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Posted: Jul 19 2007, 02:04 PM


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The history of organized firefighting dates back at least to Ancient Egypt, where hand-operated pumps may have been employed to extinguish fires.

The first Roman fire brigade was a group of slaves who were hired by an aedile Marcus Egnatius Rufus. Augustus took this idea from Rufus and then built on it to form the (Vigiles) in AD 6 to combat fires using bucket brigades and pumps, as well as poles, hooks and even ballistae to tear down buildings in advance of the flames. It is generally thought that this is where the "hook" in "hook and ladder company" comes from. The Vigiles patrolled the streets of Rome to watch for fires and served as the police force.

Rome suffered a number of serious fires, most notably the fire that started near the Circus Maximus on 19 July AD 64 and eventually destroyed two thirds of Rome. The Emperor Nero was blamed for the conflagration, and may in fact have allowed the fire to burn.

In Europe, firefighting was quite rudimentary until the 17th century. In 1254, a royal decree of King Saint Louis of France created the so-called guet bourgeois ("burgess watch"), allowing the residents of Paris to establish their own night watches, separate from the king's night watches, to prevent and stop crimes and fires. After the Hundred Years' War, the population of Paris expanded again, and the city, much larger than any other city in Europe at the time, was the scene of several great fires in the 16th century. As a consequence, King Charles IX disbanded the residents' night watches and left the king's watches as the only one responsible for checking crimes and fires.

Another great city that experienced such a need for organized fire control was London, which suffered great fires in 798, 982, 989, and above all in 1666 (Great Fire of London). The Great Fire of 1666 started in a baker's shop on Pudding Lane, consumed about two square miles (5 km²) of the city, leaving tens of thousands homeless. Prior to this fire, London had no organized fire protection system. Afterwards, insurance companies formed private fire brigades to protect their clients’ property. Insurance brigades would only fight fires at buildings the company insured. These buildings were identified by a badge or sign.

The key breakthrough in firefighting arrived in the 17th century with the first fire engines. Manual pumps, rediscovered in Europe after 1500 (allegedly used in Augsburg in 1518 and in Nuremberg in 1657), were only force pumps and had a very short range due to the lack of hoses. German inventor Hans Hautsh improved the manual pump by creating the first suction and force pump and adding some flexible hoses to the pump. In 1672, Dutch inventor Jan Van der Heyden invented the firehose. Constructed of flexible leather and coupled every 50 feet (15 m) with brass fittings, the length and connections remain the standard to this day. The fire engine was further developed by Richard Newsham of London in 1725. Pulled as a cart to the fire, these manual pumps were manned by teams of men and could deliver up to 160 gallons per minute (12 L/s) at up to 120 feet (40 m).

In 1631 Boston's governor John Winthrop outlawed wooden chimneys and thatched roofs.[1] In 1648, the New Amsterdam governor Peter Stuyvesant appointed four men to act as fire wardens.[1] They were empowered to inspect all chimneys and to fine any violators of the rules. The city burghers later appointed eight prominent citizens to the "Rattle Watch" - these men volunteered to patrol the streets at night carrying large wooden rattles.[1] If a fire was seen, the men spun the rattles, then directed the responding citizens to form bucket brigades. On January 27, 1678 the first fire engine company went into service with its captain (foreman) Thomas Atkins.[1] In 1736 Benjamin Franklin established the Union Fire Company in Philadelphia.[1]

George Washington was a volunteer firefighter in Alexandria, Virginia. In 1774, as a member of the Friendship Veterans Fire Engine Company, he bought a new fire engine and gave it to the town, which was its very first.[2] However the United States did not have professional firefighters in the sense of government-run fire departments until around the time of the American Civil War. Prior to this time, amateur fire brigades would compete with one another to be the first to respond to a fire because insurance companies paid brigades saved buildings.[citation needed] The first known female firefighter Molly Williams took her place with the men on the dragropes during the blizzard of 1818 and pulled the pumper to the fire through the deep snow.

