Rekindles sidebar 4/14: Firefighting Lore Kept Alive

Why did Amish parents try to dissuade

their unmarried daughters from taking

part in fire bucket brigades?

Why is the Maltese cross a firefighting symbol?

Who designed the traditional fire helmet?

Why do we call responding to an

emergency a “run”?

How did the popular phrases

“take five” and “take a break”

become associated with the

fire service?

Why are firefighters called “Jakes”?


If you’re a firefighter interested in the lore of firefighting, then chances are you may want to know the answers to these questions.

Former Saugus, MA, Fire Chief James Blanchard, who served on his town’s department for 40 years until his retirement in 2012, shares his expansive knowledge of firefighting history and traditions with new recruits at the close of each graduating class at the Massachusetts Fire Fighting Academy in Stow.

According to Blanchard, American firefighting tactics from the start were more aggressive than those in England, despite our colonial relationship. While fire companies in Europe and Asia generally adopted a “surround-and-drown” strategy at structure fires, American firefighters were trained to attack the flames, frequently entering a burning building to save both lives and property.

Today, more than 300 years after the first settlements sprang up in the New World, many of those distinctly American traditions continue, perhaps epitomized best by the iconic beavertail fire helmet worn by departments from coast to coast and by the clanking bells often found bolted to the fenders of what otherwise are high-tech firefighting vehicles.


The bucket brigade

Over the years, Blanchard accumulated an impressive collection of firefighting memorabilia, and behind each artifact is a story. Take, for instance, the fire bucket.

The firefighting concept was simple. Make two lines leading from the water supply to the flames – men on one side, women on the other. The men passed the heavy water-filled buckets toward the blaze; the women returned the empty ones.

Because a fire would often take hours to extinguish, there was plenty of time for those in the bucket brigade to get to know one another. Many courtships were sparked in this setting, so much so that Amish elders forbade their unmarried daughters from participating in a bucket brigade unless they did so with backs turned.

“In those days, the only other place young men and women got to meet was in church. So you can see why there was a lot of excitement about the bucket brigades,” Blanchard said.


The fire pole

While bucket brigades may have attracted young adults, children were more likely drawn to neighborhood firehouses by their shiny brass poles. Like the iconic beavertail fire helmet, the fire pole was a distinctly American invention.

The fire pole was born out of a need for speed. Before poles came into use, stairway banisters were greased or smeared with paraffin wax. When the bell rang, firefighters sleeping on the floor above the apparatus literally slid down the rail.

“The Boston Fire Department is usually credited with the use of the first sliding pole. Boston Engine 4 on Bullfinch Street installed sliding poles in 1880, but the original sliding pole was invented and constructed at Engine 21 in Chicago in 1878,” said Blanchard, recalling the men aboard Chicago Engine 21 were storing the winter supply of hay in a third-floor loft when the alarm sounded.

A binding pole – a long wooden pole used to secure a load of hay to a wagon – had been tossed into the hayloft to keep it out of the way. As other men scrambled to the engines, Firefighter George Reid, working in the hayloft, slid down the binding pole to the apparatus floor.

As the story went, after Reid’s quick thinking, a fire captain named Kenyon got permission from the chief to cut a hole in the second floor and install a sliding pole. Kenyon wasn’t enthusiastic about the plan and purportedly told Reid the materials to repair the floor would come out of his pay if the contraption failed.

The pole was a long length of Georgia pine. The men of Engine 21 shaved and rounded the corners, then sanded the wood before applying several coats of varnish. The finishing touch was a thin layer of paraffin wax.

“Although the men of Engine 21 were the butt of many jokes, the skeptics were soon won over when they noticed that Engine 21 was almost always the first on scene, especially at night alarms,” said Blanchard. “Not long after, the chief ordered fire poles installed in all Chicago firehouses.”


Fire dogs

If children entered a firehouse attracted by its shiny brass pole, they no doubt also caught sight of the firehouse dog. But in the late 1800s, firehouse dogs didn’t resemble the well-groomed, black-and-white Dalmatians, the canine most often associated with the fire service. Most fire companies trained and cared for dogs of various breeds, using them to keep strays from nipping at the horses pulling the fire wagons. Dogs were also important in the stable where they had a calming influence on the horses.

“It’s interesting that a pedigreed Dalmatian is the dog most associated with firefighting. It was a breed chosen by the aristocracy to display wealth and privilege, but it was the mixed-breed mutt, the mongrel, that really did the job,” said Blanchard. “Like the actual Jakes who do the job today, we have no pedigrees. We come in all mixed shapes, colors, sizes and nationalities, but we continue to answer the call.”

