a most important consideration, but an ounce of prevention is worth more than a pound of cure.
Saturday, 10 December 2016
W. Lacy Amy
From The Busy Man’s Magazine, May 1 1910.
(An ‘Ayer Annual’ describes an Eastern publication The Weekly Underwriter v85 1911 reporting that W. Lacey Amy is working on the insurance magazine, Office and Field, of Toronto.)/drf
IF the legislators of America would grasp the significance of the irretrievable loss of $600,000 every day for the past ten years; if the public would stop to think that every tick of the clock records the vanishing of $800; if the newspapers would devote a space in their columns for a campaign against a needless waste; if insurance indemnity were not misunderstood, then America might put in her pockets a great part of the quarter of a billion dollars that goes up in smoke every year. If we would only understand that fires are not the work of Providence or chance, but of carelessness, ignorance or wilful destruction, we might devote our energies to investigations and remedies that would bring more practical results in money saved than all the lofty aims and aspirations of existing societies and associations for the advancement of mankind.
Each year for the past five years there has been in America an average of 104,543 fires reported, consuming in each week three theatres, three public halls, twelve churches, ten schools, two hospitals, two asylums, two colleges, six apartment houses, twenty-six hotels, three department stores, two jails, 140 flat houses and 1.600 homes.
For the past forty years the losses in Canada alone have amounted to more than $170,000,000. Between 1870 and 1892 the loss averaged $3,500,000 per year, and for the last six years of the century $8,000,000. But the fire waste for the year just ended reached a total of $19,234,196, or $52,696 a day, with a population of a little more than 7,000,000 people. During the month of December there were nine fires a day reported, of which 134 carried a loss exceeding $500, and 25 exceeded $10,000.
The record in Canada for the different months of 1909 was as follows :—
January ........... $1,500,000
February .......... 1,263,005
March ............ 851,690
April .............. 720,650
May .............. 3,358,276
June .............. 1,360,275
July ............... 1,390,000
August ............ 2,091,500
September .......... 1,653,000
October ........... 2,376,000
November ......... 1,200,500
December ......... 1,469,300
And yet these figures give very little idea of the actual monetary loss from the fire fiend. There must be included the cost of the maintenance of the fire departments, the waterworks chargeable to fire service, private fire equipment and insurance. For some of these there are no complete figures as far as Canada is concerned; but the United States, which is in much the same position as Canada, supplies the following for 1908:
Direct fire combustion . $220,000,000
Fire departments ...... 49,000,000
Waterworks for fire service ................ 29,000,000
Private equipment ..... 18,000,000
Insurance premiums in excess of losses paid. . 146,000,000
The capital required at five per cent, to pay this loss would be $9,240,000,000, a sum equal to the total combined capital of every business interest in America.
To this again must be added the countless millions lost in forest fires, of which Canada’s share was $25,500,000, the resulting impoverishment of the soil, and the millions represented by what is known in insurance circles as “consequential loss,” that is, loss in revenue as the result of business interruption. The forest fires of the Adirondacks alone in 1908 burned over 347,000, or 542 square miles, 38 per cent, of the timber on which was deemed to be merchantable. In the Crow’s Nest district forest fires reduced an area of 212 square miles of forest until only 33 remain, and the burnt tract is fit for nothing for years to come.
So that the yearly toll in America of the dread fire fiend is little short of the colossal sum of $600,000,000, of which $50,000,000 is lost to our own Canada.
Figures that are indeed startling!
But what is more serious, more worthy of our earnest consideration, is that more than half of the loss could easily have been prevented. The authorities agree that much more than half of the fire loss in America is attributable to arson, gross carelessness, or ignorance. In other words, Canada throws away more than ten milions of dollars without reason or recompense.
In this connection there is a fallacy that receives general acceptance by the public. It is that insurance covers fire loss, that property insured is not a loss when consumed by fire. A moment’s reflection will be sufficient to show how untenable is such an idea. Insurance merely distributes an individual loss among all the policyholders of the company. Each of us pays for his neighbor’s fire.
