Geo. Washington Fire Engine,
presented to the City of Alexandria, Va,
by Geo. Washington.
THE American system of fighting fire is considered the most perfect in existence. That the American mind, which runs to mechanical devices and machinery, has something to do with it, there can be no doubt.

The Germans and French say that we ought to have the best fire departments in the world, because we have more fires than any other country, and, consequently, more experience in fighting them. Our force is nearly four times that of Germany or France in proportion to the population, and three times that of England.


Self-propelling steam fire engine—English
style—London, England, Fire Department.
There are several reasons why our American cities should have more fires than European cities. In the first place, the wooden structures, common in earlier years, made our cities almost as vulnerable to fire as are the Chinese and Japanese towns of today, where fire sweeps away whole quarters almost periodically. The, value of one solid structure as a stay to fire has been shown over and over again in the last twenty years. In the second place, our climatic conditions favor the fire fiend. In European countries, the temperature is comparatively equable; here, we always have a tropical summer and a rigorous winter. After a summer heat that dries everything to a tinder, we have sudden-cold calls for the lighting of every stove and furnace. The sudden overheating results in fires. It may be also added, that European economists mention our prosperity as a reason for our many fires; we bear, without complaint, a yearly fire loss that to Europeans, seems a wicked and unnecessary waste. Our American fire houses compare favorably with those of Europe, although some of the English cities provide better accommodations in the way of gymnasiums and baths than any of our departments.

One difference between London and Chicago is that there the fire stations offer living accommodations to the wives and children of the married men.


Glasgow boasts of an even finer fire house than London can show. Its headquarters fire station, opened in 1898, is a six-story building, with a granite and marble front.

The walls of the rooms where the engines and trucks stand are of highly polished onyx and granite. The building contains a large sitting-room, billiard room, and gymnasium. The fire station cost $300,000, and is, probably, the finest in the world.


There is no business in which the value of the stitch in time tells more than in fire fighting. The insignificant burning of a window curtain may, in two hours, become a blaze before which a thousand men and an equipment costing millions of dollars will stand helpless. Therefore the finest record of any department is likely to be found in the number of small fires put out before they become dangerous to property and life.


The last printed report of the Chicago fire department, which may be taken as typical of that in this country shows that in 1901, out of a total of 5,135 fires, the loss, at 1,716 fires, was less than $10. At 1,334 fires, the loss was between $10 and $50; at 1,074 fires, the loss was between $100 and $1,000.

Combination compound
Babcock Champion chemical engine
and hose wagon, with deck turret nozzles.
On paper, the record of an ordinary day's work by our fire department—the extinguishing from ten to fifteen insignificant blazes, with a loss of from $10 to $25 a piece—looks insignificant. In reality, it is one to be proud of, for it shows that the vital elements of a perfect fire department—the ability to put out the blaze in as few seconds as possible, the ounce of prevention, has been attained. The $25 fire is not a spectacular affair, yet it is the one over which the fire department may really take pride. The gradual decrease in the average loss per fire attests the value of its work. In 1876-1880, the average loss at important fires was $2,786; in 1896-1901, it had fallen to $876. As already said, the first aim of a perfect fire department is to put out the fire as soon as possible; and to this end every important device introduced in the last thirty years has tended. First, find out where the fire is; second, get the extinguishing apparatus there as fast as possible; third, put out the fire, using any device that serves, with as little loss to property as possible.


By courtesy of the Fire Extinguisher Mfg. Co.
Amoskeag Self-Propelling Steam Fire Engine,
Boston, Mass.
In early times fire towers were used extensively, but these gave way in 1873 to electricity, which became known as the electric fire alarm system. Chicago alone has something like 2,600 stations, or fire alarm boxes, attached to poles distributed throughout the city. Then there are hundreds of "watch service" fire call boxes which are located in private stores, manufacturing establishments and at the big packing houses. The directions on each box, which are painted red and are surmounted by a red light, are: "Turn the Handle to Right Until Door Opens. Then pull inside Hook Once and Shut the Door." The opening of the doorof the box rings a bell in the door, which is intended to notify anyone in the neighborhood, especially a policeman, that the box has been opened. When the inside lever is pulled down and let go, it sets in motion a certain clock work that ticks out the number of the box three times in succession at headquarters. Not only that, but it makes a record upon a tape, showing the number of the box and the exact second at which the lever was pulled. An operator, who sits night and day beside the instrument at headquarters, notes the number and selects from a drawer a certain disk, which, when placed in the proper apparatus, causes the alarm to be rung in all houses throughout the city. The average time for sending out an alarm to all parts of the city is about ten seconds.


In London the signal from a street station sounds in the nearest firehouse. The objection to this is that that particular engine may be out, which might mean much before another engine could be notified. At headquarters, the moment an alarm is sent out which calls away an engine, a note is made of it upon a frame or chart, which shows at a glance the sign "out" opposite the engine's number. When the company returns to the house, the first thing the captain does is to report the return of his company to headquarters. When an alarm is received at the engine house all is orderly excitement. The chains fall down from in front of the horses, allowing them to run to their places in front of the engine or hose trucks, the men come sliding down the brass poles from the story above, and the collars are snapped around the horses' necks, and, by the time the signal stops, all is ready for a dash out of doors or a quiet return to quarters.


