“Ignis! Ignis! Erecti! Terror! Ignis! Ignis!” Cries rang through the night as watchmen raised the alarm. The genesis of firefighting can be traced at least as far back as 24 BC when the Roman emperor Augustus implemented a system of regulations dealing with checking and preventing fires. There are some indications that pumps were used in firefighting even further back to the third century BC in Ancient Egypt,
Rome had a long and varied history of firefighting. The first fire-brigade was created by Marcus Licinius Crassus. He had a troop of five hundred men who would rush to a fire at the first alarm. However, after arriving at the scene, The men would stand by until Crassus negotiated a fee with the owner. If he couldn’t reach a satisfactory price, they would simply let the building burn down.
Some credit this perfidy as the reason that Augustus began his regulated system.
In 60 AD, Emperor Nero developed a corp of vigiles (watchmen) who patrolled the streets with water buckets watching for fires and acting as a type of police force as well. These may have been the original vigilantes.
The key piece of equipment for the Roman fire-fighters—and, indeed, all fire brigades into early modern times—was a bucket. Small, cheap, and portable, this was an ideal way to fight fires, and lines of men would form from a source of water to the fire itself. Buckets were passed from hand to hand up the line to where the water would be thrown on the fire, and then passed back to be refilled.
Other early fire equipment included an ax, which was used to open holes to relieve heat or starve the flames to help strangle the fire or clear trees for firebreaks. For taller buildings, hooks attached to ropes could be thrown into upper stories to pull down walls—sometimes destroying buildings to create firebreaks as well.
As the Roman Empire spread outward, firefighting spread as well. The British Isles show evidence that there were organized firefighters in the early days of the first century AD. The bucket brigades had followed the invaders. And left as well. As the organization of the Romans faded, so did the firefighting capabilities of the Britons.
In the Middle Ages, many buildings simply burned to the ground. Whole towns were destroyed by the lack of fire brigades. The fact that most buildings were of wood didn’t help matters. Some communities eventually organized basic firefighting units, but they were unregulated and followed no standard forms. It wasn’t until the Great Fire of London in 1666 that things began to standardize once more. This fire, which burned a significant section of the city, led to the first fire insurance company, “The Fire Office,” being formed by Nicholas Barbon in 1667. Others soon followed. These insurance companies would arrive at the scene of a fire, and if they had the right badge for their company, they would put out the fire. Otherwise, the building would be left to burn until the correct company arrived. Later, many of these companies merged into larger, more useful coverage areas.
The French created the first fire brigades in the modern sense in the 1700’s. These were declared free services in 1733 to prevent people waiting as long as they could to avoid paying their fees and exacerbating the damage. Napoleon Bonaparte is usually credited with creating the first “professional” firefighters drawn from the French army.
America had firefighting before it was a country—instituting laws banning wooden chimneys and thatched roofs in Boston in the 1630’s; appointing fire wardens in New Amsterdam in the 1640’s; and, in January of 1578 putting into service the first fire engine company. In 1736, Benjamin Franklin established the Union Fire Company in Philadelphia. Private companies continued to provide the fire-fighting services until the 1860’s when the first government-run companies were formed, with the first full-time paid professional firefighters organizing in 1850. Of note is the fact that the infamous Boss Tweed who was such a figure of legend in New York politics as the head of Tammany Hall got his start at a fire-fighter. As the country grew and spread west, fire-fighting became more organized and regulated, but even today, a majority of firemen are volunteers willing to risk life and limb to help their fellow citizens.
Rie Sheridan Rose multitasks. A lot. Her short stories appear in numerous anthologies, including Nightmare Stalkers and Dream Walkers Vols. 1 and 2, and Killing It Softly. She has authored nine novels, six poetry chapbooks, and lyrics for dozens of songs. Check out her tweets here.