When the lower floors of a house are on fire, and the stairs or other ordinary means of retreat destroyed, the simplest and easiest mode of removing the inhabitants from the upper floors, is by a ladder placed against the wall. In order to be able at all times to carry this plan into effect, the person having charge of the engines should (as far as possible) inform himself where long ladders are to be had, and how they can most easily be removed.
But if a ladder of sufficient length is not to be procured, or is at too great a distance to render it safe to wait for it, recourse must immediately be had to other means.
If it happens that the windows above are all inaccessible, on account of the flames bursting through those below, the firemen should immediately get on the roof (by means of the adjoining houses,) and descend by the hatch. The hatch, however, being sometimes directly above the stair, is in that case very soon affected by the fire and smoke. If, on approaching, it is found to be so much so as to render an entrance in that way impracticable, the firemen should instantly break through the roof, and, descending into the upper floors, extricate those within. If it should happen, however, that the persons in danger are not in the upper floor, and cannot reach it in consequence of the stair being on fire, the firemen should continue breaking through floor after floor till they reach them.
In so desperate a case as this the shorter process may probably be to break through the party-wall between the house on fire and that adjoining, when there is one; and when there is no house immediately contiguous, through the gable, taking care in either case to break through at the back of a closet, press, chimney, or other recess, where the wall is thinnest. If an opening has been made from the adjoining house, it should immediately (after having served the purpose for which it was made) be built up with brick or stone, to prevent the fire spreading.
All these operations should be performed by slaters, masons, or housecarpenters, who, being better acquainted with such work, are likely to execute it in a shorter time than others—time, in such a case, being everything, as a few minutes lost may cost the lives of the whole party. It is not impossible, however, that circumstances may occur to render all or either of these plans impracticable; in that case, one or two of the lower windows must be darkened, and by this means access gained to the upper ones. The plan recommended by the Parisian firemen is, for a man to wrap himself up in a wet blanket, and thus pass swiftly through the flames. But this effort is only to be attempted when the flames from a single door are to be passed; in any other case the stair will most likely be in flames, and impassable.
A simple means of escape from fire is to have an iron ring fastened to the window sill, and inside of the room a cradle, with a coil of rope attached to it.
The rope is put through the ring, and the person wishing to escape gets into the cradle, and lowers himself down by passing the rope through his hands. The great objection to this plan, which is certainly very simple, is the difficulty, or rather impossibility, of persuading people to provide themselves with the necessary materials. Many men, too, are incapable of the exertion upon which the whole plan depends; and if men in a state of terror are unfit for such a task, what is to become of women and children? Any fire-escape, to be generally useful, must, in the first place, be capable of being carried about without encumbering the fire-engine; and, in the next place, must be of instant and simple application. The means which appear to me to possess these qualifications in the highest degree, is a combination of the cradle plan, with Captain Manby's admirable invention for saving shipwrecked seamen.
The apparatus necessary for this fire-escape is a chain-ladder eighty feet long, a single chain or rope of the same length as the ladder, a canvas bag, a strong steel cross-bow, and a fine cord of the very best workmanship and materials, 130 feet long, with a lead bullet of three-ounce weight attached to one end, and carefully wound upon a wooden cone seven inches high and seven inches broad at the base, turned with a spiral groove, to prevent the cord slipping when wound upon it, also a small pulley with a claw attached to it, and a cord reeved through it of sufficient strength to bear the weight of the ladder.
In order to prevent the sides of the ladder from collapsing, the steps are made of copper or iron tube, fastened by a piece of cord passed through the tube and into the links of the chain, till the tube is filled. The steps thus fastened are tied to the chain with copper-wire, so that, in the event of the cord being destroyed, the steps will be retained in their places by the wire. The ladder is provided with two large hooks at one end, for the purpose of fixing it to a roof, window-sill, &c.
The bag is of canvas, three feet wide and four feet deep, with cords sewed round the bottom, and meeting at the top, where they are turned over an iron thimble at each side of the mouth of the bag. The steel cross-bow is of the ordinary description, of sufficient strength to throw the lead bullet with the cord attached, 120 feet high.
When the house from which the persons in danger are to be extricated is so situated that the firemen can get to the roof by passing along the tops of the adjoining houses, they will carry up the chain-ladder with them, and drop it over the window where the inmates show themselves, fastening the hooks at the same time securely in the roof. The firemen will descend by the ladder into the window, and putting the persons to be removed into the bag, lower them down into the street by the single chain. If the flames are issuing from the windows below, the bag, when filled, is easily drawn aside into the window of the adjoining house, by means of a guy or guide-rope.
If the house on fire stands by itself, or if access cannot be had to the roof by means of the adjoining houses, the lead bullet, with the cord attached, is thrown over the house by means of the cross-bow; to this cord a stronger one is attached, and drawn over the house by means of the former; a single chain is then attached, and drawn over in like manner; and to this last is attached the chainladder, which, on being raised to the roof, the firemen ascend, and proceed as before directed.
If the house be so high that the cord cannot be thrown over far enough to be taken hold of by those on the opposite side, then the persons to be extricated must take hold of the cord, as it hangs past the window at which they may have placed themselves. By means of it they draw up the small pulley, and hook it on the window-sill. The chain-ladder is then made fast to the end of the cord, and drawn up by those below. When the end of the chain-ladder comes in front of the window, the persons inside fasten the hooks of the ladder on its sill, or to the post of a bed, the bars of a grate, or anything likely to afford a sufficient hold.
After having ascertained that the ladder is properly fixed, the firemen will ascend and proceed as in the former cases.
I must here remark, that before this plan can be properly put in execution, the firemen must be regularly trained to the exercise. When the firemen here are practised with the fire-escape, the man ascending or descending has a strong belt round his middle, to which another chain is fastened, and held by a man stationed at the window for that purpose; if any accident, therefore, were to occur with the chain-ladder, the man cannot fall to the ground, but would be swung by the chain attached to the belt round his body. The men are also frequently practised in ascending and descending by single chains. The firemen here are very fond of the above exercise; the bagging each other seems to amuse them exceedingly.[I] The last resort, in desperate cases, is to leap from the window. When this is to be attempted, mattresses, beds, straw, or other soft substances, should be collected under the window; a piece of carpet or other strong cloth should be held up by ten or twelve stout men. The person in the window may then leap, as nearly as possible, into the centre of the cloth, and if he has sufficient resolution to take a fair leap, he may escape with comparatively little injury..
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