The equipment that makes the departure of a fire engine from its house possible inside of ten seconds after the first clang of the alarm bell, with steam up and its regular crew, is the result of many inventions and persistent drill. As it is essential that no time be lost in getting up steam in the engine, steam is always maintained under a pressure of from five to twenty pounds in the engine boiler by means of a stationary boiler in the basement. This is connected with the engine by a pipe which is disconnected automatically when the horses start off. At the same instant the fireman lights the fire under the engine boiler with a handful of oil waste, and by the time it has gone two blocks, there is a blaze of hot coals and a head of steam to work with. Electricity drops the stall chains in front of the horses at the same time it begins to ring the alarm. The men, who sleep with one eye open, come down the poles faster than they could tumble down any staircase.


The fire horses, two for light engines, and three when the machines weigh more than four tons—are trained as finely as the men. They are the pets of the house and of the neighborhood. Some of them learn in a week to run to their places at the signal; others require a month's training. The lessons are simple enough. A raw horse is made to feel the whip as he hears the signal bell. If be is an intelligent animal, the two so soon become synonymous that he starts for his place the instant the bell rings. Many horses seem to know quite as well as the men, when the alarm is one that means business. They really seem to count the strokes.


It is highly probable that the days of the fire horse are numbered. Steam as a motive power for fire engines, although used in several American cities, and in many European ones, has never found favor in Chicago. The difficulty in getting up power quickly enough seems to be the trouble. Electricity, however, which is now used in Paris and Berlin, is pretty certain to displace the horse within the next few years. Its chief advantages are that it makes a quicker start possible than with horses, and that the same power which propels the machine through the streets can be used for pumping-apparatus when the fire is reached. Moreover, no fire is needed, thus doing away with lots of smoke and noise that add to the confusion inseparable from any fire alarm. Another fact in favor of electricity is that if, as so often happens, there is no fire worth talking. about, or one that can be put out, with an extinguisher, there is no loss of fuel and labor. At present, every engine is expected to arrive at the fire with its own fire blazing hot. The cleanliness and neatness of an engine house that requires no boiler, handles no coal or ashes and keeps no horses on its premises, may be imagined. Heretofore, it has been objected that if electrical apparatus gets out of order the men are helpless, and, formerly, electricity was not so commonly used as at present; this may have had some force.


The modern equipment for fire fighting consists of engines for pumping water, hose for distributing it at the fire, various sizes and lengths being used, according to need, ladders for getting up into buildings, lifelines, and nets into which people jump, if they have to. Each hose-cart, also carries two chemical extinguishers, having a capacity of fifty gallons each. In the last five, years an average of forty fires a year has been put out with the aid of these extinguishers alone. The ladders are of various types, from small ones, to be carried by the firemen, to the extension ladders raised by a crank, which reach to a height of ninety feet, or to the sixth story of an ordinary building.


One of the most interesting novelties shown at the Paris Fire Congress of 1900 was an eighty-five-feet extension ladder from Frankfort, Germany, built on the telescope plan, and raised by compressed air to its full height in 25 seconds.


The scaling ladders used by firemen, to climb up the outside of a building where ordinary ladders fail, consist of long poles into which crosspieces, or rungs, are inserted, by which a man may climb. At the end of each pole is a long spike-projection, to be thrust through the window sash. With a supply of such ladders trained firemen can get to the top of a building in an incredibly short time.


It is largely a matter-of-practice period. In addition to all this apparatus, there must also be mentioned the water tower, which raises a hose nozzle to the level of the upper stories, a searchlight, for use upon dark nights, and a gun, by which a rope may be sent up to the tops of buildings.

In the fireboat Illinois, Chicago has the most powerful and effective fire fighter in the world. There is a boat in New York that approaches it in completeness and capacity to throw river water, yet nowhere has it an equal. The Illinois was built in the year 1888, and is the newest and most rnodern fire boat that floats. The Illinois is 118 feet in length, twenty-four feet in depth, and has a hold depth of twelve and a half feet. To construct and fit it out cost about $100,000. In viewing it from some distance an uninitiated observer might well take it for an engine of destruction instead of saving warfare, for its big brass bores at the bow and stern suggest the shell-throwing howitzers we read about. The Illinois is throughout protected from fire, its exterior and interior being metal plated. The hull of the boat has two novel features suggested by its liability, in the winter season, to meet ice obstructions. The prow does not extend down into the water the usual depth, while the bottom line of the vessel slopes upward, so that when the boat encounters ice in hurrying to the scene of a conflagration, it glides upon it, and its own weight carries down the ice.

All the machinery of the Illinois is below the water line. There are six double cylinder engines, three of which supply the power of operating the great double pumps which rush the water through the stand pipes and hose lines. The other three engines run the electric dynamos and supply motive power to the boat. So powerful are the pumps of this boat that eleven streams of water may be thrown at one time, or a double stream may be shot up to a distance of one hundred and ninety feet.

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© 1998, 2002 by Lynn Waterman