality. But, generally speaking, the less interference and advice the better, as it occupies time which may generally be better employed.

I need scarcely add, that on no account whatever should directions be given to the firemen by any other individual while the superintendent of brigade is present; and that there may be no quarrelling about superiority, the men should be aware on whom the command is to devolve in his absence.

It has often been to me a matter of surprise, that so small a portion of the public attention should be directed to the matter of extinguishing fires. It is only when roused by some great calamity that people bestir themselves; and then there is such a variety of plans proposed to avert similar cases of distress, that to attempt to concoct a rational plan out of such a crude, ill-digested, and contradictory mass of opinion, requires more labour and attention than most people are inclined to give it, unless a regular business was made of it. In Paris the corps of military firemen are so well trained, that although their apparatus is not so good as it should be, the amount of the losses by fire is comparatively trifling. If the head-quarters of such an establishment were to be in London, a store of apparatus, constructed on one uniform plan, could be kept there, to be forwarded to any other part of the kingdom where it might be required. This uniformity of the structure and design of the apparatus could extend to the most minute particulars; a screw or a nut of any one engine would fit every other engine in the kingdom. A depôt could also be kept at head-quarters, where recruits would be regularly drilled and instructed in the business, and a regular system of communication kept up with all the provincial corps. Any particular circumstances occurring at a fire would thus be immediately reported, and the advantages of any knowledge or experience thus gained, would be disseminated over the whole kingdom. As the matter at present stands one town may have an excellent fire-engine establishment, and another within a few miles a very indifferent one, and when the one is called to assist the other, they can neither act in concert, nor can the apparatus of the one in case of accident be of the smallest service in replacing that of the other. The best might (if a proper communication were kept up) be under frequent obligations to the worst, and here, as in other matters, it is chiefly by communication that knowledge is increased. If the whole experience of the country were brought together, and maturely considered and digested by persons competent to judge, I have no doubt that a system might be introduced suitable to the nation and to the age in which we live. Instead of hearing of the "dreadful losses by fire," and the "great exertions" made to extinguish it, all the notice would be, such a place took fire, the engines arrived, and it was extinguished.

It would be useless for me to enter into the details of a plan which I have little hope of ever seeing realized. I may state, however, that a premium might be offered for the best engine of a size previously agreed upon, which, when finished, should be kept as a model.

Specifications could then be made out, and estimates advertised for, for all the different parts, such as wheels, axles, levers, cisterns, barrels, air-vessels, &c., separately. When any particular part of an engine was damaged, it could be immediately replaced, and the engine again rendered fit for service; and upon emergency any number of engines could be set up, merely by putting the different parts together. The work would also be better done; at least it would be much more easy to detect faults in the materials or workmanship than if the engines were bought ready for use. These remarks apply to all the rest of the apparatus.

It could be provided that firemen might be enlisted for a term of years. When enlisted, they would be sent to the depôt at head-quarters, drilled to the use of the engines, and carefully instructed in separating and cleaning the different parts. Here also they could be practised in gymnastic exercises, and generally instructed in everything tending to promote their usefulness as firemen. They could then be sent off to some large towns, and, after having seen a little active service, distributed over the country in such parties as might be deemed necessary for the places they were intended to protect.

The practice of keeping fire-engines at noblemen's and gentlemen's residences, and at large manufactories in the country, is by no means uncommon, and I have no doubt that many more would supply themselves in this way if they knew where to apply for information in such matters; but the great fault lies in the want of persons of skill and experience to work them when fire occurs. In the way I have mentioned, proprietors and others could have one or more of their workmen instructed in this necessary piece of duty; and I have no doubt that many gentlemen would avail themselves of the means of instructing some of their servants.

It will be observed, I do not propose that the firemen who are enlisted, drilled, and instructed in the business, should be sent to the different stations in sufficient numbers to work the engines; this part of the work can be performed by any man accustomed to hard labour, as well as by the most expert fireman, and the local authorities could easily provide men for this purpose. In small towns, where fires are rare, the novelty would draw together plenty of hands; and in large towns, where the inhabitants are not sufficiently disinterested to work for nothing, there are always plenty who could be bound to assist in cases of fire at a certain rate per hour, to be paid upon a certificate from the fireman who has charge of the engine at which they worked. The trained firemen would thus be required only for the direction of the engine, attaching the hose, &c.

I am quite aware that many people object to the training of firemen; but it would be just as reasonable to give to a mob all the "matériel" of war, and next day expect it to act like a regular army, as to expect engines to be managed with any general prospect of success, unless the men are properly trained and prepared for the duty which is expected from them. Fire is both a powerful and an insidious enemy, and those whose business it is to attack it will best succeed when they have become skilful and experienced in the use of their arms.

