FIRE PREVENTION IN PORTLAND
It’s Not Thursday
On a September morning in 1914 the fire alarm bell in the Lincoln High School of Portland clanged peremptorily. A few of the pupils looked up inquiringly from their books for a moment, then, unconcerned, returned to their studies. Fires, or fire drills, they knew, did not occur except on designated occasions; the alarm apparatus must have become short-circuited. The principal, however, was more disturbed than the pupils. Inquiring for the cause of the disturbance, he was met by a visiting deputation sent out by the city’s newly-formed Safety First Committee. These interested citizens, surprised and chagrined by the result of their experiment, were told that if they returned on Thursday, the regular fire drill day, they might witness an orderly and well conducted exercise. Battalion Chief Jay W. Stevens of the Portland Fire Department then asked what assurance there would be that a fire would pick Thursday for a visit. The principal acknowledged that the point was well taken and invited Chief Stevens to return the following week and address the student body on “safety first” as it related to fires (3 & 9).
Thus the beginning of the first fire prevention campaign in the history of the city emphasized its need. Prior to that September morning fire prevention had been merely a catch phrase coined to coerce compliance with fire regulations. The indifference of the citizens of Portland, in the light of present knowledge, to the need of strict fire regulations and of constant alertness to the dangers of conflagration, is surprising. Upon visiting a factory where a number of women were employed, a fire marshal learned that but two of them knew where the fire escapes were located. The owners of old and highly combustible buildings were reluctant to remove them and thus lessen the fire hazard. Coming as it did, after a three-year period during which the fire losses had been swiftly mounting, this attitude indicates the apathy of Portlanders to the genuine menace. From the increasing number of false alarms turned in each year, it would seem that the chief sport of many persons was watching the harassed firemen careen down the narrow, congested streets.
A picture of Portland, a city of over 300,000 population, is perhaps necessary to visualize completely the difficulties encountered by the fire department. The older portion of the city, west of the Willamette River, occupies a comparatively narrow strip of bench-land
along the water’s edge, backed by a spur of high hills. numerous winding drives and streets leading to abrupt constricted business area is made doubly hazardous to
These hills are segmented by slopes and dead ends. The traffic and fire because the
promoters of the town site did not bother to introduce alleys. area and the heavy growths of timber on the original site of the
Also, due to the restricted city, the streets as laid out
are narrow equipment.
offer definite obstacles to the quick movement the early days of complaint that stumps in the
travel led the other
to the white-washing towns up and down the
of the stumps as a river referred to the
measure of safety. future metropolis as