History of Fire Protection

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Foundation of Civilization

It has been said that fire was the foundation of civilization. When human beings first were exposed to fire they feared it, but they soon learned that it could be an ally as well as an enemy. Archeologists tell us that the first uses of fire were to provide warmth, and then to prepare food. Fire quickly became useful in the smelting of metals and the potting of clay. Later the phenomena of fire were used as a defense and sometimes as an early weapon of war.

Originally fire was considered as a gift of the gods and held as an object of religious significance. In early societies, the maker and keeper of the fire was a very important person. In Greek mythology for example, Prometheus was condemned by the other gods for giving mortals the use of fire. Flame was considered symbolic of the process of change, death, and rebirth. The myth of the Phoenix bird is based on the idea that flame not only destroys but also builds.

Flame was and still is used in sacred rites. Have you ever noticed, for example, how we use candles to celebrate birthdays and special events? Fire is the giver of life in the form of warmth and industry. But it is also a fearsome demon that can destroy life and property unless it is properly handled and understood.

The fire service has a very good image, but many people have misconceptions of what fire protection is really all about. For example, there is a lot of publicity given to the firefighting side of fire protection. That's the exciting, glamorous, and adventurous side of the field, but it is not an accurate picture of the entire occupational field. Fire protection has evolved from some very simple concepts into a multi-billion dollar-a-year enterprise, of which firefighting is only a small segment.

You are probably reading this text because you are thinking about entering the fire service profession. People in fire service jobs have the responsibility to keep fire under control. Before we explore the details of the jobs involved in fire protection, we will examine the historical development of fire protection.

You may be surprised to find that many of the events and people you have read about in your history classes have had something to do with the development of the field of fire protection. At this point, let's see how far we have come in fire protection. It might tell us a lot about how far we are going to go in the future - the future that will contain your career.

The Heritage of Flames

The earliest recorded history of an individual who took fire protection seriously speaks of a man named Hero, a scientist in Alexandria, Egypt. Around 1500 B.C, he invented the first "fire pump" which was a giant syringe to squirt water at a fire. Fire had already proven its ability to be an adversary. As people moved into walled cities for protection, they became vulnerable to the spread of uncontrolled fire. Some of the early cities were literally burned to the ground. Many of the greatest treasures of early civilization, such as the Great Library in Alexandria, were destroyed by fire.

The first recorded indication that society was concerned about doing something about combating fire on a large scale was during the reign of Augustus in Rome. There, in 24 B.C, the Emperor formed a group of firefighters from the slaves. This group was called the "Vigiles". They fought a great fire in Rome in 7 B.C. Their motto "Semper Vigilans" (Always Vigilant) is the foundation of the idea that fire protection requires a conscious dedication to controlling the phenomena of fire. Unfortunately Nero, a later emperor of Rome, didn't believe in fire prevention, for he reportedly allowed the city to burn while he fiddled.

As cities grew larger, the need for fire protection grew also. One of the greatest fears of the early city dwellers was the cry of "Fire!"

In 872 A.D. the French passed a curfew, the first fire prevention law. Today, when we use the word "curfew" it means that you have to be off the streets at a certain time. But "curfew" originally comes from the French law which required that everyone "cover fire." The "curfew" law was based on the need to make sure that all cooking and heating fires were either out or under control before people went to sleep.

William the Conqueror passed another major curfew law in 1066. In 1177 the Parliament in England required that all of the shacks that had built up around the Canterbury Cathedral be torn down and removed because they were a fire hazard to the church. In 1189 a law was passed that required all new buildings to have stone walls and slate roofs.

Fire Prevention Awareness

The emphasis in those days was on fire prevention. The organized firefighting concept that started in Rome never really caught on, perhaps because slavery went out of style and freemen were more interested in business and industry than fire fighting.

In 1240 the idea of fire insurance was first approached. In Flanders, a community-wide fire insurance pool was developed which reimbursed the losses of an individual from the resources of the others. This concept also gave a lot of emphasis to fire prevention because the losses were felt in a very personal way.

