Building the La Ribera Volunteer Fire Department presents The History of Firefighting. Firefighting is explored from its beginnings as an ancient Roman gambit to the fire-rescue heroes of modern-day. Lots of fun facts in this timeline.

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History of Firefighting Extra Info

History of Fire Fighting

~300 BC – Ctesibius of Alexandria invents the first water pump for fighting fires.

~100 BC Hero of Alexandria improves upon Ctesibius’ water pump designs.

~100 BC – ~50 BC – Marcus Licinius Crassus creates the first “Fire Brigade” in Rome. However, this serves as a scheme for him to take advantage of property owners. His 500-man brigade would only put out fires if the owner agreed to sell the property to Crassus at ridiculously low rates.

~ 60 AD – Emperor Nero takes Crassus’ idea and forms the Vigiles to combat fires without extortion. Hundreds strong they used bucket brigades, pumps, poles, hooks, and ballistae to combat fires and prevent them from spreading even if it meant tearing down parts of buildings.

1254 – King Saint Louis of France created the guet bourgeois a citizen night watch to combat fires and crime.

1631 – The first fire regulations in America were established.

1637 – The English firm Ryley and Mabb created the first fire insurance pool.

1648 – New Amsterdam Governor Peter Stuyvesant appointed 4 men as fire wardens. These men, and others patrolled the streets at night carrying wooden rattles to warn citizens of fire and to form bucket brigades.

1658 – Dutch shoemakers craft 250 leather buckets to be used by the firefighters’ bucket brigade in New Amsterdam. 

~1666 – In the wake of the Great Fire of London insurance companies form private brigades to protect insured properties.

1667 – The London City Council established the first fire insurance company, “The Fire Office.” This insurance company employed Thames watermen as firefighters who had uniforms and badges.

1672 – Jan Van der Heyden, a Dutch artist, and inventor, created the first fire hose from leather and brass with fittings at 50-foot intervals. This remains the standard length for firehoses in mainland Europe.

1699 – François du Mouriez du Périer convinced King Louis XIV to allow him to have a monopoly on making and selling fire pumps in France.  

1678 – The first fire engine company in Colonial America went into service, captained by Thomas Atkins. These men become the first paid-per-call firefighters in America.  

1690-1691 – John Lofting, a Dutch inventor, who had worked with der Heyden created the first fire engine calling it the “Sucking Worm Engine”. It required a small team of men to operate.

1716 – François du Mouriez du Périer gave 12 pumps, of der Heyden’s design, to Paris, forming the Compagnie des gares-pompes, or literally the “Company of Pump Guards. Creating the French word for firefighter, Pompier, or literally “pumper”.

1718 – Boston organizes the “Boston Fire Society”. This becomes the first mutual aid organization in the US with members organizing to protect their properties from fire and crime.

1721 – Richard Newsham patented and produced an improved engine that could be pulled by a cart to the fire and needed a team of 4 to 12 men to operate. It delivered up to 160 gallons of water per minute at distances of up to 120 feet. Newsham’s company operated under various names into the 1770s.

1725 – Richard Newsham invents the 10-man, pump-action fire engine. This and similar designs dominate firefighting engine design for several decades.

1731 – New York first fire brigades are formed, with Engine Company 1 and 2 using Newsham’s fire engine designs.

1736 Benjamin Franklin established the Union Fire Company in Philadelphia. His model would be the basis for volunteer fire companies in every colony.

1737 – The New York Colony General Assembly created the 30-man Volunteer Fire Department of New York. A predecessor to the NYFD.

1743 – Thomas Lote, working in New York as a boat builder and inventor created the first American designed fire engine, called, “Old Brass Backs.”

1750 – French fire brigades become para-military units.

1752 – Benjamin Franklin emulates the European model and establishes the Philadelphia Contributionship. They issue “fire marks” that mark insured buildings for the paid firefighters to see when responding to a fire.

1752 – The Relief Fire Company No. 1 is formed and currently stands as the nation’s oldest serving volunteer fire company. Created in Mount Holly, NJ, it was initially called Brittania.  

1756 – King Louis XV recommended helmets for firefighters but it would take many years before this would go into common practice.

1792 – Hadley, Simpkin & Lott co. improved upon the hand-pumped fire engine with more size and the ability for it to be drawn by fire horses.