Fire houses were a sort of social gathering place rather than a place where professionals would meet, and the money paid to the brigade went into the house's fund rather than to individual members. It was not all that uncommon to see someone "squatting" on a fire hydrant by placing a barrel over it so other fire brigades could not use it. However, paid professional firefighting services were eventually established. (Source: Documentary about the film Gangs of New York)

The first fire brigades in the modern sense were created in France in the early 18th century. In 1699, a man with bold commercial ideas, François du Mouriez du Périer (grandfather of French Revolution's general Charles François Dumouriez), solicited an audience with King Louis XIV. Greatly interested in Jan Van der Heiden's invention, he successfully demonstrated the new pumps and managed to convince the king to grant him the monopoly of making and selling "fire-preventing portable pumps" throughout the kingdom of France. François du Mouriez du Périer offered 12 pumps to the City of Paris, and the first Paris Fire Brigade, known as the Compagnie des gardes-pompes (literally the "Company of Pump Guards"), was created in 1716. François du Mouriez du Périer was appointed directeur des pompes de la Ville de Paris ("director of the City of Paris's pumps"), i.e. chief of the Paris Fire Brigade, and the position stayed in his family until 1760. In the following years, other fire brigades were created in the large French cities. It is around that time that appeared the current French word pompier ("firefighter"), whose literal meaning is "pumper". On March 11, 1733 the French government decided that the interventions of the fire brigades would be free of charge. This was decided because people always waited until the last moment to call the fire brigades to avoid paying the fee, and it was often too late to stop fires. From 1750 on, the French fire brigades became para-military units and received uniforms. In 1756 the use of a protective helmet for firefighters was recommended by King Louis XV, but it took many more years before the measure was actually enforced on the ground. Well trained and well equipped, the French fire brigades were in the process of professionalisation on the eve of the French Revolution.

In Northern America, Jamestown, Virginia was virtually destroyed in a fire in January, 1608. There were no full-time paid firefighters in America until 1850. Even after the formation of paid fire companies in the United States, there were disagreements and often fights over territory. New York City companies were famous for sending runners out to fires with a large barrel to cover the hydrant closest to the fire in advance of the engines.[citation needed] Often fights would break out between the runners and even the responding fire companies for the right to fight the fire and receive the insurance money that would be paid to the company that fought it.[citation needed] Interestingly, during the 1800s and early 1900s volunteer fire companies served not only as fire protection but as political machines. The most famous volunteer firefighter-cum-politician is Boss Tweed, head of the notorious Tammany Hall political machine, who got his start in politics as a member of the Americus Engine Company Number 6 ("The Big Six") in New York City.

Napoleon Bonaparte, drawing from the century-old experience of the gardes-pompes, is generally attributed as creating the first "professional" firefighters, known as Sapeurs-Pompiers ("Sappers-Firefighters"), from the French Army. Created under the Commandant of Engineers in 1810, the company was organized after a fire at the ballroom in the Austrian Embassy in Paris which injured several dignitaries.

Indian Home Guards fire fighting demonstrationIn the UK, the Great Fire of London in 1666 set in motion changes which laid the foundations for organised firefighting in the future. In the wake of the Great Fire, the City Council established the first fire insurance company , "The Fire Office", in 1667, which employed small teams of Thames watermen as firefighters and provided them with uniforms and arm badges showing the company to which they belonged.

However, the first organized municipal fire brigade in the world was established in Edinburgh, Scotland, when the Edinburgh Fire Engine Establishment was formed in 1824, led by James Braidwood. London followed in 1832 with the London Fire Engine Establishment.

On April 1, 1853, the Cincinnati, Ohio (USA) Fire Department became the first full-time paid professional fire department in the United States, and the first in the world to use steam fire engines. [1]

The first horse-drawn steam engine for fighting fires was invented in 1829, but not accepted in structural firefighting until 1860, and ignored for another two years afterwards. Internal combustion engine fire engines arrived in 1907, built in the United States, leading to the decline and disappearance of steam engines by 1925.

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