At that time the only firefighting tools were bucket brigade and simple wooden ladders. With the rise and fall of the Greek and Roman Empires, the techniques created by Hero were lost. While Hero had developed a means of "squirting" water on the fire, firefighters of the tenth through the thirteenth centuries had to improvise with nothing more than leather buckets. Their method was very ineffective, especially if a fire got large.

Even Marco Polo paid attention to the problem of fire. During his travels in China, he wrote of a "Civil Force of Watchmen" that traveled the streets of Chinese cities at night looking for unfriendly fires.

The major cities of Europe were often ravaged by fire. London and Paris were partially destroyed several times. In the fifteenth century, during an invasion by the Tartars, fire was used as a weapon of war. Reportedly 200,000 people lost their lives in the widespread fires which resulted from the warfare.

It eventually became obvious to the merchants and leaders that something had to be done to cope with the problem. In 1518 an anonymous individual resurrected the idea of the pump-syringe that Hero had developed three thousand years before. In 1566 London lawmakers passed a law that limited the fuel a baker could store next to the oven, and in 1583 Parliament forbade tallow chandeliers (candle-makers) to melt tallow in dwellings.

The fire service in Europe thus had become very fire prevention conscious. The fire service in Europe gradually developed combat capability through the use of the armed forces. The Paris Fire Brigade is a brigade of the French Army. Much of this heritage lives on the professional fire service in Europe today. The American fire service took a different path from the European approach when many political and social changes occurred on both continents in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Early America

In the early 1600's, many European explorers were making their first settlements in the New World. The ability to fight fire was still limited, so fire was a real threat to the early colonists. One of the colonies, Jamestown, was burned out in 1610, and the colony was abandoned for a while. Leaders in the infant colonies were terrorized to hear the word "fire." When a dwelling burned in that era, it often had catastrophic effects, especially if the fire occurred in the harsh New England winter.

Of course, pioneers who had braved the Atlantic Ocean were not going to give up easily. It became extremely important to these settlers that they protect their property. As early as 1631, lawmakers in the cities of Boston and New Amsterdam passed laws prohibiting such things as thatched roofs and wooden chimneys. The colonists made them of planks and coated them with clay. They often caught fire.

The new laws did not keep the colonies from suffering disaster. Boston had a fire that destroyed a major portion of the city in 1645. The destruction was caused by a fire that got into eighteen barrels of gunpowder.

The problem of fire would simply not go away from the newly founded cities and towns. The idea of fire prevention was a sound one and was followed as closely as possible. But, the new cities were growing rapidly, and the people who populated the early communities were rugged individualists who had come to the new world to get away from laws and regulations. Some of the new fire prevention laws were simply ignored, so stringent enforcement by the authorities became necessary.

New Amsterdam took the issue on directly in 1647 and appointed some "surveyors of buildings." Their job was to check the construction of new buildings with the "code." The surveyors were supplemented in 1648 by another group called "Fire Wardens." Their job was to inspect for conditions that could breed fire.

For almost one hundred years, the emphasis was on fire prevention. People at that time seemed to feel that uncontrolled fires were a great liability and that they were best dealt with by not having them. Benjamin Franklin's slogan "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" was actually the first fire prevention message.


During the colonial period, all firefighting was done by a volunteer system. Everyone was a firefighter when the town bells rang. In 1653, Boston passed a law which required each residence to own a bucket, a ladder that would reach the ridge pole of the roof, a 12-foot pole with a swab on the end, and ropes and hooks for pulling down a burning house. But, the problem of fire got continually worse.

The reasons for the increased fire problem were complex. The American colonies were merely "outposts" of European countries. The cities and towns were engaged in the enterprise of growing, producing, and shipping products to the king of a far-away country. Warehousing was a common enterprise. Population centers tended to be crowded into small, congested areas.