~1800’s – New York City fire companies attempt to sabotage each other by covering hydrants with barrels and other tricks to compete for the right to fight fires and be paid out by insurance companies for their work. This eventually morphed them into political machines with Boss Tweed and his Engine Company Number 6 is among the most famous examples.

1801 – The first post-type fire hydrant is believed to be designed in Philadelphia by chief waterworks engineer Frederick Graff.

1803 – The Philadelphia Hose Company was established to man the nation’s first hose-wagon fire engine.

1810 – Napoleon Bonaparte forms the first professional firefighters known as the Sapeurs-Pompiers or Sappers-Firefighters. These firefighters were organized under the French army, commanded by the Commandant of Engineers.    

1818 – Molly Williams becomes the first known female firefighter. She served with the New York Oceanus Company No. 11 and was famed for hauling on drag ropes to pull a pumper to a fire in deep snow during a massive blizzard.

1824 – The first organized municipal fire brigade in the world was created in Edinburgh, Scotland and was led by James Braidwood. The founding of the brigade would also establish what would be expected for a formal and effective fire department.

1829 – The first horse-drawn steam-powered fire engine was invented but took another 3 decades for this innovation to catch on.

1832 – London establishes its own fire brigade called the London Fire Engine Establishment.

1841 – The first self-propelled steam fire engine is built in New York but is soon take out of service after it was sabotaged by jealous firefighters from another company. 

1850 – The first full-time paid firefighter is hired in America.

1852 – William Channing, a Boston based doctor creates the first alarm system that uses a telegraph signal to send a fire alarm.

1853 – Cincinnati, Ohio creates the first professional fire department with all full-time employees. It would also be the first to truly use steam-powered, horse-drawn, fire engines. The “Uncle Joe Ross” fire engines, had a range of 240 feet and could power up to six streams of water.

1865 – New York’s volunteer fire department is disbanded in favor of the paid, full-time Metropolitan Fire Department.

1868 – Daniel Hayes, a San Francisco firefighter, invents an extension ladder that can attach to a ladder truck. This ladder uses a spring-assisted mechanism that could help raise it so it could be used to save people trapped in higher stories.

1873 John S. Damrell established the National Association of Fire Engineers. Later the name would be changed to the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC).

1873 – The Boston Fire Department launched the first fire-boat, the William F. Flanders.

1896 – The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) was established.   

~Late 1800’s – Full-time firefighters with standardized equipment become the norm for firefighters in metropolitan areas and standardized equipment with volunteer firefighters becomes the norm in more rural communities.

1905 – The first self-propelled, internal combustion, fire engine was introduced. Manufactured by Knox Automobile, in Springfield, MA.

1906 – The Wayne, PA fire department becomes the first fire department to use modern, gasoline-powered, fire engines.

1910 – The First fire engine that uses the same engine to drive both the truck itself and the water pump is invented.

1916 – Garrett Morgan and a team of volunteers use Morgan’s gas mask design to successfully rescue 32 salt miners from a gas-filled tunnel located, 250 feet under Lake Erie. This prompts fire departments around the US to order the self-contained breathing apparatus.

1818 – The International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) forms to become the union career firefighters. 

1925 – By this point, gasoline-powered fire engines have replaced almost all steam-powered engines.

1973 – The report by the National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control (NCFPC), America Burning, proves to be a landmark report. Making various recommendations to better control and prevent fires.

1974 – The US Fire Administration and its National Fire Academy are founded by the enacting of the National Fire Prevention and Control Act.

1976 – The National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC), a nonprofit organization, is founded to give a unified voice for volunteer fire fighters around the country.

1987 – The NCFPC releases America Burning Revisited and hosts a three-day workshop that reports on the progress, or lack thereof, in implementing the recommendations of more than a decade previously.

1987 – Congressman Curt Weldon, a former volunteer firefighter, creates the lobbying group, the Congressional Fire Services Caucus to support legislation to support all emergency personnel.

2000 – America at Risk is released and concludes that “America today has the highest fire losses in terms of both frequency and total losses of any modern technological society.”  

2019 – Today’s fire departments are a mix of full time, paid-on-call, and volunteer responders. Volunteer and paid-on-call firefighters are more common in smaller communities, with full-time firefighters being the norm in metropolitan areas.    

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