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Why Dayton Never Has A Big Fire

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News on January 25, 1931



By Howard Burba


     The best fireman in the world would be hard put to explain why a house can burn in a few minutes when it sometimes takes hours to get one started in a furnace.

     But one of the best firemen in the world—the fire chief of the city of Dayton—doesn’t find any difficulty whatever in explaining why we never have any more big conflagrations.

     If luck had anything to do with it, which it hasn’t, then we could attribute it to that.  But luck doesn’t enter in, for regardless of how lucky one may be, if skill and speed are not present when needed the house is going to burn down.  But for these, plus perfect equipment and a water supply that never has failed, Dayton’s excellent record among her sister cities of America could not have been set up.

     With the single exception of the fire that accompanied the flood of 1913 there never has been what might be termed a “conflagration” in the city of Dayton.  The peculiar and unusual conditions surrounding the destruction of business houses on Third between Jefferson and St. Clair on that memorable night in March, 1913, really serve to remove it from such classification.  In the first place, when that blaze started, and throughout the entire time that it burned, every down-town engine house in the city was swept with from six to ten feet of water.  Water rolled eight feet high in the street surrounding the burning buildings.  No power could stay the current that swept away horses and equipment from the engine houses; no fire department could possibly have approached buildings through a wall of water eight feet high.

     So we can set this unusual, and almost unheard of instance aside in the consideration of “conflagrations.”  Outside of it, there has at no time been a fire in Dayton that threatened entire city blocks that was not checked and extinguished before it had crept more than a few feet beyond its point of origin.

     Back a score of years ago the city suffered its worst industrial blaze in the burning of the old computing scale plant in E. First st. but that was a long way from being a “big fire” as they are rated in the average American city.

     Coming down to more recent years we can point to the Home Store fire, on E. Third st.  It was, however, far from a conflagration in that with the exception of slight loss to the American building it was confined wholly within the walls of the merchandising establishment in which it started.  The Home Store fire was the only “big fire,” or the nearest approach to a “big fire,” that Dayton has known.  The total losses in that blaze, on buildings and merchandise approximated $700,000. Yet if you’d attempt to offer that instance as Dayton’s claim to being a city of  “big fires” towns even one-half her size, scattered all over the country, would get a good laugh out of it.  It wasn’t a “big fire” as all, as other cities have, to their sorrow, come to rate such things.

     So, since we haven’t had a fire of unusual proportions, a real conflagration, in the history of the city the question is, naturally, “Why?”

     That’s the question I asked Frank B. Ramby, chief of the Dayton fire department and for 50 years a fire-fighter.  And he didn’t hesitate a second in answering.

     “The main reason is that in the downtown district, or what we term the high-value district, steam heat is now in general use.  Back on the old days, before this district composed of stores and shops and office buildings were supplied with steam heat they were heated with furnaces.  Basements in which these furnaces were located were more or less cluttered with waste material and rubbish.  Sometimes it was necessary to extend the draft pipes a long distance beneath the floors to reach the chimneys and flues.  And always some of these were falling into decay, thorough rust and usage.  Sometimes they were poorly jointed.  All that was needed to start a fire was a spark, and there were always plenty of sparks. It is not a mystery, the origin of fires in the business district in earlier days.  The mystery is why there were not more of them.  Steam heat came along to replace furnaces.  That meant that basements could be cleaned up, with more room for storage purposes, and the complete elimination of furnaces as fire hazards.

     “With the passing of furnaces came a remarkable improvement in wiring methods used by electricians.  This, incidentally, can be traced in a large way to the tightening of building requirements.  The city set up new standards, put teeth into its ordinances, and provided an inspection that really amounted to something.  So careless wiring and glossing over bungled jobs or amateurish wiring by individual property owners passed on.  With the coming of a new system and rigid inspection, another hazard was removed.

     “Again, the motorized fire vehicle arrived on the scene.  Streets were paved.  Slowly but surely the intricacies of the first motor-driven equipment were replaced by modern inventions.  Within a remarkably short time the motorized fire truck became a perfected piece of machinery instead of an experiment.  It meant getting to a fire more quickly, and more power once you were there.  All this worked toward the prevention of property loss, though it cannot, of course, prevent fires from being started.