“Runs” and “shouts”

Most fire departments today gauge their activity by the number of annual incidents to which they respond. When the alarm sounds and engines roll out the door, in fire service parlance the firefighters and equipment are going on a run.

So why do we call them runs?

Once again, it’s a strictly American term, dating back to the beginning of firefighting on this continent, when men literally pulled the apparatus to the fire, usually doing so at a trot. The equipment was typically no more than a heavy-duty wagon fitted with a wooden tongue and a spool of rope. Six or eight men grabbed hold of the tongue and, if more strength was needed, others would grip the rope stretched out in front. The procedure resulted in firefighters taking great pride in being fast runners.

By comparison, the English fire service refers to an emergency response as a “shout,” simply because in the days before radio and telephone communications, people literally shouted when they discovered a fire – loud enough for the men at the nearest firehouse to hear.


Trumpets and helmets

Giving orders at a noisy and chaotic fire scene usually required more than a shout, so officers began using speaking trumpets made of brass. Although bullhorns and radios have replaced the horns, they remain symbolic by denoting the rank of lieutenant (one bugle) or captain (two bugles) on helmets and lapels.

Helmets too have evolved over the centuries. In the early 1800s, fire helmets resembled the stovepipe hat worn by President Abraham Lincoln. “It didn’t do much to protect you from the fire, the heat or heavy objects falling from above,” said Blanchard.

In the 1940s, as use of aluminum gained popularity in wartime, the lightweight, metal helmet found its way onto the fireground as the distinctive headpiece of choice. Unfortunately, unlike leather, it had a tendency to overheat.

No matter what the construction material, most fire helmets were fitted with an apron protruding from the rear to channel heated water away from the firefighter rather than inside his coat collar. The apron or beavertail was the brainchild of Henry Gradicap, who in 1836 designed a functional fire helmet with a conical dome able to withstand and displace a blow. The helmet also had a metal frontpiece for breaking windows.

“Gradicap was with the New York City Fire Department and the helmet he designed became the symbol of every American firefighter,” said Blanchard. “It’s that helmet shape you recognize when you watch the news. You know immediately, even if it’s a silhouette, that those are firefighters.”

Among Blanchard’s favorite anecdotes is that of Joseph Jenks, a craftsman at the Saugus Iron Works in 1653, commissioned by the city of Boston to build a fire engine. “It was right after the First Great Boston Fire and they asked Jenks to build it. Imagine that, the first fire engine made in this country was right over there at the Iron Works,” he said.

Heroes and history

When Blanchard was fire chief, speaking trumpets, exotic metal hose nozzles and couplings, leather helmets and long rubber coats graced his office, testament to his passion for firefighting history. The items shared space with photographs, paintings and drawings of firefighters, horses, hoses, flames and geysers of water.

An etching of a hand-drawn, hand-pumped wooden fire apparatus from 1735 provided Blanchard with a launch point to explain the phrases “take five” and “take a break.” As he put it, hand-pumping water from the wagon to the fire was exhausting, so incident commanders would order their underlings to pick five strapping gents from the crowd to help out. Hence the term, “take five.”

Holding the fire apparatus in place also took effort, mostly by men hauling downward on long metal bars affixed to either side of the water wagon. The bars were known as brakes, and an order to grab hold of them often sounded from brass speaking trumpets: “Take a brake.”

For more than a century, firefighters across the country have been affectionately called “Jakes,” a name likely derived from the term “J-Key,” which was a telegraph key stored inside Boston fire alarm boxes and used by firefighters to tap a message from fire scene to headquarters. The term “good Jake” has come to mean a firefighter who exhibits coolness under pressure.

The Maltese Cross

The standard symbol for fire departments in the United States is the Maltese Cross, but few firefighters ask how this came about. According to Blanchard, it’s a practice that can trace its roots to the Crusades in the Middle Ages.

“It began as strictly a European thing,” he explained. “Different bands of knights fighting during the Crusades had specific insignia on their clothing and weapons. The Maltese Cross designated the Knights of St. John, who were from Malta. As the story goes, the Christian knights were attacking a Muslim fort and the defenders were pouring lamp oil on them. Then the people in the fort started tossing over bushes that were on fire. Of course, the knights began burning to death. The Knights of St. John were in reserve and they came forward, kept the defenders from getting out of the fort to kill the injured knights, and helped put out the flames. After that, a lot of knights refused to go into battle unless they had the Knights of St. John behind them.” n