The sight of a fire engine or emergency vehicle with its sirens blazing is a powerful symbol of a community’s response to the shared risk of fire or other emergency. Fire departments are among those public institutions that have arisen from a concern for the common good.
Fire departments have a proud history as part of our communities, and it is remarkable that the heroic men and women who work there are ready to respond at a moment’s notice. Over the centuries, they’ve expanded from volunteer bucket brigades to include paid professionals providing a wide range of emergency response, fire prevention, and education services. But have you ever considered how the modern fire department came to be?
The Very First Fire Departments
Organized fire brigades date back to at least the first century B.C. in Rome, when a wealthy Roman citizen, Marcus Crassus, established a private firefighting service. His band of men, reportedly up to 500 strong, would rush through the streets of Rome at the first shouts of “fire!” — but once on the scene, they would wait before acting for Crassus to negotiate a satisfactory price with the owner of the burning structure. If no agreement could be reached, the fire would be allowed to continue even if the building was completely destroyed as a result.
The first public firefighting and police service, the Vigiles, was established under Emperor Augustus in about year 24 A.D. The Vigiles were a kind of urban military force, funded by tax revenues, that kept watch (or “vigil”) for fires throughout the night, as well as for any suspicious activity. The importance of “keeping vigil” was paramount in Rome, as firefighting equipment was primitive and fires were common — thus the best (and often only) chance of containing a fire was to spot it early.
Firefighting services took another leap forward after the Great Fire of London in 1666. In the aftermath of that fire, which virtually destroyed the city, new ordinances and laws mandated that each neighborhood have ladders and buckets available for fighting fires, and each occupant participate in hand-to-hand bucket brigades if fire broke out.
The world’s first insurance company, known simply as “The Insurance Office” or “The Fire Office,” was also created in the wake of the Great Fire to provide compensation to those affected by damage to or loss of property as the result of the flames. Rather than providing a public service via public revenue, however, the insurance company hired firefighting teams, with equipment and identifying badges, to protect the houses and other buildings which they insured. The insured buildings were identified via “fire marks” — metal plaques marked with the emblem of the insurance company — that can still be seen on buildings in London today.
The History of Fire Departments in America
Not long after the Great Fire of London, the first American fire companies were established. In Boston, the fire station was founded in 1678 — and in 1736, Benjamin Franklin had a hand in forming the first firefighting team for Philadelphia’s residents. In fact, Franklin himself was one of the volunteer firefighters in the brigade he founded.
In the decades after the establishment of the first fire services, American cities grew and industry flourished. In this period of prosperity, Cincinnati established the first professional fire department with paid firefighters in 1853, providing fire protection services throughout the city — and that arrangement remains the standard for fire protection in America’s urban centers. Smaller communities, or those with a more dispersed population, may lack sufficient tax revenues to cover the cost of fully-equipped fire stations and paid fire fighters. As a result, trained volunteer fire companies are common in smaller communities, although the fire hall and equipment may be publicly funded. Across America, the National Fire Protection Association says 69 percent of all firefighters are volunteers, and of those, 95 percent serve fire departments that protect fewer than 25,000 people. Over half volunteer in small, rural departments that serve fewer than 2,500 people. In contrast, 70 percent of paid firefighters work in departments that serve communities of more than 25,000 people.
More than a Fire Engine
The scope of fire departments has grown over time, too. Today, they generally provide a range of services. These can include:
Fire response: The classic fire hall has a crew ready to respond in moments with a pump truck to boost pressure from the water hydrant, perhaps a rescue truck with firefighting and medical equipment, and a ladder truck, which allows firefighters to reach upper floors and roofs with hoses or rescue equipment.
Alarm response and training: Fire departments often train occupants of commercial buildings on evacuations that assure everyone’s safety.
Paramedic services: Medical emergencies comprise a large proportion of 911 calls. Fire crews are often first on the scene of an emergency, and they typically have at least one emergency medical technician or paramedic on the team. They can stabilize a patient until an ambulance arrives. They can often supply additional assistance that an ambulance crew of two might not be able to provide.
Rescue: Whether it’s the storybook problem of a cat up a tree, or far more serious issues such as people trapped in a burning building or in a car after a collision, firefighters are skilled at rescue situations. Fire crews train to use specialized tools, such as jacks, pry bars and the famous “jaws of life,” a very strong jack system used to free people trapped in a crumpled metal vehicle.
Hazardous materials spills: Management and cleanup of hazardous materials resulting from vehicle collisions, spills, or transportation mishaps may fall to firefighters too. Specialized breathing gear can allow them to safely conduct operations that are unwise for others to attempt, as well as carry out procedures to contain and dispose of hazardous substances, most commonly fuels.
Public safety education: One of the most desirable goals of any fire station is emergency prevention. Outreach and awareness education remain an important role for fire departments. You have probably benefited from this training, whether at a fire drill at work, or instructions in hotels as to what to do in the event of an alarm.
Fire Protection Today: Sharing Risk and Cost
A house fire can be devastating. Home insurance can protect not just you and your property, but also your neighbors and community. If your home is mortgaged, your mortgage lender may require that you provide evidence of home insurance.
Home insurance is, at its core, a way for a group of people to ensure financial protection against an outcome that is unlikely, yet would have a destructive cost for any individual to bear should that outcome occur. By pooling resources using an insurance company, the risk and cost is shared in a way that makes it affordable, in the same way that the cost of fire stations is typically supported by shared public revenues.
The proximity of a fire station to a home can make a significant difference in mitigating damage in the unlikely event of a fire. As a result, homes located near highly-rated, permanently staffed fire departments usually cost less to insure, as do homes with a hydrant nearby. In general, urban and suburban homes usually get better ratings for fire protection than homes in rural areas. If you are considering a move or purchase of a new home, you might consider inquiring with an insurer to see whether the location of your home is a factor in policy rates.
In the meantime, the next time you pass by a fire station, take a moment to consider the centuries of effort and sacrifice upon which modern firefighting services are built. Hopefully you will never need the emergency services a firefighters provide, but you can take comfort knowing they are there when needed.