     “As the years rolled on wires were taken from above the streets and placed beneath them.  This enabled the firefighter to work to better advantage.  He is not handicapped by a maze of wires over which he must carry his hose line, nor with the danger of becoming too closely associated with a ‘live wire.’  It has made it possible to get to the seat of the fire much more speedily, and speed counts possible more in fire-fighting than in any other branch of public service.”

     There is the answer, or rather the chief reasons, why Dayton has no big fires in her down-town business district.  But Chief Ramby had not listed all of them.

     He could have gone a little farther and stated that one very great reason for an absence of big fires here is that, and every son and daughter of Dayton should be proud of this, there never has been a time when politics governed the department.  The Dayton fire department has been absolutely and wholly free of politics at all times.  Attempts in earlier years to inject politics into this branch of public service were frowned upon so quickly, and so severely, that the hope of the jack-leg politician of ever worming his way into it was completely crushed.  Political “pull” has had nothing to do with getting a man in the fire department there.  And political “pull” doesn’t hold him there once his gets in.  Here is an institution builded 100 per cent on merit.

     Another thing Chief Ramby calls attention to, and a thing that also goes far toward accounting for our enviable fire record, is the matter of water pressure.  From early days this other branch of municipal service has looked a long way ahead.  So complete has been the constant additions to our water system that today the firemen have a 60 to 70 pound pressure to work with direct from the mains.  No other city in the state of Ohio boasts this advantage.  That means that two and even three lines of hose can be laid directly from the hydrant to the blaze without the necessity for using a “pumper” to boost the pressure.

     Throughout the severe drouth of last year there was no time when the department was handicapped by low pressure.  The same is true today—and up to the moment there really hasn’t been a decent rain, and certainly no very great amount of snow for nine months.  But, even with conditions along this line assuming an emergency stage, Chief Ramby has still another card up his sleeve.

     In the old days of the steam engine the fire department used huge cisterns, located at convenient points in the downtown district.  The average citizen isn’t aware of it, but these cisterns have been revamped, relined and today are kept constantly filled to the brim, ready for any emergency that may arise.  The average citizen doesn’t know, either, that there are many of them scattered up and down Ludlow and Main and Jefferson and cross streets.  Each one holds 1000 barrels of water.  At any fire within the high-value district it would be possible to lay lines from at least four of these cisterns at once.  That would mean 4000 barrels of water for the “pumpers” to work upon.  Any fireman will tell you that in an emergency 4000 barrels of water will go a long way toward putting out a fire.

     But let us presume that the pressure from the waterworks fell so low that water could not be forced to the peak of the taller buildings down-town.  What then?  In that case there would always be a natural flow of water through the mains.  And just beneath the ground, entering near the top of each cistern, is a direct connection with these mains.  It would be but the work of an instant to turn the connection and have water, flowing gradually, fill these huge cisterns as fast as they might be pumped dry.  The hydrants being out of commission, and without sufficient pressure, would not leave down-town property at the mercy of the fire.

     Few people know of the existence of these 1000-barrel cisterns all over down-town Dayton.  But those engaged in construction work know it—it’s a part of their business not to lose sight of it.  That’s why they must be careful in planning underground construction work.  These cisterns cannot be moved to suit the convenience of the electrician, the plumber, the telephone linemen.  They must, and they do, work around them.  Just a few days ago it was found necessary to move through the streets a casting for the Mutual Home building, reputed to weigh in the neighborhood of  80 tons.  But before that casting was started on its way from the freight yards to the site of the new skyscraper an engineer visited fire headquarters and determined the location of every cistern on Ludlow st.  He knew it would not be safe to attempt to haul that huge weight over one of them.  With the cisterns marked, the workmen proceeded to move the giant beam over a route that missed the cisterns completely.

     “The public is becoming fire-minded,” Chief Ramby told me.  “They have come to realize that 90 per cent of all fires are due to carelessness, or are what we term preventable.  They also know by this time that the insurance companies really don’t pay fire losses.  The general public must make up, some place along the line, every dollar that the insurance companies pay out.  So the more fires there are the more it costs them—not the more it costs the insurance companies.

     “Today they are cooperating as never before.  Our fire prevention board, made up of five men and a chief inspector, is constantly inspecting both down-town and residential districts.  And the average property owner is glad to cooperate in every possible way.  Seldom is it necessary to secure admission to a basement or attic by threatening to invoke the city statutes giving us this power.  Today houses expertly wired, and few people attempt, as they once did, to make their own connections and changes in wiring.  The same is true of plumbing.  The necessity for a permit for such work is now obvious to everyone.  And the rigid inspection that follows every bit of wiring or plumbing adds just that much to the general scheme of fire prevention.

