History of the Fire Service
This picture published in 1808 shows firefighters tackling a fire in London using hand-pumped engines.
The history of organized firefighting dates back at least to Ancient Egypt, where hand-operated pumps may have been employed to extinguish fires.
The first Roman fire brigade was a group of slaves who were hired by an aedile Marcus Egnatius Rufus.
Augustus took this idea from Rufus and then built on it to form the (Vigiles) in AD 6 to combat fires using bucket brigades and pumps, as well as poles, hooks and even ballistae to tear down buildings in advance of the flames. The Vigiles patrolled the streets of Rome to watch for fires and served as the police force.
In Europe, firefighting was quite rudimentary until the 17th century. In 1254, a royal decree of King Saint Louis of France created the so-called guet bourgeois (“burgess watch”), allowing the residents of Paris to establish their own night watches, separate from the king’s night watches, to prevent and stop crimes and fires.
After the Hundred Years’ War, the population of Paris expanded again, and the city, much larger than any other city in Europe at the time, was the scene of several great fires in the 16th century. As a consequence, King Charles IX disbanded the residents’ night watches and left the king’s watches as the only one responsible for checking crimes and fires.
Another great city that experienced such a need for organized fire control was London, which suffered great fires in 798, 982, 989, and above all in 1666 (Great Fire of London). The Great Fire of 1666 started in a baker’s shop on Pudding Lane, consumed about two square miles (5 km²) of the city, leaving tens of thousands homeless.
Prior to this fire, London had no organized fire protection system. Afterwards, 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.
Historic firefighting tools.
The key breakthrough in firefighting arrived in the 17th century with the first fire engines. Manual pumps, rediscovered in Europe after 1500 (allegedly used in Augsburg in 1518 and in Nuremberg in 1657), were only force pumps and had a very short range due to the lack of hoses. German inventor Hans Hautsh improved the manual pump by creating the first suction and force pump and adding some flexible hoses to the pump.
In 1672, Dutch inventor Jan Van der Heyden invented the firehose. Constructed of flexible leather and coupled every 50 feet (15 m) with brass fittings, the length and connections remain the standard to this day. The fire engine was further developed by Richard Newsham of London in 1725. Pulled as a cart to the fire, these manual pumps were manned by teams of men and could deliver up to 160 gallons per minute (12 L/s) at up to 120 feet (40 m).