Firefighting as we know it in 2022, has obviously changed from the first attempts at firefighting and will continue to evolve with technology updates that are so advanced, early firefighters couldn’t have fathomed them. The earliest evidence of controlled fire dates back to 1.7 to 2.0 million years ago.  Since then mankind has enjoyed the benefits of fire for cooking and warmth as well as suffered the consequences of fire when it rages out of control.

Historical Overview:

2022 marks the 2016th anniversary of firefighting as it is known today.  Under the rule of Caesar Augustus in 3 or 6 A.D.(depending on the sources), fire fighting consisted of an organized fire brigade comprised of ex-slaves who were trained in fire fighting and also served as night watchmen over the city.  There are many interesting sidelines to these early firefighters.  The fire brigade became known as the Vigiles and grew to 7,190 members.

Those early firefighters were under the authority of Marcus Licinius Crassus when he created a brigade of 500 firefighters who were trained to rush to burning buildings at the first sign of smoke. However Crassus would not let the brigade extinguish the fire until he was satisfied with his bargaining efforts over the price of their service.  If he was not able to negotiate a satisfactory price, the fire was allowed to burn the structure(s) to the ground as the firefighters stood by and watched.

By 60 AD, Emperor Nero had the Vigiles combating fires with water buckets and pumps.  In their “down” time from fighting fires, they served as a police force on the streets of Rome. In 43 A.D. the Romans invaded Britain, seeking to make their empire as big and powerful as possible.  Fire fighting continued with the Vigiles until the Romans left Britain.  Once Britain was no longer occupied with the Roman’s presence, firefighting went backward and during the middle ages whole towns burned to the ground.

The great fire of London in 1666 changed the response and helped to standardize firefighting.  This fire, starting in an area called Pudding Lane reached temperatures of a reported 1700 degrees Celsius/3092 degrees Fahrenheit. The official death toll was recorded as only six verified and recorded deaths; experts believe that many deaths of the poor and middle-class were not recorded.  In addition, the heat from the fire left cremated victims with no recognizable remains. After the Great Fire, small teams were created by insurance companies.  Similar teams were created to protect property until the early 1800s.  The challenge with insurance-provided-firefighting was that each company had its own mark or badge placed on the building.  Firefighters could only put out fires with the badges corresponding with their company.

In the United States, firefighting took off in the 1600s.  After the Boston fires of 1653 and 1676, greater measures were taken to combat fires.  The fire engine was developed in 1725 consisting of a cart with manual pumps, delivering up to 160 gallons per minute. During the blizzard of 1818 the first known female firefighter, Molly Williams, took her place with the men in the brigade to pull the fire water pump to a fire through deep snow.   The blizzard lasted for four days and dropped up to 58 inches of snow on the East Coast. With drifts recorded to 30 – 40 feet high, this was a significant feat for Williams.  From there the first fire fighting steam engine (horse-drawn) was invented in 1829, but not accepted and put in use until 1860 (who says public safety is stubborn!?).  By 1907 the combustion engine fires arrived and steam engines disappeared by 1925.

Transforming Technology

97 years have passed and today Villages, Towns, Cities, Townships, and Counties have the benefits of: motorized fire engines, pumpers, ladder trucks, rescue trucks, hazardous materials units, and a variety of fire fighting equipment to assist in life saving efforts for fires, accidents, and disasters of all sorts.  Our forefathers could not have imagined the tools we would be able to use in fire fighting today.  We have technology breaking through that allows for:

  • The ability to record the fire in realtime and stream that video to 9-1-1, who can then stream it to responding fire units to provide the firefighters an early look at the scene, helping them to start planning their fire attack before they arrive.
  • Drones used to deliver aerial imagery over fires, seeing areas of the fire that are not accessible.
  • Advanced biotelemetry, to deliver individual firefighters heart rate and specific activity levels for the Incident Commander to monitor for safety in dangerous environments.
  • Artificial Intelligence (AI) will provide real-time traffic analytics for closest dispatch and through computer vision, can warn interior crews of pending flash-over and backdraft environments.
  • Input devices, also known as robots, can assist responders on effective strategies without risking their lives by going into areas that are unsafe and providing the feedback to the responders.
The future:

It’s hard to predict everything that will be available in the future. In 1973 the first mobile phone was created and very few, if anyone, would have predicted the growth over the next 30 years.  Although much of the future is unknown, there are a few advances on the identified  horizon.

  • Autonomous Vehicles – will transport first responders in programmable vehicles on the ground and in the air, to reduce human-error caused collisions.
  • Situational awareness systems through the Internet of Things (IoT), providing lifesaving advantages for responders and potential victims by utilizing various sets of data and multi-sensor fusion.
  • SMART Cities – through the advent of FirstNet and 5G cellular technology (by the way, the “G” stands for Generation), target safety maps will be able to interface with responder’s phones, tables, facepieces and augmented reality – said to be similar to Ironman stylized safety systems.
  • Firefighters in the US are projected to grow about 8% between 2020 and 2030. Over the decade, there is an anticipated 27,000 openings per year expected.

Firefighting is an honorable profession.  The men and women who call this their career have been trained to run toward the fire, run toward the accidents, suit up; and run into hazardous chemical situations, just to name a few of their regular duties.  Some fire agencies across the country are still responding to the cat-in-a-tree call (contrary to many beliefs, after being up in a tree for 24 hours, a cat’s health has deteriorated and they struggle to get down.  While cats can survive in a tree for over a week, their recovery is difficult at that point). Securing funding and retention is one of the most critical issues facing fire services today.  Firefighters face serious job risks such as heat exhaustion, burns, chemical exposure (cancer rates are higher in firefighters than other first responders) and the physical and mental stress that comes from their job.

Although there is often good-hearted joking between fire firefighters and law enforcement, such as asking the fire fighters if they are going to get out of their lazy boy chair during their shift other than to cook a big meal in their stocked kitchen.  With the firefighters’ retort of: “they hope the officers don’t take too long responding to their calls while they eat their circular energy food…” the joking does not hide the true respect that firefighters have among first responders and the public.  They see more trauma than the public can imagine, and they experience challenges many people would be unable to get through.

Fire Prevention Month is in October each year.  Take a moment to see what your local fire department is doing for the public during the month and stop by to say thank you.  Oh, and make sure you change your smoke detector batteries!

Cherie Bartram has served in public safety for over 40 years, including time spent volunteering with a local fire department as a firefighter.

References for this article obtained from:

Firefighter Foundation
Windsor Fire & Rescue Services
3M Science
Industrial Fire World
Insights by Samsung