The History of Fire Fighting

Firefighting is the use techniques and equipment to extinguish fires and limit the damage caused by them. It seems logical that since the creation of fire, or shortly thereafter that there would be a need for the development of firefighting. In order to fully understand the direction of this essential profession we must gain an understanding and appreciation for its history.
In 24 BC, the Roman emperor Augustus is credited with instituting the first fire “department” consisting of fire-fighting vigiles or “watchmen” ( With the creation of the first organized group of people dedicated to fighting fires also came the first regulations for checking and preventing fires. Additionally, fire alarms were first used at this time to alert other firefighters and civilians of the impending fire. The principal piece of fire-fighting equipment used at this time in ancient Rome through to early modern times was the bucket ( The bucket was passed from hand to hand to deliver water to the fire, with the empty bucket being returned to the start of the line. This method was used by the early fire departments of the United States. After a major fire in Boston in 1631, the first fire regulations in America were established and the first service formally began in about 1680. This was when the first paid fire department was established ( It is important to note that Volunteer fire departments began with Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia in 1735 ( Many people are surprised that the same Ben Franklin that assisted in the creation of the United States Declaration of Independence and invented bifocals and the lightening rod had such an impact on the implementation of fire departments.

Equally surprising to Benjamin Franklin’s contribution to the history of firefighting is the fact that George Washington imported the first fire engine from England in about 1765. This engine was a hand-pumper, requiring men to move the engine to the fire and operate the pumps with levers to direct water through the hoses. The engine was given to the Alexandria, Virginia fire company, where Washington was a volunteer firefighter himself. ( The next revolutionary advancement in the realm of fire apparatus came when the steam engine was developed in England in the early 1800’s ( When these steam engines were first widely used in the United States the firefighters had to physically pull the trucks to the fire. By the mid 1850’s horses were used to pull these steam pumpers. This is where we see the emergence of the Dalmatian dogs association with firefighters. Dalmatians were trained to escort the horse drawn engines to the fire scene and keep away other animals from interfering (

For the most part the firefighters of today are bound by a highly structured chain of command and have specific responsibilities and duties on the scene of a fire. This was something that was evident to early fire departments – centralized command was needed. In New York in 1761, Jacobus Stoutenburgh became the head or “Chief Engineer“ of the volunteer fire department. It is believed that this is the where the traditional “Fire Chief“ evolved from ( Modern firefighting has come a long way from these early beginnings. However these traditions of service to the community and the spirit of being a part of a structured team are as much a part of today`s fire departments as they always have been. Many modern fire departments spend a decreasing amount of overall activity in fighting fires. Instead, fire fighters typically respond to all kinds of emergencies. For example, in the U.S. approximately 70 percent of all emergency medical calls are handled by the fire service. The same is true in many other countries ( Some departments have “dually trained“ firefighters – those trained in both fire and emergency medical response. This need was identified due to a decrease in fire related calls and an increase in medical calls. Additionally, firefighters are heavily involved in fire prevention and education, building design and construction as well as enforcement of fire standards. The enormous increase in transportation of hazardous materials or dangerous goods has resulted in intensified training for fire fighters, and their departments often provide them with chemical protective clothing and monitoring equipment ( Most fire departments also prepare and equip their members to handle emergencies that result from earthquakes, plane crashes, and violent storms. In addition, fire fighters handle incidents that require extricating trapped people from fallen structures, from cave-ins, and from other situations as well as perform search and rescues (

Modern fire departments are experiencing firsthand the advancements in fire technology. New nozzles and monitors, extinguishing agents, fire sensors, protective clothing, portable radio communication devices and thermal imaging cameras are to name a few. Those entering this historic profession today are sure to see many innovating and exciting advancements in the years to come.


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