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Fire prevention: The more things change …

A 1916 book on how the city worked shows how much we share, and don’t share, with past centuries


It’s hard to believe that more than 15 percent of the 21st century has come and gone. For some, it seems like yesterday when we wondered if a Y2K glitch would shut down our computer networks and render communications useless throughout the world.

Similarly, the adding of a second to the atomic clock during the last minute of the last day of 2016 to compensate for the earth’s slower rotational speed sent ripples through the world’s stock markets for fear it might disrupt international trading. How the world we live in has changed – or has it?

While I order most of my books or eBooks online, I love to browse book stores – whether a known chain or a store specializing in “one of a kind” old musty books, it is still important to me to have a reference library of books at my fingertips.

It was in one of these specialty book stores that I found a classic entitled, “The Citizens Book,” published in 1916 by the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce. This century-old text gave me a glimpse of the city where I grew up at a time when my grandfather and great grandfather provided for our family.

“The Citizens Book” was published to acquaint the people of that era with the governmental services the city provided, but more to the point, how these services benefitted the community. To my surprise, Chapter VIII, the largest chapter in this 250-page volume, was entitled “Fire Prevention and Extinction.”

Interesting that “extinction” in those days was synonymous to what we call fireground operations, or perhaps more closer to extinguishment. The chapter discussed the fire loss for the community both direct and consequential, the cost of fire insurance and the municipal fire department’s budget.

It defined fire loss as “fire waste,” meaning that most fires, then as now, were clearly preventable. It explained the relationship among the building commission, state fire marshal, fire chief and his fire prevention bureau conducting inspections, especially in commercial properties.

Fire prevention was a relatively new concept for everyone – as the Office of the State Fire Marshal had only been formed in 1901, and the marshal was empowered by the state in 1912 to deputize municipal fire chiefs and his representatives as special deputy fire marshals with the power to enter premises during regular work hours to conduct fire inspections.

This, however, didn’t include the authority to inspect private residences.

Firefighting gets modern

The book discusses the individual’s responsibility for fire prevention and devotes three full pages to how residents could make their homes safer from fire by conducting their own inspections and reminding their family members about the common dangers of disposing of hot ashes, cooking, careless smoking, kerosene lamps and heater, fireworks, holiday decorations and neglected property maintenance.

On an equal footing with fire prevention was fire extinction. The book introduces the concept of modern firefighting by discussing that the city was divided into districts, each district having a designated district fire marshal with several firehouses and multiple companies assigned to each district.

It discussed the municipal fire alarm system, the operation of fire alarm boxes as well as how to report a fire through the telephone operator to the central fire alarm office.

Perhaps the most fascinating section on fire extinction was the ongoing transition to “automobile apparatus.” First begun in 1913, the modernization to motorized apparatus had 25 modern auto fire engines in service by 1916, with the remaining 45 fire companies still using horses to pull steamers to the fires.

The report also included a narrative on the newly developed “flying squad” (the forerunner to rescue squads) that delivered additional firefighters to the “dangerous risk” congested districts to assist both engine and hook-and-ladder companies in getting “speedily” to work.

The book foretold that these new concepts, including the further addition of automobile apparatus, would make it possible to reduce the number of firehouses, including their subsequent operating costs, and at the same time increase speed and efficiency of the fire department.

Certainly, in the past 100 years we’ve made even greater strides in the reduction of fires and especially fire deaths through technologies such as smoke alarms. But I found the problems then and the problems now to be quite similar.

… the more they stay the same

While we try to use every means of social media available to get our message to the public, does the average person really comprehend any clearer the multi-tasked complexity of our job as firefighters?

Obviously, in 1916, the question of how government worked and who did what to make things safer was serious enough to have the Chamber of Commerce print this book to help inform residents on how the system worked.

Are things any different today when a celebrity’s change of hairstyle has a higher priority for some news media to report than the fire or auto crash that has affected the lives of several families forever?

While our tools have changed, have our issues changed? Fire prevention rightly now has become community risk reduction as we’ve transitioned into the all-hazard fire and EMS provider.

But has it stopped the average administrator from thinking the fire service is too expensive – that there is too much down time that is wasteful and unproductive? Probably not, but we have one great advantage over our counterparts of 1916 – firefighters today meet more everyday people than ever before while rendering aid and attending to their emergency.

Each of us needs to be a better ambassador for our department and the fire service using what Chief Alan Brunacini refers to as exceptional customer service. You, not the city administrator, ride with a patient in the back of a medic unit or comfort a family at a fire or rescue operation through undoubtedly the most difficult time in their lives.

Use that time wisely, but use it to show your patience, compassion, kindness and humility to all you come in contact with. You alone have the power to inform and win over each citizen one at a time.

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