Facing Fire With the Fire-Fighter
What manner of men are they who keep unceasing watch against the ravages of the fire demon? Theirs is a relentless foe, the thwarting of which demands both skill and stamina. Theirs is a courage that no man can scorn.
INTO the roaring cross-tides of the big city’s traffic a javelin of alarm is hurled, and the clang-lang-lang-g-g-g
of the fire gong pierces the heart of all movement. The constable on point duty raises his white-gloved hands, and the traffic stops dead. Pedestrians scurry for the side-walks, line the curbs and crane heads. The momentary lull is filled again with that appalling gongthe battle-cry of the fire-fighters. There is the rumble of great rubber wheels, a sudden, wind-stirring rush, a flash of scarlet and nickel and glittering brass,
and the dust whirls in the wake of the fire reels as they thunder past, their crews straddling the gear and climbing like monkeys into oilskins and hip boots.
It may be a million dollar blaze, a smoldering shed, or a false alarm. No matter. The fire department has the right of way.
Soldiers of the Flames
TIME was when the duty of fire-fighting devolved upon every citizen of a community. Those were the days when rival bucket brigades oftentimes splashed water as much for the love of the contest as for a desire to subdue flames. But times have changed and to-day_fire-
fighting is a stern business, a never-ceasing struggle between organized battalions of trained soldiers and a lurking demon which never misses an opportunity of striking.
The modern genius for preventive regulation has done much to reduce the fire hazard, but our cities would not be what they are were it not for the untiring watch of these rubber-coated and rubberbooted vigilantes whom we call firemen. Every fire-thwarting d e v ic e known to science is at their command; they go out to meet their enemy supported by organization as perfect as that of any army, and yet science and system are only auxiliaries— it is the fireman who conquers our fires, to-day as well as yesterday.
What manner of man, then, is this fireman? How does he live? What are his duties? His hazards? His rewards?
The qualifications necessary to become a fireman vary slightly in different Canadian cities, but a fair average requires that the applicant must be between the ages of eighteen and thirty, with a minimum height of sixty-six inches, and a weight not less than 142 pounds. Theoretically he is accepted in the order in which his name appears on the waiting list. Actually, fire chiefs are allowed considerable leeway, and as they are keen judges of men, able to tell which of the applicants are likely to be most efficient, this prerogative often is exercised for the good of the department.
The applicant is medically examined generally by three doctors. He must be physically sound throughout, possess firstclass hearing and good lungs. He must be able to hear and carry out orders in the noise and confusion
of a big fire, and keep his head amid the roar of flames, the hiss of flying water and other incidental rackets; find his way in gas-and-smoke-filled buildings with absolute forgetfulness of self; cross roofs with insecure footing and climb to precarious heights at night amid a wilderness of wires, many of them heavily charged with electricity; have the physical stamina to stand tremendous extremes of heat and cold, and still carry on his duties; have an intimate and ready knowledge of the tools of his craft and the apparatus to which he is attached; be able to improvise when,for some unforeseen reason, he is not supported or his paraphernalia fails; be able to stand against flame and smoke and penetrate them without having to be replaced and, if overcome, have the moral and physical
courage to go through it again unasked, when he recovers. His life, from the time he is selected, is similar to that of a soldier. He is amenable to strict discipline. His comings and goings rigorously are controlled. He may not leave the city without express permission, and must furnish an adequate and serious reason. He has drills and physical training at stipulated times and must be in constant readiness to respond, and to risk his life without hesitation in performance of his duty.
The neophyte, immediately upon acceptance, is detailed to a station. He is then required to report every morning for two weeks at the practice tower at fire headquarters, for instruction. The tower generally is a four-or-five-story square structure, with doors and windows, and on it the fireman is taught to climb, to use ladders, to get from one floor to another outside the building, to save life, to practise with the jumping net, place hose and handle equipment. Every effort is made to make this training approximate conditions at a fire, and it is dangerous work. By his actions in this practice drill, many a man forecasts his usefulness in the future.
Tower work is discontinued between September and May, and classes in the handling of engines, hose cart,
ladders and other pieces of apparatus are substituted. Even after a man has passed out of the recruit stage he must attend the instruction classes on the tower, and men with years of experience join the latest-joined in periodic practice at headquarters, There is constant drill in handling the gear, and in keeping familiarized with its use, so that on the blackest of nights, amid great confusion, the fireman may find things by sense of touch alone if necessary —for hesitancy in the handling of apparatus or carrying out of orders may spell death or injury to other men, or great, property loss.
Discipline is rigid, and instant obedience is insisted upon, regardless of personal risk, although men are never ordered into posts of danger unless results will justify it. The men generally are so keen, however, that, according to the unanimous opinion of fire chiefs, the difficulty lies in curbing or “pulling”' them, rather than urging. The older men, veterans of many a stubborn battle with fire, check the neophytes, and direct their eagerness into the most effective channels. Methods constantly are practised of combatting smokeand gas, of testing foothold, improvising protection from gas and smokeand anticipating a thousand other details upon which life or property may depend. It is plain why the fireman must be physically fit at all times, mush be hand-picked, and above all, must have courage.
