Sunday, July 17, 2011

Fire Commissioner Johnson's Answer to Delay Charge

January 17, 1911, New York Times, Answer to Delay Charge
Fire Commissioner Johnson answered last night a statement in The Evening Post that there had been a delay of twenty-one minutes between the turning in of the first and second alarms at the Equitable fire. The Post also declared that Chief Kenlon had neglected to follow the precident established by former Chiefs Croker and Bonner in responding to every first alarm in the financial district. Charges of delay were based on the following table of the official times at which all the successive Equitable Building fire alarms came into Fire Headquarters:

First alarm.......5:34
Second alarm...5:53
Third alarm......6:01
Fourth alarm....6:03
Fifth alarm.......6:28
Borough alarm..7:48

Commissioner Johnson issued the following statement in reply:

An afternoon paper criticised the handling of the Equitable fire. I note but two points worth considering. The first being that Chief Kenlon violated the rules set by Bonner and Croker that the Chief of the department should respond to every first alarm in the financial district. They never did this, because it was physically impossible to respond to those first alarms and alarms further uptown. Chief Kenlon responds to all first alarms possible between Chambers Street and Thirty-fourth Street, where at night the hazzrad to human life is much greater than in the deserted financial district.

The proper man to respond to first alarms in the financial district is the Deputy Chief in control of that district. That district is practically deserted at night, except for watchmen and police, and it is absurd to think that a Deputy Chief of the New York Fire Department is not able to handle a first alarm there. Every Deputy Chief is able in his turn to conduct the whole New York Fire Department. He would reach the first alarm station in the financial district far ahead of the Chief of the department, whose headquarters are in Great Jones Street. Acting Deputy Chief Devanney, one of the best officers in the department, was the first on the scene, with four companies, the first of which, Engine Company 6, reached the hydrant in two and a half minutes. The others were placed as they came up, and he turned in the sewcond alarm as he could discover the inadequacy of that equipment.

As a matter of fact, the number of high-pressure hydrants which Chief Devanney used on the first alarm was equal to the number of engines which prior to the high-pressure period responded on the second.

This answers the second point, namely, that of the alleged delay between the first and second alarms. If the employees of the Equitable thought so little of the fire during twenty minutes that they refused to call out the department, Chief Devanney's action in combating the fire for twenty minutes more with four companies and the high-presssure streams showed that he turned ina second alarm with reasonable promptness.

Perhaps the public doesn't know that many of the offices on the Pine Street side and the middle and back of the building are still intact, and that the fire was held within remarkably close bounds, considering the terrific conditions under which the firemen worked. It is my opinion that the firemen's work on the Equitable fire was one of the best performances in the history of the department, and I hardly think that the after-wisdom of this critic can be seriously taken. Certainly no such criticism has come from the Equitable people or the Nassau and Cedar Street property owners. Chief Kenlon's tactics in flooding the building from the Nassau and Cedar Street sides is likely what saved the fire from sweeping across Nassau Street and on to the East River.
January 20, 1912, New York Times, "Records Show Delay At Equitable Fire,
High-Pressure System Not Called Into Use for an Hour, Though Johnson Said Otherwise
Chief Kenlon Is Silent Declines to Discuss the Case---Commissioner Also Refuses Now

Records of the Water Department disclosed yesterday that the high-pressure system was not used at the Equitable Building fire on Tuesday of last week until the fourth alarm had been sent in, or after the fire had been burning over an hour.

Fire Commissioner Johnson said a few days ago, in defending Chief Kenlon and the entire department from charges made in The Evening Post of delay in handling the fire, that even though there had been an interval of twenty-one minutes between the sending of the first and second alarms, the number of high-pressure hydrants used on the first alarm was the equivalent to the extra apparatus which the second alarm would have brought.

The fire started at about 5:15 a.m., and the first alarm, because of the act of the Equitable watchmen in trying to fight it unaided, was not turned in until 5:34 a.m. Between 5:34 and 5:55, when the second alarm was pulled, the fire was being fought, according to Commissioner Johnson's statement, "with four companies and the high-pressure streams." 

The records show, however, that the high pressure was not turned on until 6:23 a.m. At the department's office it was said that not until that hour had the pumping station been ordered to turn on the water. From 6:23 a.m. on the morning of Jan. 9, the high pressure remained on until 4:37 p.m. on the evening of the 12th. According to these records, therefore, the third alarm, at 6:01, and the fourth, at 6:03, were sounded before any call was put in for the high pressure and the fifth alarm, at 6:28, was sounded five minutes after the high-pressure alarm From the time the first alarm was sounded to the time the high pressure was turned on was an interval of forty-nine minutes. During that time eighteen engines and five trucks had been called to the fire.

Deputy Water Commissioner Bennett explained yesterday how the Water Supply Department checked up fire alarms as well as calls for the high pressure.

"In the pumping stations, where the high pressure is generated," he said, "every fire alarm in the city is recorded just as it is recorded at Fire Headquarters. If an alarm from one of the boxes in the high-pressure districts comes in the engineer in charge immediately turns on the engine pumps and raises the pressure to 125 pounds.

"The box where the alarm was sounded for the Equitable fire is at Pine and Nassau Streets, just outside the high-pressure zone, which extends east of Nassau Street and north of Maiden Lane. This alarm, though outside the high-pressure zone, was recorded just as all others are, but the high pressure was not turned on, for the engineer in charge, under these circumstances, is allowed to turn it on only in response to an official request from the chief officer at the fire.

"At 6:23 the request came over the department's special telephone from Chief Kenlon. The pumps were immediately turned on and the pressure kept up to 125 pounds." When asked specifically if by some chance the high pressure could not have been turned on before 6:23, the Deputy Commissioner said:

"Sometimes it may happen that there is a fire in the high-pressure district at the same time that there is one outside of it, in which a request from the Chief at the second fire would not be necessary. But in this case there was no such other fire. There was no high-pressure until 6:23 o'clock."

Fire Commissioner Johnson, when asked yesturday afternoon what he had to say in reply to the statement from the Water Department contradicting his own statement, said:

"I have nothing to say."

"Are the charges unfounded?"

"I have nothing to say."

Chief Kenlon was seen at his home, 44 Morton Street, last night. He had not heard of the new development in the controversy growing out of the first charges of delay in fighting the fire, he said. When a reporter handed him a copy of yesterday's Evening Post containing an account of the case, he looked at it and then said:

"I have nothing to say."

"Do you deny the charges?"

"I deny nothing," he said, "I simply have nothing to say."
Oh! When high dudgeon is turned back on us! The Commish can go eat my Bisquick. Because let's be perfectly honest about what's going on here: there is only one valid explanation for having forgotten to ask the water pumps be turned on back then---about 100 years and forty-nine minutes too late. The firemen weren't putting out fires--they were setting them, a la Fahrenheit 451, with shades of 9/11 and a little Nero to boot. Their reality is a perfectly reasonable assumption: lauded as media heroes, given bounty and spoils, some on-the-job feather bagging with a nice overtime-inflated pension thrown in. It is the rest of us, and our unwillingness to go there, that I'm worried about.

Here is the article which set off the furor:
Delays At The Big Fire, First and Second Alarms 21 Minutes Apart,

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