     “Then, too, the tendency is to get away from shingle roofs.  Each year finds old roofs being replaced by metal or fireproof composition shingles.  Each year also sees more and more buildings falling into a state where they are no longer serviceable.  Since each dilapidated building is a potential firetrap, the removal of each one serves to put Dayton that much farther away from a big fire.

     “Every spring we have a clean-up week.  Daytonians show their good judgement by entering whole-heartedly into this.  Every fall they cooperate in the observance of fire-prevention week.  The teaching of fire prevention in our schools through the junior fire department, an idea conceived and carefully carried out by R. C. Anderson, is proving a wonderful help.  It teaches the boys and girls of Dayton the value of fire prevention and it impresses them with the necessity for care in the handling of anything inflammable.     

     “Once each spring, too, we call in the chiefs of the fire departments of all surrounding cities.  They come to Dayton and we hold a conference at which we discuss unusual experiences, changing conditions, new equipment and all that.  We get a lot of valuable pointers for each other, and these we pass on to the men.  Since Dayton has now the last word in fire alarm systems, installed within the year and for that reason more modernized than that boasted by any Ohio Municipality, the outside chiefs have something new to fight for back home.  We delight in showing them a system that is not only meeting all present requirements, but that has been installed with a view to taking care of a city of 500,000 population.  At present the system is covering a network of 432 fire alarm signal boxes and 185 police boxes.  But the switch boards, battery storage and cable ducts are destined to eventually care for 1000 boxes, and 1000 boxes will not be necessary until Dayton has doubled her population.  This magnificent new system housed in a modern building back of the Main st. house is a monument to the foresightedness of the people of Dayton.”

     This veteran fire-fighter does not boast.  He has his figures before him, backed by 50 years of incessant fire-fighting.  He lays them before you and lets them speak for himself.  Some of them puzzle him.  For instance, he can’t understand why, in the year 1930, the fewest number of fire alarms in any district in the city came in from North Dayton.  But the head of the board of health is as deeply puzzled along the same line, since the fewest number of contagious diseases in 1930 marked the same territory.

     But Chief Ramby is studying out the answer—and he’ll find it.  Then he will apply it in some beneficial manner to other sections.  One thing he is exceedingly particular about is the selection of man-power.  He wants his men to be, like his equipment, the best that can be produced.  When the civil service commission passes on to him a list of men who have withstood an examination for service in the department, with each one graded, he has only the name and address of each individual with which to start in his search for qualifications.  But he brings these men in where he can talk to them face to face.  And they don’t need to carry in an armload of personal recommendations either.  Leave it to this veteran fire-fighter to determine whether or not a man is qualified for service, or if he can be brought around to the point where he will be.

     Today, he frankly admits, the man-power of the department is on a far higher plane, from a standpoint of efficiency, than ever before.  Salaries are such as to enable a fireman to keep his family comfortably and without skimping, as was often necessary in the old days.  Their quarters are more comfortable and added luxuries, of which the radio is not the least by any means, serve to make pleasant what was once a monotonous life.

     Twenty-four hours on duty, then 24 hours with his family, is the schedule under which the men of the department work now.  They are content.  That their lot is not the gruelling one of earlier years is evidenced by the constantly-lengthening list of eligibles being sent in by the civil service board.  There was a time when it was difficult to get men enough to fill the personnel required by city ordinance.  That is not the case today.  The day possibly will never come when the local department will have this question to wrestle with.

     Patriotic citizens of the city of Dayton gave Frank Ramby a testimonial dinner a few evenings ago at a down-town hotel.  They toasted him and showered him with tributes every one of which was deserved.  It might have gone to the head of one less experienced in his job.  To Frank Ramby it was just an occasion of good fellowship on the part of those he has tried to serve.  It made him mighty proud.  But it didn’t make him boastful.  Nothing could.

     When he arose to thank his fellow citizens for their generous tributes he spent his time in telling them about the wonderful men and the perfect equipment that made up the department; in complimenting the people of Dayton for their cooperation in the work of fire prevention.  And it is to these—good firemen, good equipment and careful citizens—that he attributes Dayton’s ability to proudly boast that she doesn’t have any big fires.