History of Firefighting
We live in an age when technology is progressing so rapidly that many items we grew up with are now obsolete. Case in point: the typewriter, the pay phone and the eight-track tape. Add the joker box or telegraph alarm box to that growing list. An interesting icon from fire fighting history, it was once the primary means of dispatching fire companies in major cities throughout the United States and England. During a 50-year period, these “boxes” appeared on just about every city street corner. Here’s how they worked.
The box was connected to a telegraph wire that went to every fire station in the city. Inside each box was a spring-loaded wheel with bumps on it. The bumps corresponded to the number given to the box. For instance, if the box’s number was #123, the wheel would have one bump, then two bumps, and then three. When someone pulled the handle located outside the box, it released the spring-loaded wheel, causing it to turn. The bumps pressed down on a key, sending an electrical signal to every fire station in the city. In the stations, a bell would ring out the number of the box. At the same time, it punched holes in a paper tape at the watch desk. Fire companies assigned to this particular box would dispatch themselves to the fire. What’s most interesting is that every fire station in the city had to keep track of every other fire station—just in case the station that was assigned to that box had already been called to another fire. Interestingly, telegraph alarm boxes were widespread throughout the 1920s, 30s, 40s and 50s, and in some cities, they were still being used during the 1960s and 70s.
How did the box get reset after the fire? Well, the fire chief, of course. He simply used a key to open the box, rewound the spring—and the system was ready to go once again.
All Tapped Out?
Here’s a bit of trivia you may not know: When the fire was finally under control and the fire chief returned to reset the box, he would “tap out” a signal indicating that the box was clear because the fire was now out. In many cities the code for under control was “1-1” and the code for all companies clear was “6-6”. Fire personnel at the various stations waited to hear that the fire was “tapped out.”
The photograph is from the Fire Museum of Maryland.
For years bucket brigades served as the best method for transporting water to extinguish a fire—at least until hand pumpers came on the scene. These were actually more like hand tubs with long, parallel handles, and they required many volunteers to pump up and down rapidly in an effort to continuously transport water from the tub. Although they were a giant step up from the old bucket brigades, the hand pumpers were limited as people quickly grew tired from the pumping. Nevertheless, they were widely used throughout the 1700s.
Enter the steam pumper, a major advancement that first appeared in the United States in 1840. The steam pumper, with its ability to supply continuous water, did so without using human muscle. As steam pumpers became more widespread, fewer volunteer firefighters were needed in major cities. Instead, the first paid fire departments emerged. Beginning in Cincinnati in 1853, paid firefighters ushered in an era of firefighting that included new concepts and inventions and widespread technological advances. These included the telegraph alarm system, alarm box running assignment cards, sliding fire poles—and horses. The entire landscape of firefighting was changing.
Photo from the FASNY Museum of a hand drawn apparatus that was later converted to a horse drawn apparatus.
From the very earliest days of settlement in the New World, people realized the importance of fighting fires. Just one year after Jamestown was settled in 1607, fire destroyed a large part of the settlement. That’s when the colonists devised bucket brigades, a system that called for two lines of people who passed buckets of water down one line, tossed the water onto the fire, and then returned the buckets down the other line to be refilled. There were no fire alarms at that time—only the voices of citizens and any noisemakers they had at their disposal.
Unfortunately, there was no organized fire corps in this country until 1648, which started in New Amsterdam (now New York). They simply formed the position of fire warden and hired four individuals to fill that role. Their responsibilities included enforcing fire laws, primarily through the inspection of buildings. At that time, wooden chimneys and thatched roofs were banned. These had already been identified as the two major fire hazards in American cities.
Nevertheless, it was Boston and Philadelphia that really took the lead in the development of formal firefighting. They were the first two cities to purchase fire engines, which at that time were either man- or horse-powered vehicles imported from England. These early vehicles were equipped with hand pumps that helped to stream water at the flames. Although rudimentary, they were far more effective than the bucket brigades.
It’s interesting to note that our nation’s founding fathers were interested in firefighting, particularly George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Both were volunteer firefighters. But it was Benjamin Franklin who took it to the next level by forming the Union Fire Company in Philadelphia in 1736. This volunteer organization served as a model for the professional leagues that followed.
By the early 1800s, the invention of the steam-powered water pump made it possible to stream water into hoses. This was a huge boon to firefighting efforts everywhere. It required less manpower and made it much easier to fight fires. Still, it wasn’t until 1853 that the first paid firefighting company was formed in Cincinnati, Ohio. Other cities quickly followed Cincinnati’s example, which made way for career firefighters who were better trained and more efficient on the job.
The twentieth century brought with it the internal combustion engine for cars and eventually for fire trucks. Other improved technologies, such as radio communication and self-contained breathing apparatus, greatly facilitated the ability to fight fires more safely and efficiently. Today, professional firefighters are highly trained and available at all hours of the day and night. Clearly, we’ve come a long way from the days of the bucket brigades.
Graduation Parties and Future Plans Are Happening…You will be surprised where these two seniors will assume their future adult roles in society.
While most of their classmates are counting on four years of college to sort out their ambitions and career paths, Ben Hagstad and Ashley Ebel have their futures firmly in their grasp. They both want to be firefighters.
As graduated seniors from Granville High School, these two residents became full-fledged volunteers for the Granville Township Fire Department last January.
According to the Marion Star, Fire Chief Jeff Hussey said although having two teens at the station with the degree of training that Hagstad and Ebel have is a first for the station, most of the volunteers firefighters he recruits today are younger than 21. As people get older, they get busier and harder to recruit, he said.
Hagstad’s and Ebel’s interest in firefighting wasn’t an instant flash of inspiration, but rather a gradual process. They were intrigued by an announcement at school about a local Explorer Scout group sponsored by the fire department that focuses on firefighting as a career, and they decided to join.
Once they had the chance to go on fire and EMS runs and experience the camaraderie of the department, their enthusiasm grew, and they decided to go a step further.
For Ebel, it was taking an EMT class in her spare time while continuing her education at Granville High School. For Hagstad, it was enrolling in C-TEC in his junior year so he could take a high school curriculum focused on a career as a firefighter.
Best of luck to Hagstad and Ebel as they begin their journey in fire service. This article originally appeared in the Marion Star. It was republished in its entirety with permission.
The National 9/11 Flag is one of the largest American flags to hang above the destruction at Ground Zero in New York City. This was displayed on the west facade of 90 West Street, a landmark building one block south of the South Tower.
Heavily damaged after attacks on the World Trade Center, the National 9/11 Flag became a symbol of American resilience. The flag was mended and stitched back together seven years after the World Trade Center attacks by tornado survivors in Greensburg, Kansas.
Over 160 Million Americans have seen the National 9/11 Flag through national and local television broadcasts, sporting events, community gatherings and cultural events. This Saturday, June 25th the flag will visit Columbus, Ohio on the West Lawn of City Hall.