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Fire safety advice from colonial America

The fire-prevention attitude and principles of one founding father have modern application

No doubt, you are familiar with the many advancements made by Benjamin Franklin. While the bifocals, the Franklin stove, his kite experiment while studying electricity and his political ambitions are well documented, he is famous for several other items as well.

He published Poor Richard’s Almanac where he coined the phrase “A penny saved is a penny earned,” among others. He also is credited with another famous saying: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

That quote was actually firefighting advice. Back in those days, any who suffered fire damage to their homes often took on irreversible economic loss.

It was not long after that when he found the Philadelphia Contribution for Insurance Against Loss by Fire, among the first fire insurance writers in the New World.

Practicing his preaching
In 1778, Franklin wrote a letter to his sister in Boston, which stated in part:

“I lament the loss your town has suffered this year by fire. I sometimes think men do not act like reasonable creatures when they build for themselves combustible dwellings, in which they are every day obliged to use fire.

“In my new buildings, I have taken a few precautions not generally used: to wit, none of the wooden work communicates with the wooden work of another room (he speaks of limiting fire spread by compartmentation and design), all the floors and even the steps of the stairs, are plastered close to the boarder, besides the plastering on the lathe under the joints (he is talking about sealing off cracks to not allow fire to spread to the rest of the house).

“There are also trap doors to go out upon the roofs, that one may go out and wet the shingles in case of a neighboring fire. But indeed, I think the staircase should be made of stone, and the floors tiled as in Paris, and the roofs either tiled or slated.”

Old principles, modern application
While we don’t have the problem of fire spreading from one structure to the next as they did in Franklin’s days when roofs were made of straw and thatch, his thought of noncombustible roofing materials were well ahead of his time.

Many of us do not build our own homes. And to help limit the fire spread Franklin referred to, we rely on the codes that were in existence at that time our homes were built.

However, we can suggest that our residents control what is in their homes that may start fires.

Encourage members of your community to gather and properly dispose of unneeded household items to reduce the fire load in their homes. Teach them safe cooking practices and them practice that with everyone in their home who cooks.

Have them point out their home smoke alarms and test them with their family members; this will help create the next generation of smoke alarm testers. In addition, have them discuss and test their carbon monoxide detectors, and why they are an important part of the family safety plan.

These tips can make for a fun presentation to a group of adults in your community. You can deliver it around a city anniversary or any other historic event you may hold. While the message is fire safety, the way it is delivered has to be fresh to keep the audience’s attention.

By being fire safer in their homes, residents can reduce the chances of an unwanted fire. And that can keep them from contacting their fire insurance company, compliments of Ben Franklin.

Tom Kiurski has been in the fire service since 1981. He is the Training Coordinator and Director of Fire Safety Education for Livonia, Mich., Fire & Rescue. He has served as a firefighter/paramedic, engineer and lieutenant prior to his appointment as the training coordinator. He has earned an Associates Degree in Fire Science from Henry Ford Community College in Dearborn, Mich., a Bachelors Degree in Fire and Safety Engineering Technology from the University of Cincinnati and a Masters Degree in Public Administration from Eastern Michigan University. Tom teaches fire service-related courses at local colleges and fire academies. He has presented at the Fire Department Instructors Conference (FDIC) in Indianapolis seven times, as well as numerous state and local conferences. He has written more than 300 articles on fire safety education and training that have appeared in various fire service publications. Contact Tom at