Fire service: It’s steeped in history

By: Keith Burson Battalion chief, South Placer Fire District
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The history of organized firefighting dates back at least to ancient Egypt where hand-operated pumps may have been employed to extinguish fires. However, such attempts could be of limited value given the large structural conflagrations that could sweep through Rome and other cities. The Roman fire brigade, Vigiles, was formed in AD 6 by Augustus to combat fires using bucket brigades and pumps, as well as poles and hooks to tear down buildings in advance of the flames. It is generally thought that this is where the “hook” in “hook and ladder company” comes from. The Vigiles patrolled the streets of Rome to watch for fires and served as the police force. Another great city that experienced such a need for organized fire control was London, which suffered great fires in 798, 982 and 989. Little is known about the development of firefighting in Europe until after the Great Fire of London in 1666. It started in a baker’s shop on Pudding Lane, consumed about two square miles of the city, leaving tens of thousands homeless. Prior to this fire, London had no organized fire protection system. Afterward, insurance companies formed private fire brigades to protect their clients’ property. Insurance brigades would only fight fires at buildings the company insured. These buildings were identified by a badge or sign. Still, it was not until 1672 that the Dutch inventor Jan Van der Heiden invented the fire hose. Constructed of flexible leather and coupled every 50 feet with brass fittings, the length and connections remain the standard to this day. Meanwhile in America, Jamestown, Va. had been virtually destroyed in a fire in January 1608. Fire wardens were appointed in New Amsterdam in 1648. Wardens were to patrol the cities to inspect chimneys. Rattle Watches were performed at night by eight appointees, who were to rouse citizens to fight fires by bucket brigade if necessary. The fire engine was developed by Richard Newsham of London in 1725. Pulled as a cart, these manual pumps were manned by teams of men and could deliver up to 160 gallons per minute at up to 120 feet. Benjamin Franklin created the Union Fire Company in 1736 in Philadelphia, the first volunteer fire company in America. There were no full-time paid firefighters in America until 1850. The first horse-drawn steam engine for fighting fires was invented in 1829, but not accepted in structural firefighting until 1860, and ignored for another two years after that time. Internal combustion engine fire engines arrived in 1907, built in the United States, leading to the decline and disappearance of steam engines by 1925. Today, fire and rescue remains a patchwork of paid and volunteer responders. Typically, fire services in rural areas consist of volunteers while full-time organizations dominate cities and urban areas, but our goal remains the same, the preservation of life and property. – Keith Burson is a 32-year veteran of the South Placer Fire District and is currently assigned as the “C” Shift battalion chief. Burson resides in Granite Bay with his wife and three children.