In the consideration of fire waste due to preventive causes, guessing is largely eliminated by a comparison with the loss rate of other countries. In Canada the per capita loss in1909 by direct fire combustion was $2.63; in America it was more than $3. When we examine European experience the possibilities of prevention are clear. In eight countries of Europe the average per capita loss is only 33 cents. Germany suffers from a 49 cent loss, France 30 cents, Austria 29, and lowest of all, Italy can show a statement of but 12 cents per head, or one-twenty-second of the Canadian waste. Only in Russia and Norway, where construction is largely of wood, does the fire loss per capita approach half that of America.
Comparing cities on the two continents: The average annual number of fires in European cities is eight for each ten thousand of population. In American cities the average is forty. Glasgow had a fire loss in 1908 of $325,000; Boston, with a smaller population, reported $3,610,000. Berlin, with a population of 3,000,000, has an annual fire loss of less than $175,000; Chicago’s loss is $5,000,000, although its population is only about two-thirds that of Berlin. With all this difference in loss there is an additional surprise in the relative costs of the fire-fighting resources. Berlin's fire department costs a trifle more than $300,000. Chicago’s more than $3,000,000. New York's fire department costs $10,000,000, its high-pressure service involves an expenditure of $3,000,000, and yet its fire loss is $10,000,000 a year. Paris expends only $60,000 on its fire protection. American cities spend $1.65 per head to go to bed feeling safe, while the average cost of fire protection in Berlin is only 26 cents, in London 19 cents, and in Milan 17 cents. In 158 American cities the cost of maintaining fire departments was $38,000,000, and yet the loss in 1908 was $48,000,000.
Compare Berlin’s loss of $175,000 for a population of 3,000,000, with Toronto's $740,931 last year for a population little over one-ninth that size, or Montreal’s $450,000, Hamilton's $99,298, Vancouver's $315,000. Calgary's $82,349. Winnipeg’s complete figures are not at hand, but they must be enormous. In fires with a loss of $10,000 or more, the destruction for the last five months of the year alone in that city amounted to the appalling total of $600,000.
Still another evil in addition to that of property waste attends the carelessness that is so largely responsible. Every year there are 2.000 lives lost in America through fires. Six people every day of the year are sacrificed on the national ash heap. In Canada last year there were two hundred deaths from fire—almost four a week—and the present year has started out with great promise of exceeding that number. It is unfortunate that, while industrial accidents are carefully attended to by our laws, there is nothing on the statute books to protect the hundreds who die in fires from some other person’s carelessness. An unprotected saw, an open elevator shaft, a defective piece of machinery are recognized grounds for damage claims. Indeed, some of the provinces have gone so far as to make the employer liable for the injuries of his employe received through his own carelessness. But there is nothing to punish the man or woman who attempts to light the kitchen fire with coal oil or even gasolene, or the parents who leave small children alone in houses where the stove, the lamp or the matches are within reach. The outcome of the increasing loss of life from carelessness that is criminal, will be that the laws will declare it just as great a misdemeanor for a man to take the lives of six of his family by starting a morning fire with gasolene (as happened near Winnipeg in November) as it would have been had he shot them all in their beds.
There were fifty-one deaths and ninety-seven injuries reported during the last two months of the year, and more fatalities failed to be recorded on account of death not being immediate. Of the deaths no fewer than 24, as well as 32 injured, were the result of unpardonable carelessness. The majority of the fatalities were children whose heartless, brainless parents considered it safe (if they considered at all) to leave small children alone. A woman near Ottawa went out to milk, leaving three children alone in the house—three deaths on the list. A Berlin woman went down town, leaving three children with the stove— three more. In one small village in Ontario a child was burned to death in December, because its parents left it alone; within three weeks another child gave up its life in the same village from the same cause. And so the list lengthens, the parents receiving sympathy for an act that should be considered criminal. With the class of people who will expose their children to such danger nothing but the law will bring recognition of the necessity of employing common sense for the protection of those dependent on them.