It is interesting to compare the Boston or New York of today to the cities of the early seventeenth century in this respect. These cities were very vulnerable to fire then, as they are today, because of the problems of overcrowding and combustible construction. Early American homes were built mostly of wood and were very combustible.

Boston was among the first to take some aggressive actions against fire. First, the council ordered a "Jynks" fire "Injine" from England in the early 1700's. Then they instituted the "Bellmen." The bellmen patrolled the streets from 10:00 PM until 5:00 AM looking for fire. It quickly became clear that when the bells were rung, everyone paid attention, so the bellmen were extended to a round-the-clock basis.

In the last part of the 1600's, Boston was again almost destroyed by fire. The city council authorized the formation of the volunteers of the city into groups of similar background so that they could fight fire more effectively. This was probably the first formal attempt to create a fire department.

Fire Insurance

Fire insurance arrived in the New World in 1736 when a firm started the concept in South Carolina. The practice did not take hold, however, because community after community lacked an effective way of dealing with fires after they started.

One of the first individuals to recognize this deficiency and then attempt to do something about it was an historical figure better known for his political views: Benjamin Franklin. In the 1730's Franklin decided to join the concepts of prevention and protection so that the insurance industry would have a reasonable expectation of a profit. Franklin established some of the first truly organized fire brigades in his area in Philadelphia. Much of his writing in Poor Richard's Almanac was directed toward fire prevention measures. His insurance company was among the first to create the idea of "Fire Marks."

Fire marks were lead molded symbols that were put up on the outside of homes to tell the responding volunteer firefighters which insurance company was responsible to repay the losses. Today these insurance fire marks are still to be seen in some restored areas of the early colonial era. In the city of Alexandria, Virginia, you can still see fire marks on the buildings right down the street from George Washington's fire station-Friendship Engine Company # 1.

While Franklin was busy developing the idea of fire prevention and insurance, other men such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson supported the building of fire stations to house the infant fire departments. John Hancock purchased a fire apparatus and donated it to the city of Boston. It was named Hancock Engine Company # 10 and saw service for many years. The period just before the American Revolution was probably when the combat aspects of fire service began to separate from the prevention aspects.

Fire stations in the early days were almost entirely structured around social, economic, or racial conformity. Because the fire stations were manned by volunteers, membership in a company was considered to be a privilege.

Bucket Brigades and Hand Pumpers

By the end of the 1700's the bucket brigade was rapidly being replaced with technology. A reciprocating pump had been developed in England that operated out of a tub-like affair. The design concepts of the modern fire pumper have an obscure beginning in the makings of the Newsham hand pumper that was in service at that time. At first pumpers could only put out a very limited amount of water. Nozzles were affixed to the top of the pump so it had to be right next to the fire to do any good.

Nonetheless, this mechanical change affected the way that fire departments were organized. The obligation of every citizen to man the fire bucket brigade gave way to the formation of the volunteer fire company. The formation of the fire companies gave rise to the development of institutions to manage and control them.

The fire apparatus became a focal point of the organization. Because the departments had nothing else on which to spend their money or time, the "Engine" was often an object of great expense. A visit to any fire museum will demonstrate this fact. Some of the pieces of equipment were gold-leafed and wildly ornate.

Membership in the volunteer fire company was most often on the basis of popularity or compatibility with the group. There were Irish Fire Companies, usually labeled with the word Hibernia used in the title. There was a company called the "African Fire Company" located in Philadelphia that consisted entirely of blacks.

Leadership in these organizations was given to people on the basis of popularity. One such individual, Jacobus Stou-tenburgh, a gunsmith, was appointed as the Overseer of Fire Engines by his company. Later on his official title was changed to "Engineer." Still later it was changed to "Chief Engineer," a title that is still used for the officer in charge of a fire department.

One of the most easily recognized of all American institutions was developed at that time also, the American fire helmet. The first fire helmets looked a lot like stovepipe hats. They were not distinctive. In the late 1700's, a leather craftsman named Andrew Gratacap built a helmet that had a high peaked dome, a short brim on the front, and a long brim in the back to shed water and debris. The large, often decorative, frontispiece that was added to this helmet was taken from the hats of the German Hessian soldiers who came to fight the Revolutionary War. Gratacap took the idea and painted names and numbers on the piece. This practice is still in vogue in many places.

