History of Firefighting
The brave men and women who serve in the fire departments throughout this country are committed to answering the call to duty. These dedicated professionals are trained to fight fires that might otherwise spread rapidly, endangering both lives and property. Since our country’s earliest days, people and governments have placed a high priority on fire protection. Today these numbers tell the story of fire departments throughout the United States. The U.S. Fire Administration posts updated figures about every two years.
30,170: The estimated number of fire departments in the U.S. in 2008.
52,400: The estimated number of fire stations in the United States during the period from 2006 to 2008.
22: The number of seconds that represents how often a fire department responds to a fire in the United States.
14: The percentage of fire departments in the U.S. that consist of career or mostly career firefighters.
61: The percentage of the U.S. population protected by fire departments that consist of career or mostly career firefighters.
86: The percentage of fire departments in the U.S. that consist of volunteer or mostly volunteer firefighters.
39: The percentage of the U.S. population protected by fire departments that consist of career or mostly career firefighters.
68,200: The estimated number of fire pumpers in the United States.
6,725: The estimated number of aerial fire apparatus in the U.S.
Featuring more than 300 years of firefighting history
Museums that chronicle the history of firefighting are located in small towns and urban centers around the country. No doubt each one has something unique to offer. We scoured the Fire Museum Network and chose one museum to feature in this post—the FASNY (Firemen’s Association of the State of New York) Museum of Firefighting, which contains some of the world’s top collections of firefighting apparatus, equipment, gear and memorabilia. This museum totals more than 50,000 square feet, so the best way to experience it is by going there yourself. Still, we uncovered a few gems located in the museum. Here’s what we found.
- A 20-foot-long brass sliding pole from the City of Auburn Fire Department in Auburn, New York.
- A bucket carriage used by the Continental Bucket Co. No. 1 of Jamaica, Long Island, New York.
- Speaking trumpets used as early as 1752 by fire chiefs and officers to shout orders to their men.
- Fire axes, ranging in size and style from a small hatchet to a large battle axe.
- A Browder Life Saving Machine, measuring 9 to 9 ½ feet in diameter and once used to catch individuals who escaped a fire by jumping from a high-story window.
- A leather firefighter mask manufactured in London in 1878. The mask is attached to a hose, which is attached to a foot bellows. A second firefighter provided air to the firefighter wearing the mask by operating the foot bellows. The firefighters communicated via signals: 1 tug meant more air; 2 tugs, less air; 3 tugs, help me out.
For more information about the museum, visit www.fasnyfiremuseum.com.
Although today’s firefighter is protected from heat and falling debris with clothing made of modern materials, this was not always the case. For more than 100 years, firefighters donned nothing more than a rubber or canvas slicker, a wide-brimmed leather helmet and rubber boots. Often, gloves were not even a consideration. It’s no wonder their bodies had to withstand multiple scars and wounds.
Without adequate clothing to protect them, firefighters during this time period used distance as their primary method of protection. Unfortunately, this left little margin for error. When conditions changed rapidly, which they frequently do in the midst of a fire, their clothing did not provide much protection. Even as recently as the 1960s, firefighters wore clothing that could quickly burn or melt if the fire got too close.
The Space Age ushered in new materials and manufacturing processes that could be used to produce everything from coats, pants and gloves to protective footwear and helmets. By the 1970s, clothing for firefighters had advanced dramatically. And today, firefighters are wrapped in materials that provide an outer layer that neither liquid nor heat can permeate. Still, the added challenge comes with producing clothing that is not only safe but also allows the firefighter to move about with relative ease. To add to the challenge, a firefighter must be able to dress in less than 60 seconds. No small feat, for sure.
Smokey Bear’s “Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires” campaign is the longest-running public service campaign in U.S. history. The stern, but approachable, bear wearing a ranger hat, jeans and boots has taught generations of Americans about fire safety and prevention over the years. But many people don’t know that there’s a real bear behind this furry campaign.
It all started in New Mexico in 1950. Firefighters were battling a blaze in the Lincoln National Forest when they noticed a bear cub wandering close to the fire with no sign of its mother nearby. As the fire spread, the bear cub took refuge in a tree. Once the 17,000-acre fire was under control, firefighters rescued the lone bear who had incurred some burns from the charred tree. The cub was flown to Sante Fe for veterinary aid, and the endearing story of the cub soon spread throughout the country. Once the cub recovered, it was sent to the National Zoo in Washington D.C. where it became known as Smokey Bear.
In 2010 alone, more than 4 million acres of land burned in the United States, a testament to the face that Smokey’s legacy still has an important role to play now—and in the years to come.
If you could point to one item of clothing that clearly distinguishes the firefighter, it would undoubtedly be the helmet.
What you see most firefighters wearing today, however, is a blend of progress and tradition. The classic shape dates back to the early 1900s, a time when helmets were made from leather and metal. The wide brim was designed to protect the firefighter from falling debris, water and burning embers. The style took hold, and firefighters everywhere adopted it as their own.
The 20th Century brought with it the invention of new materials, such as aluminum, fiberglass and a wide variety of plastics that could be used to improve the durability of the firefighter helmet. But although new designs were introduced, firefighters resisted the new styles, and they continued to wear the traditional leather head coverings. Helmet manufacturers solved the problem by making helmets using new materials and technologies, but with the traditional shape and decorative features. That included an outer leather covering. The most noticeable improvements are found on the interior headliner and suspension system.
Today’s firefighter helmets are a blend of the old and the new. They feature the traditional style with a leather look that is crafted using Space Age materials. The materials are OSHA approved, but the design is based on the traditional leather fire helmet. It’s interesting to note that many fire departments tried significantly more modern-looking styles, but most of them returned to the traditional look.
Helmets are special to every firefighter. Check out our helmets!