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The History of American Fire Fighting

By Edited Aug 22, 2015 1 3

An organized firefighting corporation is vital to the survival of any civilization. Without dedicated professionals to quash flames, fires can spread quickly and bring down entire city blocks. This ultimately results in lost lives and extensive financial damages. Thus, it is easy to see why the United States has made a commitment to maintaining trained firefighters since the very first years of its history.

Bucket Brigade
When the Jamestown settlement was established in Virginia in 1607, it did not take long for America's first colonists to recognize the problem of fire. In January of the following year, raging flames destroyed a good part of the settlement. This forced colonists to come up with a plan for dealing with fires. They started using "bucket brigades" to help quash flames. When a fire was reported, all available people would form two lines near the flames. Buckets of water would be passed down one line, tossed onto the fire, and then return the other way to get refilled. As for fire warnings, early colonists used their voices in addition to rattles, gongs, and other easily crafted noisemakers to spread word of the flames.

Despite early efforts from colonists, it was not until 1648 that an organized fire corps was developed. In this year, the government of New Amsterdam, now known as New York, created four fire warden positions. A law was also created banning wooden chimneys and thatched roofs. These building components were two of the major fire hazards in early American cities. It was the duty of the fire wardens to enforce these laws and inspect buildings for other hazards. Those who did not comply with regulations were fined by the city. Within a few years, other settlements follow suit. These were the first steps towards creating an organized firefighting industry in America.

Horse Drawn Fire Truck
Among the earliest fire brigades were those in Boston and Philadelphia. These cities were the first to purchase actual fire engines to facilitate movement to and from fires. Boston acquired its vehicle in 1653 and Philadelphia followed in 1719. Of course, in this early period the engines were actually horse or man powered vehicles with hand-pumps for helping stream water at the flames. Most early hand-pumps were constructed in England and shipped to the American colonies. This made it difficult to acquire many of the pumps. Additionally, it took a lot of effort to work these devices, and the tubs needed to be frequently refilled. However, they were ultimately far more effective than standard bucket brigades.

The United States' founding fathers were also very interested in fire prevention and control. In fact, George Washington himself served as a volunteer firefighter in Virginia. He even bought his town its first fire engine. Fellow American politician Thomas Jefferson was also on a volunteer brigade. Additionally, Benjamin Franklin worked to improve firefighting by founding the Union Fire Company in Philadelphia in 1736. Franklin was inspired by a visit to Boston, where he admired the city's level of firefighting preparedness. He wanted to bring this same quality to Philadelphia. Franklin even wrote a newspaper article on the dangers of fires in order to raise awareness. Ultimately, his efforts were successful and the Union Fire Company became the model for other firefighter bands in other cities.

Although the first firefighting systems in America were run by volunteers, many of these eventually gave way to professional leagues. This was especially true in major urban centers where volunteers were simply not organized enough and lacked sufficient funding to deal with fire problems. After several major fires in cities like New York, it was clear that paying professionals to fight fires would result in a higher quality system. Additionally, improved organization would diminish rivalries and encourage the use of better technology. Although many volunteer firefighters resented the change, professional groups eventually won over most of America's cities.

One of the most important developments in firefighting technology took place around the same time as the switch from urban volunteers to professional forces. In the early 1800s, inventors in England designed a steam-powered water pump. Coal was used to power the steam pump, which could then stream water into hoses. The additional force made all the difference when fighting difficult fires. Plus, these new devices required less manpower to use. Subsequently, many volunteer firefighters did not want to implement the new technology. However, as their position became less and less influential, steam pumps made their way into the American firefighting system.

The first paid firefighting company in the United States was located in Cincinnati, Ohio. It was founded in 1853 and soon followed by counterparts in New York and Philadelphia. By using paid departments cities were guaranteed a consistent group of individuals available to fight fires. Additionally, career firefighters were held to higher standards of training and efficiency. This meant they were better-equipped to perform their duties and less likely to be injured on the job.

During the twentieth century, firefighters were able to improve their efforts even more thanks to new technologies. The first major invention was the internal combustion engine. This naturally led to the development of automobiles and, subsequently, fire trucks. Firefighters also learned to utilize radio communication and a special breathing device called the "self-contained breathing apparatus" (SCBA). This made firefighting safer and allowed firefighters to rescue more individuals from a flaming building.

Firefighters Fighting a House Fire
Today, American firefighting involves a number of individuals with specialized jobs. Aside from traditional firefighters, there are also those who deal with hazardous materials, skyscrapers, and fires on the seas. Additionally, many fire companies have separate ambulatory units to assist injured victims. Both volunteers and paid servicemen participate in all these duties. Naturally, modern firefighting also requires greater training and a higher budget for equipment and personnel.

Firefighters must be available at all hours of the day, every day of the year. Fires can occur at any time without warning. Thus, for the United States to remain safe from damage, it needs to retain firefighting forces across the country. Firefighters must also receive proper training and equipment in order to do their jobs effectively. Thankfully, the United States has met the challenges of developing a corps of firefighters and remains one of the most fire-ready nations in the world.


Nov 15, 2009 9:51pm
Good article on firefighting history. It's nice to see the improvements that have been made over the years.
Dec 1, 2009 8:28pm
I admire firefighters, such brave men and women.
Sep 8, 2011 2:28pm
This helps to really give a good luck at the organization,
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