Firefighting in America: A Historical Perspective

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.

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