A Quicker Way Down: A Brief History of the Fire Pole
Ask kids about their favorite feature at the local fire station, and they will probably reference the fireman’s pole. Also known as a sliding pole, the device was invented in Chicago in the 1870s, although it is often incorrectly credited to the Boston Fire Department. Prior to this time period, spiral stairs and sliding chutes were used in firehouses, but they just weren’t fast enough. Chicago firefighter David Kenyon changed all that.
Kenyon worked in Chicago’s Engine Company No. 21 where the hay for the horses was stored on the third floor. At that time, the second floor was used for recreation and sleeping, while the ground floor housed the firefighting equipment. When the hay was being transported to the firehouse, it was secured to a wagon using a wooden binding pole. That pole was stored in the hay loft when not in use. One day firefighter George Reid slid down the pole in response to a call for help. It inspired Kenyon to create a permanent pole.
In 1878, Kenyon convinced the fire chief to cut a hole in the building so that a permanent pole could be installed. The pole, which was three inches in diameter, was made from Georgia pine beam. The firefighters shaved and sanded it, and then applied several coats of varnish and a coat of paraffin. Over time, fire houses everywhere adopted the pole as a means for quickly descending to the ground floor when the alarm sounded.
Although fire poles have been an endearing symbol of firehouses for many years, most are now being removed or are rarely used. It seems they’ve been the cause of more than just a few broken ankles.
Pictured above: Lubbock Fire Station No. 1 has two McIntire Brass Works Inc. fire poles used to get to the ground floor of the station. The poles were transferred downtown from Fire Station No. 3 in 1979.