Few people realize that these volunteer fire companies, because of their political involvement, were part of the drama of the Revolutionary War. The famous, or infamous, Boston Massacre resulted after a large crowd had gathered on a commons after someone had rung the fire bells and the incident was a false alarm. One of the victims of that incident was a Boston volunteer firefighter.

Fire was even a weapon of war against the British once the war started. As American forces retreated in some areas, they practiced what is called the "scorched earth policy." This meant that they burned everything that might help the enemy in the captured area. Unfortunately that practice was to return to haunt the country in the War of 1812 and in the Civil War.

From the early 1800's on, the separate institutions of the fire service began to develop on different tracks. The fire insurance industry focused on the economics of the fire problem. The firefighting element focused on the development of equipment and hardware to combat fires, and social and organizational relationships to manage the personnel involved. Fire prevention waned during this entire period.

Improved Water Systems

Technology did not stop, however. Boston installed a water main system in the early 1800's, and water systems began to be an important part of the fire fighting team. Most of the early mains were nothing more than hollowed out logs that were bonded together. Firefighters got to the water by digging up the main and chopping a hole in the log. The hole was replaced later by a stake or post. Frequently the posts or stakes were left rising up from the dirt so that if fire companies had to fight a fire in the same area all they had to do was to pull out the plug and they had water. We still call the fire hydrants "plugs," even though they don't plug anything.

The development of water systems and the developing industrial revolution both gave a boost to the fire protection field. In just twenty-five years, fire hose was invented, fire hydrants were built on water mains, and the hand pumper was invented. It was a very large hand pumper that took thirty to sixty men to operate.

During that same era, the country was very severely damaged by fire. The British destroyed Washington, D.C. by fire during the War of 1812. New York was devastated by a great fire on the sixteenth and seventeenth of December, 1835. Volunteer fire companies became more and more needed, and at the same time more politically powerful.

As pride in the volunteers grew so did the problems of managing the fire companies. The different companies began to wear different types of uniforms. The technology that created the Philadelphia pumper had helped create a system long on manpower, but limited on control.

Some of the early leaders in the fire service took the responsibility seriously. "Uncle Tommy" Franklin of the New York volunteer companies was a man who never abused his position over his men. "Handsome Jim" Gulick followed Uncle Tommy without repercussions. From 1830 to 1850, leaders of the volunteer companies used the position to achieve political office. "Boss" Tweed, who was later indicted from his corruption in the Tammany Hall scandal, was a foreman of a volunteer fire company who followed this path.

Political intrigue and the mixture of politics, rum, and rowdiness in the firehouse came to a head in Cincinnati in the 1850's. Several volunteer fire companies responded to a fire in that city and spent so much time fighting with each other that they didn't fight the fire. Because the different insurance companies often reimbursed only the fire company that fought a fire first, there was always rivalry over who got to the fire first. A lot of fires got out of control while volunteer companies decided that issue with their fists.

This time the building burned to the ground. Cincinnati city fathers, irate at the action, decided to replace their volunteers with something else.

Paid Fire Fighters

The something else that they chose was a paid professional fire department. Because the large hand-operated pumpers required so much manpower to operate, the city leaders in Cincinnati decided to try a steam-powered fire pumper, newly invented by Ericson (who later designed the federal iron sided boat the Monitor which fought in the Civil War). They contacted Moses Latta to build the steamer, and he delivered the pumper in 1854.

William Channing, medical doctor, developed a telegraph fire alarm system at this time too. The die was cast. While volunteers had served the cities, towns, and villages for decades, something was going to change. Unfortunately, there was a big change on the horizon for the entire country at the same time. The Civil War broke out.