“Every fire is a crime,” is the slogan adopted by the National Fire Protection Association, a body of men in the United States united in a great cause. At a glance this assertion may seem extreme. But is it? Was there ever a fire that was not the result of somebody’s carelessness? With the exception of a disturbance of nature, such as at San Francisco, every fire has its origin in the thoughtlessness or wilful desire of someone; and even the San Francisco fire need not have been great had the buildings been of proper construction.
Carelessness that leads to waste is a crime.
Had Canada her $20,000 a year to expend in public works, two Dreadnaughts could be built every year, or a formidable fleet of smaller war vessels. A railway could be constructed from Toronto almost to Winnipeg at a cost of $20,000 a mile, or 1,600 miles of prairie road. She could construct 4,000 miles of the best stone or gravel roads. She could pay for the maintenance of all the sick and poor in the country. She could buy up a million acres of as good land as the west possesses. America’s fire loss money would “evangelize the world, in this generation.” What presents, such possibilities is nothing short of criminal.
Fires are said to be due to three crimes: the crime of ignorance, the crime of carelessness, and the crime of arson. And the first two can be combined under the second. And yet the criminal calmly collects his insurance without a penalty save for discovered arson, while his neighbors, whose losses, due to his carelessness, were not covered by insurance, must struggle along under the burden he places upon them with immunity. The effects of his carelessness are just as disastrous as if he had deliberately applied the match—but there is no punishment, no explanation even.
How different it is in Europe! And it is owing largely to this difference that the loss rate is so low. In France the responsibility for any loss caused by his negligence is placed upon the landlord or tenant of the building where the fire started and the results are wonderful. In Paris a fire rarely goes outside the building in which it starts. In Vienna, where the same law exists, there is not a case known where a fire is not confined to the building in which it started, and in few fires did it reach another floor—conditions due to the solid construction brought about by the law of responsibility. In Paris flimsy unsprinklered department stores with well-holes to the roof, and crowded aisles that would frighten away any American insurance company, secure a rate of 50 cents. In Belgium and Holland the laws are somewhat similar. In Germany the assured must save everything he can, and must notify the police within three days and the company within twenty-four hours. In Sweden an inquest must follow every fire. The same condition exists in Switzerland, and some cantons refuse indemnity if carelessness or neglect is proven. In Spain and Italy the assured must make affidavit to the proper officer as to the cause and circumstances of a fire and furnish the insurance company with a copy thereof.
The other reasons for the low fire waste in Europe are the restriction of high buildings, the necessity of solid, fireproof construction, the absence of litter and combustible accumulations on the streets. In London there are no buildings more than eight storeys high, and few beyond six. German cities are superbly built, from an underwriter’s standpoint, and the police supervision is excellent and wonderfully effective.
Then, how can this serious destruction of the country’s wealth be decreased?
There are three great powers in the fight for less fire waste:
1. The Government.
2. The civic authorities.
3. The individual.
Unfortunately we make the great mistake of fighting fire from the wrong end. What counts in decreasing the waste is not the extinguishing of fires, but their prevention. The comparative merits of the two systems of fire elimination are demonstrated by the difference between the fire loss in Europe and that in America. In Europe they demand that the builder and the owner conform to definite laws that exclude risk. In America we spend money in apparatus and men, and allow the public a free hand. There they start at the beginning to fight the waste; here we start at the last scene. And the results are evident. Our method of decreasing the waste is similar to the establishment of hospitals as the only means of fighting typhoid fever.
If the Governments of the different provinces would undertake only one task they would fulfill at a very small cost all that would be expected of them. Across the border twelve of the states have appointed a man, whose duty it is to investigate every fire of doubtful origin. These fire marshals have supreme authority at certain times. In case of a fire they can order the owner from the damaged building in order that a thorough, untramelled investigation can be made, with no opportunity for the owner to remove evidence. They can condemn any property as a fire-breeder, compel the cleaning up of litter, and enforce protection for life and property. They and their deputies make suggestions for building ordinances, and see that the laws are obeyed. They secure the aid of the newspapers in publishing the fire losses and common preventive measures.