A few years ago firemen worked on twenty-four hour shifts, during which they were constantly at. the fire hall, eating and sleeping there. Now, however, the two-platoon system has replaced the old order in all up-to-date departments. Under this plan the men spend alternate weeks on day and night shift, the change-over taking place at eight a.m. and six p.m.
Reveille is at seven o’clock in the winter, and six in summer. The crews are aroused by the great gong, wash, shave, make their beds, tidy their rooms and the hall, and have everything in spotless order for the change-over at eight o’clock. At five minutes before the hour the motors are started on the apparatus, and kept running until five minutes after the hour, so that the oncoming shift can sign for the equipment as being in perfect running order. The reels are in perfect condition always. They have to be, for, as one veteran put it, if your chemical, engine, or ladder stalls as you are leaving the hall, you can’t budge it by using the whip and yelling “giddap,” as in the old days.
The day shift continues the work of cleaning, and the reels are gone over, cleaned, polished and tested again, ready for inspection at ten o’clock. This cleaning occurs too, after every run, no matter how many calls are made during the day. After each fire the hose is hung in the halls to dry, and there is a special cleaning day once a week. At ten o’clock the men fall in and are inspected by the officer in charge of the hall. They must be clean and neat, their uniforms in good condition, boots polished and buttons in Diace, and penalties are heavy for those who are late or absent from duty.
The advantage of the two-platoon system over the old twenty-four-hour shift lies in the fact that the men are always fresh. In the old days, after a bad fire, the men returned to the halls dead beat, and should another big blaze develop they were in poor condition to meet it. Now, on a general alarm, their places at the hall are taken by the men off duty, and when the relief hour comes, these men go to the fire fit and fresh and their exhausted comrades return to the hall to rest until called upon again. The whole strength of the department is always at the disposal of the chief, and all the men—even if the full department is called out to an extra large and dangerous filé - are in much better shape than was possible in other days.
WHILE the fireman has much leisure between alarms, his life when at a fire is extremely hazardous. He is in danger from asphyxiation through smoke and gas, from toppling walls, from the collapse of floors, which in countless cases have dropped the toiling firemen to their death in the roaring furnace below. He is in danger from falling beams, flying glass, explosions of chemicals, collapsing stairways and ladders, protruding spikes, and a thousand other risks, large and small. Always, they must guard against the unexpected.
A few years ago a Toronto fire captain, within a few months of his retiring oension, was on the roof of a building fighting a small blaze with a hand extinguisher. The extinguisher was defective and exploded in his arms, throwing him off the roof. He was impaled upon an iron fence and died instantly. Constant alertness must be maintained, even during seemingly harmless blazes.
Overhead wires are another source of danger. They make difficult the raising and manipulating of ladders, and there is always the danger of firemen coming in contact with high voltage cables. Cellar fires are hard to fight, for usually they can only be reached by small doors, and narrow, steep or winding steps, and the low ceilings concentrate the smoke and gas.
Here again, the unexpected may conceal death. At one large cellar fire in a furniture factory, a water main burst, and flooded the place waist high. The smoke was well-nigh impenetrable and many men were overcome while directing their streams. As they succumbed they dropped below the surface of the water, and reinforcements rescued them from drowning only in the nick of time.
Extremely risky are fires in old buildings, with their insufficient exits, winding stairways, and wooden construction. There is peril, too, in garage fires, with their great tanks of gasoline, and hardware store fires have resulted in numerous casualties. Last winter, a fireman, carrying a blazing jar of nitric acid from a hardware store was overcome by the fumes. Nitric acid fumes have the prop-
perty of inducing pneumonia, no matter whether in winter or summer. This man was so afflicted, and his escape from death was narrow. He was more fortunate than a comrade, who died in July from the same cause.
Minor causes have peculiar results, and while this is being written there lies in a Toronto hospital a fireman who was frozen from the feet almost to the waist six weeks ago, and the thawing process is not yet complete. Exposure? Not at all. He was fighting a small fire in a butcher shop. The ammonia pipes connected with the refrigerating apparatus burst, and liquid ammonia overflowed the cellar floor. He had neglected to don rubber boots, and in a few moments was frozen helpless and had to be carried out.
Falling walls are always a menace that must be borne in mind. In order to get the greatest effect from their streams it sometimes is necessary for firemen to move their equipment close to the burning building, and it is difficulty to move it when the danger becomes acute. Welltrained firemen will not desert their gear, and cases have occurred of men being killed while trying to withdraw it from under toppling walls. This danger is so patent that when citizens assist firemen with a jumping net the majority get on the outside, as far away from the walls as possible, thus creating a disproportionate strain, and many a jumper has “bumped” the sidewalk as a result.
The manipulation of high-pressure hose is a ticklish job. On one occasion, four firemen were holding the nozzle waiting for pressure. It came with a rush, and the hose lashed out like a giant python, smashing limbs and flinging the men away as though they had been straw dolls. The force, too, of a high-pressure stream is enormous. A mis-directed hose once caught two firemen high on a ladder and blew them off like flies. To understand this one only has to see the solid jet raising a burning roof and scattering it like an explosive.