It is quite obvious that a fire brigade, however complete in its apparatus and equipments, must depend for its efficiency on the state of training and discipline of the firemen. Wherever there is inexperience, want of co-operation, or confusion amongst them, the utmost danger is to be apprehended in the event of fire. It is amidst the raging of this destructive element, the terror and bustle of the inhabitants, that organization and discipline triumph, and it is there, too, that coolness and promptitude, steadiness and activity, fearlessness and caution, are peculiarly required; but, unfortunately, it is then also that they are most rarely exhibited.

There should not be less than five or six men attached to each engine, who should be properly instructed and drilled, to take charge of it, and to guide the people who work at the levers.

The person having the principal charge of the engines should frequently turn over in his mind what might be the best plan, in such and such circumstances, supposing a fire to take place. By frequently ruminating on the subject, he will find himself, when suddenly turned out of bed at night, much more fit for his task than if he had never considered the matter at all. Indeed he will frequently be surprised, when examining the premises afterwards (which he ought always to do, and mark any mistakes he may have committed), that he should have adopted the very best mode of extinguishing the fire, amid the noise, confusion, and the innumerable advices showered down on him, by all those who consider themselves qualified or entitled to give advice in such matters; a number, by the way, which sometimes includes no inconsiderable portion of the spectators. He should also make himself well acquainted with the different parts of the town in which he may be appointed to act, and notice the declivities of the different streets, &c. He will find this knowledge of great advantage.

Any buildings, supposed to be particularly dangerous, should be carefully examined, and all the different places where supplies of water can be obtained for them noticed.

A knowledge of the locality thus obtained will be found of great advantage in case of a fire breaking out. Indeed all firemen, especially those having the charge of engines, should be instructed carefully to examine and make themselves acquainted with the localities of their neighbourhood or district. Such knowledge will often prove valuable in emergencies; the proprietors or tenants of the property on fire being sometimes in such a state of alarm, that no distinct intelligence can be got from them.

When an engine is brought to a fire, it ought to be placed as nearly as possible in a straight line between the supply of water and the premises on fire; taking care, however, to keep at such a distance from the latter that the men who work the pumps may be in no danger from being scorched by the heat, or of being annoyed by the falling of water or burning materials. Running the engine close upon the fire serves no good purpose, except to shorten the quantity of hose that would otherwise be required. The addition of twenty or thirty feet of hose makes very little difference in the working of the engine, and, when compared with the disadvantage of the men becoming unsteady from the idea of personal danger, is not even to be named. Indeed, if the engine be brought too near the fire, there is danger of the men quitting the levers altogether. I may also add that, both for the safety of the hose and the convenience of the inhabitants, the engine should be kept out of the way of people removing furniture.

When the hose is attached and the engine filled with water, the man who holds the branch-pipe, accompanied by another, should get so near the fire, inside the house, that the water from the branch may strike the burning materials. If he cannot accomplish this standing, he must get down on his hands and knees and creep forward, those behind handing up the hose. A stratum of fresh air is almost always to be depended on from six to twelve inches from the floor, so that if the air be not respirable to a person standing upright, he should instantly get down. I have often observed this fact, which indeed is well known; but I once saw an example of it which appeared to me to be so striking, that I shall here relate it. A fire had broken out in the third floor of a house, and when I reached the top of the stair, the smoke was rolling in thick heavy masses, which prevented me from seeing six inches before me. I immediately got down on the floor; above which, for a space of about eight inches the air seemed to be remarkably clear and bright. I could distinctly see the feet of the tables and other furniture in the apartment; the flames in this space burning as vivid and distinct as the flame of a candle, while all above the smoke was so thick that the eye could not penetrate it. The fire had already burst through three out of five windows in the apartment, yet, when lying flat on the floor, no inconvenience was felt except from the heat.

When the fire has broken through a floor, the supply of air along that floor is not to be depended on—the fire drawing the principal supply of air from the apartments below.

When the two first firemen have gained a favourable position, they should keep it as long as they are able; and when they feel exhausted, the men behind them should take their place.

The great point to which everything ought to be made subservient is, that the water on its discharge from the branch-pipe should actually strike the burning materials. This cannot be too often or too anxiously inculcated on every one connected with a fire-engine establishment. Every other method not having this for its grand object, will, in nine cases out of ten, utterly fail; and upon the degree of attention paid to this point, depends almost entirely the question as to the amount of damage the fire will occasion.

When approaching a fire, it should always be done by the door, if possible.

When this is attended to, it is much easier to shift the hose from one apartment to another; and the current of fresh air, entering by the door and proceeding along the passages, makes respiration easier and safer than elsewhere.