Civil War Volunteers

Typically, one of the first groups to volunteer to fight in the war was the volunteer firefighters. On April 27, 1861, the "Fire Zouaves" were formed from a group of New York firefighters. Captain Ellsworth, their commanding officer, was the first Union officer killed in the war. He was shot and killed in Alexandria, within a rock's throw from the Friendship Engine Company.

After three months of that conflict, only 380 of the original 1000 Fire Zouaves were still alive. Today in some decorator shops you can see a wooden plaque that shows a firefighter wearing his helmet and carrying a hose that is inscribed "First in Peace, First in War." In a way, that is a tribute to the courage and conviction of the volunteer firefighters of that era.

The war caused its own kind of fire problems. In New York, the draft riots resulted in fires that killed and injured many people. New York still had volunteers on the job at that time, and there was a lot of pressure on those who had remained behind.

Sherman practiced the scorched earth policy on his march toward Atlanta. This act, which was immortalized in the movie Gone With The Wind, was one of the most graphic demonstrations of the awesome and terrible aspects of fire used as a weapon of war.

The volunteers continued to serve. In 1865 the famous P. T. Barnum Museum burned to the ground destroying thousands of artifacts and memorabilia. The time had come to replace the volunteer firefighter in the large cities. Returning war veterans, many without any source of income, were given an opportunity to serve in a new role-the paid firefighter.

This did not mean the end of volunteerism. Even today there are hundreds of thousands of volunteer firefighters serving their communities. However, as many communities change from small to large, the pressure to create a paid fire department increases. The increase in the number of alarms and the complexity of fire protection often causes volunteer systems to change to paid or partially paid forces.

Interestingly, the fact that so many veterans joined the fire services are still being felt today. For example, most fire departments use variations of blue in their uniforms, and company officers are usually called "Captain" or "Lieutenant." Both of these ranks appear to be holdovers from the military. Upper grade officers are referred to as battalion chiefs, another reference to military organization. Most firefighting agencies are structured in a semi-military fashion.

Horse Drawn Pumpers

There was one big problem. As paid forces began to pick up the responsibility to handle combat aspects of firefighting, they realized that they needed help. Steam fire apparatus replaced the large number of volunteers used to pump the water. The only problem was that steam fire pumpers weighed about ten tons. The solution that was selected was to employ horses to draw the apparatus.

If there was any one period in which the fire service gained the most in the way of image, it was during the horse-drawn era. A team of matched horses at the gallop, pulling a smoke-belching steamer over brick streets was a delight of sight and sound. Unfortunately, it did little to slow down the devastation of business and industry by fire.
On October 6, 1871, Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over a lantern in a Chicago barn and started the most often cited conflagration in the history of the United States. Over 1800 buildings burned, and 200 people lost their lives. The Great Chicago Fire serves as the anniversary date for the annual fire prevention week. On the same date a major brush fire rushed through Peshtigo, a small Wisconsin town. In that fire, over 500 people lost their lives.

Fire Protection Engineering

The arsenal against fire was awesome, but it was a losing battle. The textile mill industry was being hit very hard. John Parmalee, an enterprising young man, invented the automatic fire sprinkler. This device holds water back in a water piping system until a solder link melts and lets the water out on the fire. Parmalee's efforts resulted in the development of a whole new field of fire protection-fire protection engineering.

In about a decade, several other inventions resulted from the marriage of manual firefighting techniques and the insight of the engineer. Fire alarm systems were expanded, and water systems were analyzed from the standpoint of hydraulics. Some of the work accomplished by early engineers like John Freeman is still used as the foundation of fire protection engineering.

In quick succession, the first aerial ladder and the fire house pole was developed by a firefighter to get out of the station more quickly. The first poles were not made of brass; they were made of polished wood.

The turn of the century did not bring the solution to the fire problem either. In 1903 there was a tremendous fire in the Iroquois Theatre which killed 570 people. In 1904 the city of Baltimore was swept by a conflagration.

