The History of the Fire Service

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The first known full-time fire department in Western civilization was established in Rome approximately 2000 years ago. The Roman Emperor Augustus is given credit for initiating a corps of firefighting vigilantes in 24 BC (The History of Firefighting.) At that time, the rules for monitoring and preventing fires were established. In ancient Rome, the main method of fighting fires involved using buckets that were passed from hand to hand to bring water to the fire; this was the main procedure for fighting fires in both ancient as well as modern times. In ancient Rome, people were chosen to patrol the city and sound the alarms as well as putting out the fires; in addition, they were charged with enforcing fire codes (A Little Fire Service History.) In those days, the firefighters were not paid but instead, were a group of slaves that were forced to become involved in this tremendous obligation.

Another crucial firefighting tool since ancient times was the ax, utilized to remove the fuel and prevent the fire from spreading; in addition, the acts was responsible for making openings that would permit heat and smoke to escape from the burning building (The History of Firefighting.) During significant fires, long hooks with ropes were utilized to pull down buildings that were in the path of a fire that was approaching. This accomplished creating breaks from the fires. If explosives were available, they would serve the same purpose.

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Actually, there are differing accounts of who actually became the first modern firefighters or firefighting department. Generally, Napoleon Bonaparte has been credited with forming the first “professional fire brigade” because when he was the Emperor of France, he mandated that a sector of the French Army should be used to protect Paris from fire; this occurred around 1800. However, prior to that, there had also been people who were paid for their firefighting services circa 1600. Initially, there was a charge for people to pay for firefighting but in 1733, the French government declared that the work of the firefighters would be free to the public. The government had realized that if people had to pay for the firefighting service, frequently they neglected to seek help, and the results were devastating.

After the Great Fire of London in 1666, insurance companies formed fire brigades; there was no involvement by the government until 1865, however, when these brigades became London’s Metropolitan Fire Brigade (The History of Firefighting.) However, the establishment of the first modern standards for operations of a fire department was not created until 1830 in Edinburgh, Scotland. The standards that were developed clarified for the first time the expectations of what a competent fire department should be accomplishing before, during, and after fires. Various organizations to fight fires were formed in Europe, but in regards to colonial United States, in Boston as early as 1678 there was a group of men who were paid to maintain a fire pump and to respond to fires (A Little Fire Service History.)

In the United States, the first American fire department, which was a volunteer group, is frequently associated with Benjamin Franklin. When visiting Boston, Franklin noticed that the people living in that city were better prepared to fight fires than in his adopted city of Philadelphia (Fire Department.) When he returned home, he sought input and advice from groups that were devoted to civic and self-improvement, soliciting suggestions about improving methods to fight fires. In 1736, in Philadelphia, a fire brigade began as a club, or co-op designed to protect each other’s homes in case of a fire. Franklin also urged that chimney sweeps should have to be licensed by the city and in addition, be held responsible for their work (Fire Department.)

Under Franklin’s leadership, a group of 30 men formed to create the Union Fire Company in December, 1736. They had equipment that included leather buckets attached to the durable bags and baskets that were used to pack and transport goods; this equipment was distributed at each fire. The men who were battling the fires met every month to discuss ways to prevent fire and methods of firefighting. In addition, homeowners were required to keep the leather firefighting buckets within their homes. The Union Company was considered to be an extremely desirable group to which men could belong, but those who wished to join were encouraged to start their own fire companies in order to provide the city with a wider range of firefighting services. Soon afterwards, there were several firefighting companies, leading to Philadelphia becoming one of the safest cities in the world in regards to the amount of fire damage experienced on a yearly basis.

However, prior to that there were other organizations that resembled firefighting co-ops and were known as “Mutual Fire Societies” in Boston. Before that, as early as 1678, Boston maintained equipment for firefighting and had a paid crew to keep it functional and to use it to respond to fires. New York as well as other cities in 1648 also had a volunteer brigade who patrolled the streets, looking for fire, in which case they would sound an alarm and help organize “bucket brigades” (A Little Fire Service History.)

Fire departments actually represent a relatively recent development by modern standards. Firefighters are either non-salaried, or volunteer, or salaried, that is, career firefighters. Usually, the smaller communities in the US use volunteer firefighters while the larger cities tend to hire firefighters that are salaried. It was only late in the 19th century that the modern fire department containing salaried staff along with standardized equipment was adopted as an essential part of community administration services.

  • “A Little Fire Service History.” 2011. Free Service Info.com. Web. 1 April 2014.
  • “Fire Department.” 2014. US History.org. Web. 1 April 2014.
  • “The History of Firefighting.” n.d. Emergency Dispatch.org. Web. 1 April 2014.

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