Mar 06, 2003

Firefighting in America

Some of the Pioneers

The picture of a burning building or house usually brings to
mind teams of brave men working in unison to put it out. However, fire departments
are a relatively recent development. The first paid fire department was created
in Cincinnati in 1853 (also the first year of WEM).

The history of organized fire service in the United States
began in New Amsterdam (later New York) in 1648 when Director-General Peter
Stuyvesant appointed four fire wardens. They were empowered to inspect all
chimneys and could level fines on violators.

The city later appointed eight prominent citizens to the
"rattle watch." These men volunteered to patrol the streets at night
carrying large wooden rattles. If a fire was seen, the men spun the rattles,
then directed the citizens that responded into bucket brigades. This is
generally recognized as the first step in organized firefighting in America.
Even earlier, Boston took the first steps in fire prevention when Governor John
Winthrop outlawed thatched roofs and wooden chimneys in 1631.

After a series of fatal, destructive fires, Boston imported
from England the first fire engine. (It actually was a pumper.) It arrived in a
3' long, 18" wide wooden box and consisted of a direct force pump that fed
a small hose and had carrying handles. The tub-like section of the engine was
kept filled with water by a bucket brigade.

The need to coordinate a pumper team brought about the
establishment of the first engine company in colonial America. Twelve men and a
captain were hired by the General Court to take care of and manage the engine.
The men were paid for their work. The captain, carpenter Thomas Atkins was the
first firefighting officer in the country.

A firefighting innovation to grow out of the Boston fire of
1711 was Mutual Fire Societies. Concerned Bostonians, anxious to protect their
goods and property, banded together in groups of 20 or more with the pledge
that should fire strike one of them, all would come to aid. Not only would they
help the town firefighters in putting out the fire, they also would salvage as
many belongings as possible and guard them from looters.

Seeing the destruction of fire growing up in Boston,
Benjamin Franklin became a fire safety advocate when he lived in Philadelphia.
He often wrote about the dangers of fire and the need for organized protection
in his newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette.


After an extensive fire in Philadelphia in 1736, Franklin
decided to form a fire brigade that would not only respond to burning property
of its members but also to any calls in their vicinity. When he called for
volunteers, thirty prominent citizens joined, and America's first volunteer
company (the Union Fire Company) was started.

Franklin's idea was so popular that more and more people
volunteered. Not wanting more than 30-40 people per company, additional
companies were formed. Some of these companies were The Fellowship, Friendship,
Hand-in-Hand and Heart-in-Hand. Each of the companies paid for their own
equipment and located it at strategic places. Because of the costs involved,
most early companies had professionals, wealthier merchants and tradespeople
serve in the volunteer departments. Some famous Americans who served as
volunteer firefighters include George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Samuel
Adams, John Hancock, Paul Revere, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and Benedict

In 1743, Thomas Lote a cooper and boatbuilder from New York
developed the first engine to be built in America. Like the British-made
Newsham, it could send continual streams of water with great force. New York
ordered the machine and because of its gleaming copper fittings it earned the
nickname "Old Brass Backs."


By the early 1800s, a system of hollowed-out logs or trunks
carried water from the Schuykill River through the streets of Philadelphia.
Fireplugs were placed at strategic spots to help firefighters easily access the
water. The first "post-type" hydrant is credited to Frederick Graff,
the chief engineer of the Philadelphia Water Works around the year 1801. New
York's first hydrant was installed in 1808 and was made from wood.

By 1817 the first iron hydrants were being manufactured and
were replacing the wood types. Most of the hydrants on the East Coast were
known as dry barrel, meaning that the water to the portion above ground had to
be turned on by a valve located below the surface. The depth of these valves depended
on the climate.

In the 1850s, Morris Greenburg came up with the innovative
"wet barrel" design for the municipality of San Francisco. This
design was faster and easier to operate as well as allowed independent control
of multiple hydrant outlets. Within a few years several California foundries
were producing their own wet barrel hydrants.

In 1964 the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD)
designed what is still considered the premier wet barrel hydrant. It had an
improved hydraulic design, was more resistive to vehicle damage and used O-ring
seals for the valve stems that reduced seepage and maintenance. However,
although materials have improved and some elements have been refined, the basic
form of hydrants has remained relatively unchanged since the 1880s.

Fire Hose

In the early days, fire hose was made of leather and sewn
together like a bootleg in 50-foot lengths. James Sellars and Abraham Pennock
from Philadelphia's Hose Company 1, experimented by using metal rivets instead
of stitching in the hose in 1807. The introduction of rivets allowed higher
pressures and greater delivery of water. It also prompted the further
development of suction so water could be delivered directly to the pumper
through a hose, thus eliminating the need for buckets.

The next improvement came in 1821 when James Boyd received a
patent for rubber-lined, cotton-webbed fire hose. With the discovery of
vulcanization by Charles Goodyear, B.F. Goodrich developed rubber hose
reinforced with cotton ply. The Cincinnati Fire Department used this improved
hose in 1871.

Since more manufacturers entered the marketplace producing
their own sizes and couplings, the first convention for the International
Association of Fire Engineers adopted the standard size of 7102 threads to the inch
in 1873. Five years later, the American Hose Manufacturing Company, Chelsea,
Mass., marketed their new product as the "first seamless cotton fire hose
produced for steam engines." Other companies also improved hose, and in a
short time the hose could handle 350 psi.

Fire Alarms

For centuries firefighting had depended on a system of bell
ringing to announce a fire and tell firefighters where it was located. Samuel
F.B. Morse's invention of the telegraph in the early 1840s helped give
firefighting a much faster and accurate alarm system.

Boston doctor William F. Channing, who also was a fire buff,
designed a system of metal alarm boxes that when pulled would immediately
transmit the location to a central office. From there, the location would be
tapped out to firehouses and the closest one could respond. By 1852, Boston had
fire boxes located all over the city. Other cities were quick to follow.

The advent of telephones and two-way radios has made most
fire boxes extinct. Most modern fire departments are now equipped with
computer-aided dispatch systems that can track the status of all units and
provide vital information about the buildings where fires occur.


Today's fire departments coordinate some activities with
local water departments. These practices include hydrant flushing as well as
repair and taking pipes out of service. While water takes an invisible backseat
to the heroes of firefighting, they go hand-in-hand.

About the author

Bill Swichtenberg is Editorial Director of WEM.