Greetings and Happy New Year. I had to write a report on the history of firefighting for a class I was taking. I thought I would share it.
History of Firefighting
One can almost envision man’s first encounter with fire, some many millennia ago. A lightning strike near a brushy outcrop perhaps, suddenly transformed from a dark, cold gully to a brightly lit, and strangely warm miracle. What fear, curiosity, and sense of wonderment must have filled the thoughts of this paleo-race? The use of charcoal as a writing medium in the 17,000 year old cave paintings of Lascaux France provides evidence that man had already mastered fire, and the uses of its byproducts1. From warm caves, cooked meat to forging bronze, indeed, fire has had a profound effect on the evolutionary rise of man-kind. With the discovery of fire also came the discovery of its destructive power when misused; hence the first firefighters were born. Due to lack of written records during the time of Paleo-man, much about firefighting is just speculation.
One of the first written records of a fire brigade dates back to 115 B.C. in ancient Rome, others were the fire brigades of Alexandria Egypt. Capitalism and profit was the basis of the first fire department as a man Marcus Licinius Crassus realized a need, and formed a brigade, 500 men strong. Interestingly, In the event of a fire, Crassus brigade responded to the cries for help, but took no action until a negotiation of price for services rendered could be made with the building owner(2).
The first emperor of Rome, Imperator Caesar Divi F. Augustus socialized Crassus idea around 6 A.D. forming the Vigiles Urbani ("watchmen of the City"). Using the fire brigade of Alexandria Egypt as the paradigm, Augustus formed the first public fire department called the Vigiles(2). The Spartoli, as they were nicknamed meaning "little bucket fellows" were probably the first professional bucket brigade as they are called today. To fund this newly formed public service, Augustus imposed a 4% tax on the sale of slaves(3).
Much like many of the other public services in ancient Rome, the Vigiles were quite sophisticated, and were much like the fire departments of today. The crews were housed in barracks, and patrolled the streets on the ready for fires. The firefighters were equipped with pumps, buckets, hooks, picks, and axes. Also amongst their firefighting salvo was a device called a ballistae, akin to a catapult able to launch large projectiles, used for creating fire breaks. The Romans left no stones unturned as they even had an EMS division staffed with doctors. Despite this impressive fire brigade, two thirds of Rome was destroyed by fire in 64 A.D.(3).
Much of what the Romans brought to civilizations was lost with the fall of Rome, During the Dark Ages and beyond public fire service was all but non-existent. Europe fell victim to devastating fires, and in 1666 the Great Fire of London scorched about 2 square miles of the city, leaving thousands without homes. Following the great fire, private fire brigades were formed along with the first fire engines. It was not until then that water pumps were once again being used much like Rome had done 500 years earlier. Firefighting technology was slow to develop at the time but one noteworthy innovation was that of fire hose by Dutch inventor Jan Van der Heyden in 1672, a leather jacketed hose with brass couplers every 50 feet. Much of this remains standard today(2).
Across the pond, the New World was also feeling the sting of fire, and the need for fire agencies, and ordinances preventing fires. After a major fire in Boston in 1631, Boston Governor John Winthrop prohibited wooden chimneys and thatched roofs initiating America’s first fire regulations. Later in New York City, 1648, fire wardens were assigned to enforce these ordinances thereby creating America’s first fire department5. The man whose face once appeared on the half dollar, a great man of his time, and known for many achievements, Benjamin Franklin instituted the first volunteer fire department in Philadelphia.
Much like Rome, New York City was the crown jewel of the New World, the mecca of this soon to be new great nation. It is no surprise then that New York City would serve as the birthplace for public fire service. The fire department of New York City (FDNY) is now the largest municipal fire department in the United States(6).
In the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam (now New York City), after the first fire wardens were appointed, the prowlers were formed. Often called the rattle watch, furnished with buckets, hooks and ladders they would patrol the streets at night on the lookout for fire from 9 o’clock until dawn. To manage a fire large amounts of water are needed, the rattlers met this demand by attaching many leather buckets to ladders thus making transport easier. In 1664 the Dutch settlement became a British colony and was renamed New York(6).
It was not until 1731 that the first fire brigades would be put into service. Hand drawn pumpers from London would be the first two engine companies, engine 1 and engine 2. All citizens of good health were required to answer the call to service in the event of fire. The burgeoning city growth soon prompted the need for a more organized way to handle the ever growing need to protect its city and its citizens. In 1737, a more able force was assembled as New York City formed its first volunteer fire department. This new vigilant, able body group of men set the standard for selection of those wishing to serve the people in the fire service(6).
The end of the revolutionary war gave birth to this new great nation and ushered in the now FDNY. The volunteers continued to be the mainstay of the fire service until the Civil War, and in 1865, New York City introduced its first paid metropolitan fire department. Not surprising, this new entity fueled resentment and rife amongst the volunteer units. This rife often led to physical altercations and brawling between the two entities, but the burning resentment was soon quenched with the advent of the first steam engines thus eliminating the need for men to pump water and the volunteer service soon ended with a smolder in the greater New York City area(6).
Steam driven, horse drawn pumps for Engine Company 1 would be the start of a new era in the municipal fire service. With Engine Company 1 only servicing the Manhattan area of New York City, “The United Brooklyn and New York (cities) to form a Metropolitan District Act” would expand the reach of the FDNY. This new department now consisted of 13 officers and 552 men. Today’s firefighters would be up in arms to work the hours of our founding fathers of firefighting:
“They worked a continuous tour of duty, with 3 hours a day for meals and one day off a month. They were paid salaries according to their rank or grade.”6
Portions of New York City were added to the coverage of the FDNY, areas like Queens, the Bronx and Brooklyn to name just a few. 1898 saw the consolidation of all areas of New York City, and todays FDNY now boast a city coverage serving 8 million people(6).
The pride of serving citizens in the protection of their cities now spans from New York to California. Much of what firefighter do and know can be traced back to the early days of the FDNY. From a group of rag tag men, to an elite group of people serving the greater good, the fire service of today, still following the traditions of our forefather continue to serve as role models and a source of city pride.
1 Lascaux Caves http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lascaux
2History of firefighting http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_firefighting
3Vigiles Urbani http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vigiles
4Firefighting Timeline http://www.auroraregionalfiremuseum....y_timeline.htm
5Ditzel, Paul C. Fire Engines, Firefighters: the Men, Equipment, and Machines, from Colonial Days to the Present. New York: Crown, 1976
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History of Firefighting
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