When entrance by the door is impracticable, and access is to be gained by a window, the flames frequently burst through in such a manner as to render advance in the first instance impossible. In that case, the branch should be pointed against the window, nearly in a perpendicular direction; the water striking the lintel, and falling all round inside the window, will soon extinguish the fire at that point sufficiently to render an entrance practicable.

The old plan of standing with the branch pipe in the street, and throwing the water into the windows is a very random way of going to work; and for my own part, although I have seen it repeatedly tried, I never saw it attended with success. Indeed it is hardly to be expected that water, thrown from the street into a room three or four storeys high, can have any impression on closets, presses, or passages, divided probably with brick partitions in the centre of the house. The circumstance of having engines at work on both sides of the house does not alter the case. The fire very often burns up through the centre, and frequently, when the space between the windows is large, along the front or back wall, till it arrives at the roof, which the water cannot touch on account of the slates or tiles.

On the other hand, when the firemen enter the house, the fire is almost wholly under their command. And when it happens that there is any corner which the water cannot directly strike, the fire in it may often be extinguished by throwing the water against an opposite wall or partition, and trusting to the recoil to throw it to the point required.

When the water is thrown from the street, it is impossible to say whether it touches the parts on fire or not. No one can tell anything about it, except when the flame appears at the windows.

On going with the branch inside the house, besides the advantage of the water rushing directly from the hose upon the fire, there is a great saving in the article of water itself. The whole that is thrown by the engine is applied to the right purpose. No part of it is lost; that which does not strike the burning materials falls within the house; and, by soaking those parts on which it falls, prevents their burning so rapidly when the flames approach them.

If, on entering an apartment, it be found that the flames cover a considerable space, it is of advantage, in some instances, to place the point of the thumb in contact with the water at the nozzle of the branch. By this means the water may be spread to cover any space under twenty or thirty feet, according to the pressure applied.

While speaking of the mode of entering houses on fire, I may mention that I have tried several inventions for the purpose of elevating the branch pipe and hose to the level of a second or third story window. But these, although exceedingly ingenious, appear to me to rest on a principle entirely wrong; I mean that of throwing water on the fire from the outside of the building.

Independent altogether of a mistaken principle of usefulness, one insuperable objection to all these machines, is the difficulty of conveying them with the necessary celerity, and the impossibility of packing them on the engine in such a manner that it may be worked without their being taken off, as it seems to me that every description of apparatus which cannot be conveyed along with the engine, is likely to be left behind when most wanted. It is notorious that parish fire-ladders are, for this reason, seldom or never made use of.

Many people object to going inside a building on fire on account of the danger. It ought never to be forgotten, however, that the danger increases with the delay; and that although at first there may be no danger, if the opportunity is not promptly seized, it may become very considerable.

Several of the firemen have at different times fainted, or become stupefied, from the want of fresh air; but as no one is ever allowed to enter singly, they have been, in all cases, immediately observed by their comrades, and relieved.

Another objection has been raised in the alleged difficulty of persuading men to risk their lives in this manner for the small consideration which is allowed them.

The truth is, that any persuasions I have had occasion to use, have been generally on the other side.

To hold the branch is considered the post of honour; and when two engines are working together, I have sometimes difficulty in preventing the men from pressing forward farther than is absolutely necessary. This forwardness is not the result of pecuniary reward for the increase of risk, but a spirit of emulation is at work, and the man entrusted with this duty, if found drawing back, would be completely disgraced.

A retreat should in all cases be kept open, to provide against any accident that may occur; and as this may be done in almost all cases by means so easy and simple, there can be no excuse for its omission. At the same time no one but an expert fireman should be permitted to enter where there is personal danger.

The danger to which firemen are most exposed is catching cold, from their being so frequently drenched with water, and from their exposure to the sudden alternations of heat and cold. A man is turned out of bed at midnight, and in a few minutes after quitting it he is exposed to the sharp air, perhaps, of a frosty winter night; running to the fire as fast as he can, he is, from the exercise, joined to the oppressive heat inside the place on fire, in a few minutes in a state of the most profuse perspiration; and, while in this state, he is almost certain to be soaked with cold water. The smoke is sometimes so thick, that he comes under the range of the branch of the engine without being aware of it till the water strikes him. If he escape this chance, the water rushing on some other object, recoils on him, and produces the same effect; and if the fire be in the roof of the apartment, he must lie down on his back on the floor, and in this manner gets completely steeped.

A bath of this sort is neither very safe nor pleasant; and the only preventive of injury to the health is to keep the men in constant motion. When they are allowed to stand still or sit down, the danger is considerable. When the fire is extinguished, or in two or three hours after its commencement, I make it a rule to give every man a dram of spirits. If it be necessary to leave an engine on the spot, those of the men who are to remain are sent home to change their clothes.

Reference book: Fire prevention

Tags: Fire, Fire fighter, safety, Fire brigades,

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