How Did Firefighting Develop?
Firefighting began to be a focus only on the rise of huge cities such as Rome. Earlier cities, such as those in Mesopotamia or the Indus, likely developed ad hoc firefighting departments and respondent to events. As with other institutions, however, the history of firefighting is complicated and influenced by the major technical and social change that occurred in different centuries.
Early fighting developed in the early urban societies of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Indus. However, these were not dedicated fire departments but rather as a volunteer or paid individuals who would be responsible for assembling a crew and extinguishing a fire in the city. Few archaeological remains have attested to such firefighters, but laws, such as those from Hammurabi's law code, indicate they existed.
There was a law that stated that a firefighter who stole from a burning house that he was responsible for would be punished by death by being thrown into the fire. The law makes it clear though that it is a volunteer that the law applies to. This does not mean there were no paid firefighters, but it could mean volunteers may have volunteered because fires gave an opportunity for theft.
We don't know the equipment used by the earliest firefighters, but likely it consisted of buckets, wells to extract water, and perhaps carts to move water to where the fire was located. The first documented fire pump dates to the 2nd century BCE, where a pump invented by Ctesibius of Alexandria may have been used in putting out fires in the city of Alexandria.
In the Roman period, the city of Rome rapidly expanded and began to have problems with large fires. Initially, fires may have been only extinguished in places where homeowners or property owners could pay the price. Negotiation of the price may have occurred while the fire was burning, potentially putting owners in a vulnerable position to being extorted, although evidence for this is not entirely certain.
The first dedicated city-based fire department was developed, perhaps ironically, by emperor Nero, who was blamed for the great fire of Rome. The firefighting capabilities consisted of men assigned as Vigiles, who also served as Rome's police force, that had access to buckets, pumps, and even equipment to tear down buildings to help break and stop a fire from spreading. The firefighting force patrolled the streets of Rome, and the fact they were responsible for policing and firefighting indicates that the Vigiles were essentially a protection force.
China, Parthian, and Sasanians likely developed similar types of dedicated groups who would be responsible for responding to events such as a fire in the city. Similar to the Roman Vigiles, they may have patrolled the streets as watchmen and simply responded to fire events.
Medieval History and Early Modern History
Technical and social changes for much of the Medieval period were limited about firefighting. This meant that the concept of using watchmen who would respond and call other volunteers to then respond to the fire largely persisted in the towns and cities of Europe and other regions. Pumps and wagons were sometimes used, but technically these were not much different from ancient periods. Neighborhoods or districts locally administered most of these watches in cities.
However, in the 16th century, with the increasing population of cities such as Paris, we begin to see more centralized watchmen who were responsible to the king and central authorities directly.
The Great London Fire of 1666 (Figure 1) began to change how a fire was perceived. Insurance companies soon began to cover and insure buildings, which gave them an interest in protecting those buildings. These insurance companies in London began to organize their fire brigades, although these firefighters were mostly interested in protecting buildings they insured. Buildings began to post public markers that indicated which buildings were insured by given companies.
However, this system was chaotic, and buildings would only be saved by specific insurance companies, leaving others to burn. The insurance companies also realized that it was in their interest to put out fires in buildings they did not insure, as that could then help to save buildings they did insure. With London's population multiplying in the 18th and early 19th centuries, fires became a major problem for the city as they threatened the destruction of the large city. By around 1700, new pumps were developed in France that did help firefighting across urban places such as Paris (Figure 2).
Napoleon may have been the first ruler to develop a public fire brigade that was funded by the state. The first professional firefighters appeared to have been former military personnel, and they served as the first full-time employees in firefighting. The city of Cincinnati, Ohio in 1853 was the first city in the United Stated to developed the first public-funded fire department. In the United States, similar to Britain and other European countries, firefighting was largely privatized and controlled by insurance companies. The London Fire Engine was established in 1833, reflecting the need to centralize firefighting across an increasingly expanding city.
However, this was nothing more than a fire department for insurance companies that were only minimally financed by the insurers, where 13 stations serviced the entire city of London. It took "The 1865 the Metropolitan Fire Brigade Act" to finally create a formal fire department in the city that was funded with public money, creating the first public fire department for the city.
By the 1920s and 1930s, equipment for firefighting began to become more standardized in countries. Firefighting had developed into a full profession with many cities by now developing their fire departments. In addition to the greater central organization either run by cities, municipalities, or even higher levels of government, fire departments mostly changed in the 20th century as a large number of technologies developed.
In the 19th century, water was still brought largely by horse, sometimes by train or boat, to fires. Pump technologies improved in the 19th century, including suction engines, but the delivery of water was still not well developed. Only by the early 20th century did motorized vehicles begin carrying the primary firefighting equipment, leading to the fire engine with the Know Automobile Company often being credited with creating the first modern engine. The innovation of airplanes led to shortly after the use of aircraft to scout and in some cases directly aid in firefighting.
For fire engines, the aerial platform developed by the time of World War II, which shaped firetrucks to their modern design, helping them reach tall buildings with their extended hoses. Throughout the post-World War II era, there were improvements in firefighting equipment, including in masks and use of fire retardant that enabled firefighting to be improved.
Firefighting has had major developments in the last century. Initially, population pressure forced cities in ancient cities to become more organized in their efforts to respond to larger fires. In the period after the Great London Fire, insurance companies mostly developed their own or help instigate the need for firefighting groups.
However, by the early 19th century, there was a clear need to coordinate activities between an often fragmented system of fighting fires and to provide clear funding from the government so that those without insurance for their buildings could also benefit as well as insured properties. Napoleon likely developed the first professional firefighters with this idea spreading to the United States and Great Britain in the early 19th centuries. Technologies began to change rapidly and by the 20th century, at the time of World War II, fire engines similar to today began to develop.
- For more on early laws concerning firefighters, see: VerSteeg, R. (2000). Early Mesopotamian law. Durham, N.C: Carolina Academic Press, pg. 114.
- For information about this first fire pump, see: Day, L., & McNeil, I. (Eds.). (1998). Biographical dictionary of the history of technology (1. publ. in paperback). London: Routledge, pg. 588.
- For more on Nero and his firefighting organization, see: Alston, R. (2014). Aspects of Roman history, 31 BC-AD 117 (Second edition). London ; New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.
- As an example of these states' firefighting, see: Sarker, K.R. 2003. Public Finance in Ancient India. First edition Edition. Abhinav Publications, India
- For more on watchmen, see: Johnston, R. A. (2011). All things medieval: an encyclopedia of the medieval world. Santa Barbara, Calif: Greenwood, pg. 449.
- For more on the Great London Fire and development of firefighting in the 17th and 18th centuries, see: Gogerly, L., & Harley, D. (2003). The Great Fire of London. London: Hodder Wayland.
- For more on firefighting in the 19th century, see: Green-Hughes, E. (1979). A history of firefighting. Ashbourne [Eng.]: Moorland Pub.
- For more on modern fire departments and equipment, see: Wallington, N. (2008). One hundred years of the British fire engine. Huddersfield: Jeremy Mills Pub.
Updated December 14, 2018.