In the insurance industry, a nationwide system called the National Board of Fire Underwriters was formed. Eventually, this organization became the American Insurance Association and then the Insurance Service Office. The relationship between good fire protection and insurance losses was rebuilt. This relationship, while it changes from time to time, especially as the economy rises and falls, forms the basis for many fire protection careers.

At 5:13:38 on April 18, 1906, the city of San Francisco was jolted with an earthquake. For several days, San Francisco firefighters waged a block-by-block, house-by-house fire fight in order to save the city. The only firefighter to lose his life in that fire was the chief. He was killed when his own home collapsed. Not one of the city's thirty-eight engine companies went out of service that day.

Motorized Fire Fighting Vehicles

As motorized apparatus replaced the horses in the fire station, catastrophic losses still occurred. In 1911 a fire occurred in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, 143 employees died. Some of the equipment that responded to that terrible loss was powered by horses, some by motor car. While technology was changing, fires were not any easier to stop.

As the horses were being replaced, the very same firefighters who had replaced the volunteers were the ones who resisted the changes represented by the new automotive apparatus. Their resistance to the change from horses to horsepower was natural, but it did not prevent the change.

One of the most important fires that occurred to reverse the fire service attitude about one of its basic functions was the Coconut Grove fire. This fire, which resulted in the death of 492 people and injury to 181 others, caused fire officials to look at the problems of building construction, exit requirements, building materials, and building conditions that can endanger occupants. The whole idea of fire prevention as an important element of fire protection began to re-establish itself.

Major fire losses have continued to occur despite this effort. In 1953 a fire in a General Motors factory resulted in a 35-million-dollar fire loss. In the 1960's a brush fire raging through the Bel Air and Malibu areas of Los Angeles destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses. Major losses of the 1970's included the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire in Kentucky.

Fire Protection In The United States Today

Fire protection has grown into a multi-billion dollar industry in this country. So far in this chapter we have discussed the historical precedent in four major occupational areas to deal with the nation's fire problem: fire prevention, fire protection engineering, fire insurance, and fire suppression or firefighting forces.

Each of these fields is growing and changing each day. From these fundamental areas, new specializations develop every day, and these specialties, in turn, spawn new ones. Recent decades have seen the development of technology like smoke detectors and residential sprinkler systems, as well as an almost epidemic arson problem and major life-loss fires like the MGM Grand Hotel fire. Fire departments have taken on many new programs like Emergency Medical Services and Public Education, yet loss of life and property still increases.

National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control

This Commission published a book entitled America Burning. As a result of that book, the federal government formed the National Fire Protection and Control Administration (NFPCA). Under President Carter, the name was changed to the U.S. Fire Administration. The U.S. Fire Administration funded many programs that have helped the fire service, such as the National Fire Data Center and the National Fire Academy. While this federal agency made an attempt to deal with the nationwide fire problem, it is still apparent that solutions to the fire problem are neither simple nor final.

We have come a long way from turning buckets into firefighting tools. We have expanded our knowledge of fire, but failed to gain complete control over it. We have increased our sophistication in equipment, methods, and techniques, yet we still have catastrophic losses. With the increased demands of society, increased demands will be placed on those who choose the fire protection field. As society and technology changes, the fire problem changes, and the fire protection field has to keep pace.

Out of every major loss in the past, the fire service has learned something. We call that the catastrophic theory of reform. Out of the Iroquois Theatre fire  set new standards for drapes and curtains in a public assemblage; out of the Coconut Grove fire came standards for exits that open in the direction of the occupants escaping. The challenge the fire protection field faces is that there is always some problem without an existing solution.

The future of the fire service contains many additional changes. Computers will play a significant role in this field, as in every other, in the coming years. Public education and human behavior studies will be a part of the attack on the fire problem. Built-in fire protection systems are not only likely but imminent.

The mission of the fire service is to protect life and property. We don't have fire laws that deal with thatched roofs or candle-making in the house. But the type of people who select the fire profession as a career has never really changed. They are people who want to protect lives and property and to serve their fellow human beings.
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