A couple weeks ago, you probably noticed a lot of coverage of the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. It happened on March 25, 1911, which was a Saturday. The Sunday Magazine did not cover it that weekend — the main news sections of the paper did — but on April 9, Rhinelander Waldo, the city’s Fire Commissioner, wrote this article for the Magazine proposing a new division of the fire department with a new goal: instead of just fighting fires, let’s try to prevent them.
Fire extinguishment in this city has about reached its maximum efficiency. When the motor-driven fire apparatus is installed throughout the city and also the high-pressure water system there will be little left for us to do to raise the efficiency of our fire-fighting force.
The great thing is to prevent fire.
This is simply taking a leaf from the book of the medical profession. For many years doctors concentrated all their efforts upon curing disease. The modern school bends its main efforts to preventive measures.
One of his recommendations doesn’t actually prevent a fire from starting, but can extinguish a small fire before it spreads: automatic sprinklers.
This is a system of pipes which is suspended from the ceiling and which is connected with a tank on the roof. At certain distances on the pipes are nozzles which have fusible metal caps. This metal fuses at a temperature of 160 degrees. Even a small flame will open adjacent nozzles, and the water, which is thrown up against a plate, is diffused over the floor in a spray which covers about eight square feet.
Only last Wednesday there was a demonstration of the efficiency of the sprinkler system. Fire was discovered at 5:15 o’clock in the afternoon in the receiving department on the ninth floor of the building occupied by a well-known department store. Although there were probably more than 1,000 customers in the store at the time, only a few of them knew of the fire. The fact was unknown even to most of the employees. When the heat in the room rose to the necessary temperature the sprinkler system automatically began to work, and at the same time an alarm was automatically sounded. The fire was extinguished quickly with a damage by water that did not exceed $200.
Compare this with what would have occurred had there only been hose pipe in reels on the wall and panicky employees relied upon to haul them through rooms filled with panicky customers.
He goes on to describe how narrow aisles, blocked doors, and discarded rubbish can all create fire hazards. He concludes by proposing a new Bureau of Fire Prevention within the Fire Department that would be in charge of inspecting fire escapes, sprinklers, fireproofing, etc. The proposal went through, and the FDNY website has information about the Bureau of Fire Prevention today.
Bonus: If you actually download the PDF to read the article, you’ll get another article on the same page profiling a circus lion tamer.
WE SAFEGUARD PROPERTY; NOW PROTECT LIFE — WALDO: Fire Commissioner Outlines Plans by Which, Having Made Our Building Fireproof, We Can Prevent the Slaughter of those Who Have to Work in Them. (PDF)
From April 9, 1911