COLD weather brings à host of minor troubles to the fire department. There are frequent calls to chimney fires, overheated stoves, and blazing kerosene, with which some people insist upon starting the furnace. When a chimney catches, a handful of salt on the fire will often extinguish it, and save the firemen a run—which is a good thing to remember. There is always with us the Derson who smelled gas, and lighted a match to make sure. It’s a sure test—but don’t do it. A sudden drop in temperature pulls the department out for frozen pipes and water tanks, and sprinkler systems are then most likely to burst.
In winter, the fireman suffers most from exposure, of course, especially when, as so frequently happens, the fire is accompanied by a high wind which blows the stream from the mouth of the nozzle in icy spray, making it impossible to reach the heart of the fire. Most fires fought with the mercury nose-diving seem to draw a gale that carries the spray in freezing particles, until men and equipment are armored in ice and have to be salvaged with picks.
During one down-town city fire the temperature was fourteen below, with a strong wind. Two firemen on an aerial ladder directing their stream were frozen in by flying spray. By the time the fire was under control they resembled solid blocks of ice, and were frozen fast to the ladder, from which they were removed with great difficulty, having remained at their posts for more than three hours, the ladder was so encased that several hours elapsed before it could be cleared and lowered to its nest.
A cool head is a wonderful asset to a fireman, but there are tricks to every trade, and the experience of generations of firemen goes to help the neophyte. To the layman it is a matter of wonder that a fireman can enter a strange building amid smoke and darkness, and pass through rooms and corridors without losing his way in the murk and confusion. But if a fireman loses sense of direction in a room, he follows the baseboard. It is sure to bring him to a door. This is a useful tip for those who may be caught at night in a smoke-filled room, and have lost their bearings. To a fireman the feel of the hose is another lead to safety. By following it along, remembering that the male coupling is nearest the outside plug, he can win through.
TN MOST of the larger Canadian cities A the zone system of fire protection is carried out. When apparatus loaves stations in certain dangerous districts these stations are filled by reels from the zone next removed in risk, and so on through second, third and general alarms so that at no time is any section of the city left entirely unprotected, while at all times, efficient safeguarding is vouchsafed those parts where danger constantly lurks. All alarm boxes are connected direct with a central signalling station attached generally to fire headquarters. From here the calls are sent out to the stations. In each station is posted a list stating what boxes are to be responded to, and the procedure of each piece of apparatus is laid down to care for any contingency aside from a routine call. In the central signalling station there is a hand signalling system as well as the complicated automatic, so that if one fails there still is the other upon which to fall back. Similarly, the signals are electrically operated from two banks of batteries, so that if anything goes wrong with “A” bank, there is still “B” bank to rely upon.
Just so often there arises that emerggency in which all of the so carefully laid plans are given a test more thorough than ever had been contemplated. Not many months ago the Montreal fire department under Chief Gauthier was called out to a general alarm fire in the heart of the business district. The chief arrived on the scene from a bad fire in a distant part of the city. The second fire was in Y ouville Square. All the down-town apparatus responded, and the next zone reels moved into the stations in their place. They had not time to get settled before another bad blaze was discovered within a block, and shortly afterward this was followed by a third, alsoin Y ouville Square. Three general alarm fires within the compass of one city block! Yet all were taken care of and eventually subdued— and in all that time every part of Montreal was adequately protected. But those are occasions that fire chiefs and their men do not want to experience twice.
THERE are cranks whose peculiar mania it is to send in false alarms. Stations have had needless runs several times in one day, and it is almost impossible to catch the culprit. Often it is the work of irresponsible small boys who get a thrill out of seeing the department on the run, but sometimes the guilty ones are those whose years should have taught them better. Particularly abominable is the habit of young hooligans in a motor car who will move rapidly from box to box and pull out the apparatus of several districts. Firemen have been thrown from the apparatus and killed, and fatal collisions have occurred while responding to false alarms.
Some time ago in the grounds of the Canadian National Exhibition there was an outbreak of false alarms. The situation grew so bad that the keys were removed from the call boxes. Then a genuine fire occured. The key to the nearest box was gone, of course, and precious time elapsed before a telephone alarm could be sent in. The delay cost thousands of dollars in damage done, because of the additional headway that the fire gained.
Time was, when the fire department was called out to do many jobs aside from the actual subduing of a blaze. It rescued marooned cats; saved laborers overcome in wells or sewers: brought small boys— and girls—down from trees and telephone poles; opened doors for citizens who had lost their keys; rescued children from within locked bathrooms and did all the little odd jobs that no one else would tackle.
The limit was reached in one Canadian city, however. A lady telephoned one of the chief city officials in a frenzy of incoherent excitement, and demanded the use of an aerial ladder. Her perturbation made her reasons obscure, hut her tones were so urgent that rather than chance leaving someone in danger the fire company in her district was ordered to respond. They spent the afternoon raising their ladder from tree to tree in the neighboring park, in vain endeavor to recapture the lady’s parrot. So that ended that—and to-day when the modern Canadian city fire department responds to an alarm it goes out loaded for bear.