The Origins of Firefighting

There is no question that firefighters have a long and proud history around the world. For years, brave men and women have faithfully served to protect their people and communities.

So we wonder—how did this all begin? It might surprise you that the earliest known firefighters date back to Ancient Rome. Marcus Licinius Crassus, born into a wealthy Roman family, acquired an enormous fortune. He took advantage of the fact that Rome did not have a fire department and filled this void by creating his own brigade of 500 men.

Roman Emperor Nero took it a step further, forming the Vigiles in 60 A.D., consisting of 7,000 people. The Vigiles used bucket brigades and pumps to combat fires. Rome was particularly susceptible to fires due to a combination of the city’s early urban architecture, and the heat of the Italian summer. During their time as servants of the city, the Vigiles saved many lives, putting out fires and often laying out mattresses and blankets to allow people to jump to safety. Little did they know that their vigilance would begin a tradition of honor and bravery that would stretch all the way to the 21st century and beyond.

Firefighting in the United States

In 1648, the city of New Amsterdam (now New York City) appointed four fire wardens. Their responsibilities included enforcing fire laws, primarily through the inspection of buildings. At that time, wooden chimneys and thatched roofs were banned. Eight prominent citizens were then appointed to the “Rattle Watch.” These individuals patrolled the streets at night and if a fire was spotted, they spun the rattles. Citizens who heard the rattles would form bucket brigades to combat the fires.

The United States did not have government-run fire departments until around the time of the American Civil War. In fact, the first professional fire department was formed in 1853 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.

To learn more about the history of firefighting, visit the Fire-Dex blog.

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