Remembering the legacy of the National Board of Fire Underwriters
The pioneering insurance organization helped blaze a path for the first building and fire prevention codes
Today there are multiple sources of information on fire service organization and deployment, but a century ago, such information was basically nonexistent. That was until the formation of the National Board of Fire Underwriters (NBFU).
Many in our industry have never heard of the NBFU, but this organization had a significant impact on the modern-day fire service, ultimately starting the movement toward standardization.
Let’s review a bit of history and how the NBFU came to be – and also how it disappeared from our consciousness.
Urban fire threats spark calls for change
In the mid-1800s, urban volunteer fire brigades gave way to steam engines and paid firefighters, not because the volunteers sought change but because society and public opinion had changed. The public wanted security in response to their fear of urban fire.
However, the problem was that no standards existed for creating a paid fire service. This allowed each city the freedom to create its own set of rules. Cities were free to choose the level of fire service they could live with (afford) or wanted (desired for city pride).
Then in 1866, a conflagration in Portland, Maine, presaged a disaster scenario that would repeat in American cities over the next half-century.
Cities reacted to the threat of fire by replacing volunteer firefighters. However, the lack of a recognized model for building a fire department resulted in structural differences in the levels of fire protection and a general lack of standardization among cities.
Though the problem was known early on, it took the failures at the 1904 Great Fire of Baltimore to force further change. In the Baltimore fire and other fires, non-standard hose and hydrant threads thwarted mutual-aid efforts because companies could not connect to get water.
What the fire service needed was a set of universal rules – and creating those standards is the story of the NBFU.
NBFU: The beginning of standardization
What occurred in the wake of the Great Fire of Portland began a process that would take nearly four decades but ultimately lead to practices and standards that continue to guide fire departments today.
The Portland fire focused attention on the undercapitalization of fire insurance companies. Without adequate capital held in reserve, a fire insurance company that was suddenly exposed to numerous claims after a large fire might go bankrupt. A company’s inability to compensate fire insurance policyholders would not only erode confidence in fire insurance but would in turn cause the bankruptcy of businesses that needed fire insurance to ensure long-term financial solvency.
Only because of the forward-thinking of other fire insurance companies to step in to loan money to insurance companies on the brink of bankruptcy were those companies able to pay the claims for Portland.
Recognizing the growing threat of large fires, the underwriters from various insurance companies formed the NBFU.
There was now review of cities and municipal public fire protection for the purpose of fire suppression grading to determine the proper rates to charge for fire insurance. Not only was the impact positive on fire departments, but on the fire insurance industry as well. The end result – the creation of building, fire and NPFA codes – subsequently affected building construction methods and materials, performance criteria for public water systems, and provided best practices for the fire service.
Despite recognition of the threat of fire in combustible cities and undercapitalized fire insurance companies, the NBFU struggled to maintain a united front against rate competition.
Insurance was an unregulated business at this time, and the competition among fire insurance agents to sell more meant buyers of insurance paid ever lower premiums. Too many policies sold to cover more risks paid for by cheap premiums meant stock insurance companies were unable to pay out when too many claims were made after a conflagration. Stock fire insurance companies, as opposed to mutual fire insurance companies, were thus said to be undercapitalized.
After each great fire, insurance companies failed and so the fire underwriters of solvent companies banded together to pay the claims of the companies that went bankrupt. The various fire underwriters formed boards – locally, regionally and eventually nationally – to get everyone to act reputably and use business sense to run their various insurance companies.
It took conflagrations in Chicago and Boston to reign in competition in the fire insurance industry. It was these events that convinced the stated legislatures to act to control the fire insurance business.
The resulting momentum after the Boston fire provided the initiative for the NBFU to begin regular evaluations of the fire defense preparedness of American cities. Committees formed out of the NFBU, ultimately leading to new organizations, including the NFPA and UL.
For many decades, the NBFU and NFPA worked collaboratively almost as one organization. Through these efforts, the first model building code was created, as well as fire prevention codes, and standardized electrical practices and testing procedures. The NBFU provided financial support for the writing and publishing of fire safety codes created under the auspices of NFPA Technical Committees.
Fire departments improved, and American cities saw fewer conflagrations because of the efforts of the NBFU.
The NBFU is long gone now, replaced first by the American Insurance Association (AIA) and later the Insurance Services Office (ISO). The legacy of the NBFU has all but faded from fire service memory.
Preserving NBFU history
I recently interviewed Ted Tochterman, a collector of NBFU documents and the principal historian of the organization’s work.
He got his start in the final days of the NBFU, conducting municipal fire service evaluations in some of the largest cities in the Eastern U.S., where he had a chance to learn firsthand how the NBFU worked. Tochterman knew and worked for many of the people who made the NBFU a highly respected organization – individuals who today are mostly forgotten.
Tochterman shared that The NBFU made evaluating municipal fire services a disciplined and reasoned process based on sound engineering principles. The NBFU avoided the influence of city politics and maintained strict independence and adherence to the document that guided their work – The Standard Grading Schedule for Grading Cities and Towns of the United States With Reference to Their Fire Defenses and Physical Conditions.
Avoiding politics was important because the NBFU was always under pressure from local politicians and municipal government membership organizations to relax the grading standards.
From his mentors, Tochterman acquired knowledge, as well as their keen interest in the work they performed. When they retired, he acquired their collections of personal papers and official documents to preserve the institutional memory of the NBFU. He describes his collection of historical materials as comprising more than 1,100 related books, personal papers, and manuals, including significant city reports from 1903 to 1930, two bound volumes of the work of NBFU Chief Engineer A.C. Hendricks, as well as original copies of the old NFPA manuals on testing pumpers and hose.
When the NBFU disbanded, neither the AIA nor the ISO showed interest in preserving this important archive of America’s fire history, so Ted Tochterman became the keeper of NBFU history.