The result of the appointment of such men has been beyond expectation. In Massachusetts incendiary fires have decreased fifty per cent. In Ohio in one year 72 persons were convicted of arson, and in another state as many men were punished for arson in two and a half years as had been convicted in the previous existence of the state. It has been found that few men will risk burning their own buildings if there is an official whose duty it is to follow them up. The same fear prevents the firing of an enemy’s barn. In Ohio the fire loss during the first year of the fire marshal’s department was eleven millions ; in the last five years it averaged less than seven millions, and this in spite of the fact that insurable property has doubled in value. The per capita loss in states with fire marshals averages $1.47 per head, and in states without fire marshalls $2.47. Only Manitoba has a fire marshall, and although he has been in office but a short time and has not sufficiently wide powers and assistance, the value of the office is apparent.
The civic authorities have in their hands the most ready solution of the fire problem. After all, the great preventive of fire waste is proper construction. Fireproof construction, or a style that is sufficiently fireproof to enable the fire apparatus to do effective work is at the command of the local authorities. The “fire limit” can be definitely fixed to exclude all conflagration risks. Fire walls projecting above the roof at frequent intervals are the most effective obstacles to devastation. The height of buildings should have some control of its fireproof qualities. Buildings should be carefully inspected at regular intervals, and litter and loose paper prohibited in lanes or on private property. Strict theatre laws should be made, fireworks prohibited, the use of combustibles restricted, incendiaries punished, exposed windows protected with wire glass or metal doors. The excellence of the fire-fighting system is, of course,
a most important consideration, but an ounce of prevention is worth more than a pound of cure.
So important are the duties of the city authorities in this respect that in the recent Boston elections the platform of a candidate was largely the reduction of fire waste.
Did the Government and civic authorities do their duties comparatively little would depend upon individual effort. As it is, much of the prevention is in the control of the citizen. Fireproof construction is becoming popular through private effort rather than through public demand. The factory or store owner has adopted “fireproof” ideas that are doing more than anything else to save the lost millions of property. Wire glass, covered openings, fire-retarding walls and floors, sprinkler systems, the avoidance of concealed spaces, closed elevator shafts, automatic trap doors, private fire alarms, watchmen, private fire brigades, water tanks, university course in fire education, etc., are some of the individual efforts towards decreasing the fire waste.
In England there is a society called the British Fire Prevention Committee; in the United States the National Fire Protection Association performs the same work. These associations are composed of prominent men interested in the subject—fire insurance officials, large property owners, college professors, Government officials. Tests are made of every material and style of construction, as well as of every kind of fire-fighting appliances and invention. Large amounts of money are spent in experimenting on new ideas in construction, on the dangers from different gases, oils and materials, and the relative values of the various kinds of hose, fire-engines, pumps, sprinklers, etc. Pamphlets dealing with almost every subject that could be of interest in the reduction of fire loss are sent free upon request and published in the newspapers.
The fire insurance companies have a weapon at their disposal that provides them with great opportunities. As many life insurance companies refuse to insure the Christian Scientists, so fire insurance companies are refusing such risks as moving picture theatres, dangerous manufactories and localities where the moral hazard is great. The association of the companies has established high rates for properties that are unnecessarily risky, and the owners are forced by this means to provide protection and sensible improvements. The companies can govern construction, exposure, and expenditure in fire-fighting appliances, and it is to their credit that they are learning to exercise their powers. The Canadian Fire Underwriters’ Association is not a combination for high prices, but a combined effort to reduce the fire waste. Last year, in Montreal alone, about 18,000 inspections were made, 1,844 defects were discovered; and it is a proof of the efficiency of this method of dealing with the question, that all but 25 of the defects were remedied.
With all working together, with even one of the three great powers in control of the situation doing its best, Canada could be spared a great part of the twenty millions that disappear in smoke. Millions more could be saved from fire department expenditures and as it is the people make the fire rates, whatever might be said to the contrary, there is no reason why this country should not decrease its loss from the fire fiend by fully fifty per cent, in a very few years. When Canada reduces its loss to the proportion of European countries the tardiness of present Governments and civic bodies will be a matter of shame and surprise.
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- As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.