Early Firefighting History

      First attempts at firefighting can be traced as far back as the 2nd Century. It was then that an Egyptian from Alexandria named Ctesibus built a basic hand pump that could squirt a jet of water, but the idea was lost until the fire pump was reinvented about AD 1500. After nearly being destroyed by uncontrollable conflagrations, ancient Rome developed a fire department consisting of approximately 7,000 paid firefighters. These fire brigades not only responded to and fought fires, but also patrolled the streets with the authority to impose corporal punishment upon those who violated fire prevention codes.

      The United States has been plagued by catastrophic fires for almost 400 years. The development of fire fighting forces in the United States, especially in the Northeast, have brought innovations in modern fire fighting throughout the world. The first recorded structure fire occurred in 1608 in the Jamestown Colony. On January 7th a fire leveled most of the fragile colony which was just barely a year old. Captain John Smith wrote of the fire in his journal: "Most of our apparel, lodging and private provisions were destroyed...I begin to think that it is safer for me to dwell in the wild Indian country than in this stockade, where fools accidentally discharge their muskets and others burn down their homes at night".

      In earlier times, most fire companies were volunteer or privately operated. There was competition for services. Some firefighters were actually recruited not only for their strength in fighting fire but for their fighting abilities to protect the company and its equipment. Insurance companies paid the fire company that put out the fire, so the one that made it to the scene, hooked up to a hydrant and completed the task, got paid. The dogs worked well at this task of protecting not only the horses, but the equipment in the stations and at the fire as well. Equipment was rudimentary at best, leather buckets, hooks and chains, swabs, ladders and archaic pumps were the tools of the trade.

      Fire buckets in colonial towns had the owners names painted on them. Laws often required residents to purchase them and keep them in repair. "Bucket Brigades" were commonly used  which consisted of 2 lines of people stretching from the town well or river to the fire. They passed buckets of water to the fire, and empty buckets back to the water source to be refilled. Later, with the invention of the hand pumper, bucket brigades were used to keep the burning building from spreading to other buildings. Swabs (mops) were used to extinguish embers on roofs. Fire fighting got an edge with the invention of the hand pumper, or hand tub. The Foreman of the pump companies would use a large "speaking trumpet" to give orders to his crew (The museum has a large collection of trumpets, fire buckets, and several  hand tubs).

      Fire Prevention was born in Boston in 1630. The Selectmen ordered that "Noe man shall build his chimney with wood, nor cover his house with thatch." In 1648, Governor Peter Stuyvesant of New Amsterdam (New York City)  was the first to appoint fire inspectors with the authority to impose fire code violations. When a fire was spotted, the cry "throw out your buckets" would be sounded and a brigade would be formed. Many homes burnt to the ground.

      In 1666 London suffered a catastrophic fire. The only equipment available to fight the fire was two-quart hand syringes and a slightly larger one; it burned for 4 days. The development of a 2 person operated piston pump on wheels came about after the London Fire. About 1672 leather hose and couplings for joining lengths together were produced; though leather hose had to be sewn like a fine boot, fabric and rubber-treated hose did not come into general use until 1870. in 1679. Boston imported the first fire engine to reach America from London.

     In 1736 young Ben Franklin began urging readers of his "Pennsylvanian Gazette" to establish fire-fighting companies. In 1752, insurance companies in the colonies began issuing plaques, or "fire marks", to be displayed on building fronts as an incentive for volunteer fire fighters to save their insured buildings. These fire marks are very rare due to them being made of lead and were melted to make ammunition for the Revolutionary War. With bonuses offered as incentives, rivalries ensued between groups. Marked homes and businesses were brawled over, while buildings on the same street without fire marks burned to the ground.

      On festive occasions or town parades firemen dressed in their most colorful uniforms trying to outdo each others party. Lavish helmets and uniforms, fancy fire axes, decorative parade torch, and painted stovepipe-shaped "fire hats", fancy painted fire buckets and engraved silver speaking trumpets were commissioned for these parades. If they had a hand pumper, it too was decorated often by celebrated artists.

      A steam fire engine was built in London in 1829, but the volunteer fire companies were slow to accept it, until the public forced them to use it.

      In 1852 William F, Channing, a Doctor in Boston used telegraph technology developed in the early 1840s to create the first fire alarm box system. Within the year, Boston had fire alarm boxes all over the city. The first box was struck on April 29, 1852.

     In 1832, the New York Mutual Hook and Ladder Company No. 1 volunteers purchased a horse to pull their engine. The idea caught on fast. Horses became a beloved part of the fire service all over the country. The horses were often trained to the sound of the bell to come out of their stalls and stand and wait at the front of the apparatus.

     Dalmatians were originally chosen as fire dogs because they formed strong bonds with the horses. They guarded the valuable horses and kept them company. At the sound of the bell, they would rouse the horses, then run out to the apron to bark at people trying to cross in front of the fire house. They would then chase the apparatus to the scene. Motorized vehicles put an end to both dogs and horses. Some dogs are still on duty at firehouses as companions.

      Gasoline engines were at first used either as pumping engines or as tractors to pull apparatus. In 1910 it did both, propelled the truck and driving the pump.

Credits: History of Municipal Fire Fighting in the City of Quincy, Ma & Dennis Smith's History of Firefighting in America.