History of the Fire Service
This picture published in 1808 shows firefighters tackling a fire in London using hand-pumped engines.
In 1631 Boston’s governor John Winthrop outlawed wooden chimneys and thatched roofs. In 1648, the New Amsterdam governor Peter Stuyvesant appointed four men to act as fire wardens. They were empowered to inspect all chimneys and to fine any violators of the rules. The city burghers later appointed eight prominent citizens to the “Rattle Watch” – these men volunteered to patrol the streets at night carrying large wooden rattles. If a fire was seen, the men spun the rattles, then directed the responding citizens to form bucket brigades. On January 27, 1678 the first fire engine company went into service with its captain (foreman) Thomas Atkins. In 1736 Benjamin Franklin established the Union Fire Company in Philadelphia.
George Washington was a volunteer firefighter in Alexandria, Virginia.
In 1774, as a member of the Friendship Veterans Fire Engine Company, he bought a new fire engine and gave it to the town, which was its very first. However the United States did not have professional firefighters in the sense of government-run fire departments until around the time of the American Civil War.
Prior to this time, amateur fire brigades would compete with one another to be the first to respond to a fire because insurance companies paid brigades to save buildings. Underwriters also employed their own Salvage Corps in some cities. The first known female firefighter Molly Williams took her place with the men on the dragropes during the blizzard of 1818 and pulled the pumper to the fire through the deep snow.
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Fire houses were a sort of social gathering place rather than a place where professionals would meet, and the money paid to the brigade went into the house’s fund rather than to individual members. It was not all that uncommon to see someone “squatting” on a fire hydrant by placing a barrel over it so other fire brigades could not use it. However, paid professional firefighting services were eventually established.
The first fire brigades in the modern sense were created in France in the early 18th century. In 1699, a man with bold commercial ideas, François du Mouriez du Périer (grandfather of French Revolution’s general Charles François Dumouriez), solicited an audience with King Louis XIV. Greatly interested in Jan Van der Heiden’s invention, he successfully demonstrated the new pumps and managed to convince the king to grant him the monopoly of making and selling “fire-preventing portable pumps” throughout the kingdom of France.
A 1951 Dennis P12 fire appliance belonging to the Wiltshire Fire Brigade.
François du Mouriez du Périer offered 12 pumps to the City of Paris, and the first Paris Fire Brigade, known as the Compagnie des gardes-pompes (literally the “Company of Pump Guards”), was created in 1716.
François du Mouriez du Périer was appointed directeur des pompes de la Ville de Paris (“director of the City of Paris’s pumps”), i.e. chief of the Paris Fire Brigade, and the position stayed in his family until 1760.
In the following years, other fire brigades were created in the large French cities. It is around that time that appeared the current French word pompier (“firefighter”), whose literal meaning is “pumper”. On March 11, 1733 the French government decided that the interventions of the fire brigades would be free of charge. This was decided because people always waited until the last moment to call the fire brigades to avoid paying the fee, and it was often too late to stop fires. From 1750 on, the French fire brigades became para-military units and received uniforms. In 1756 the use of a protective helmet for firefighters was recommended by King Louis XV, but it took many more years before the measure was actually enforced on the ground.
In North America, Jamestown, Virginia was virtually destroyed in a fire in January, 1608. There were no full-time paid firefighters in America until 1850. Even after the formation of paid fire companies in the United States, there were disagreements and often fights over territory.
New York City companies were famous for sending runners out to fires with a large barrel to cover the hydrant closest to the fire in advance of the engines. Often fights would break out between the runners and even the responding fire companies for the right to fight the fire and receive the insurance money that would be paid to the company that fought it.
Interestingly, during the 1800s and early 1900s volunteer fire companies served not only as fire protection but as political machines. The most famous volunteer firefighter-cum-politician is Boss Tweed, head of the notorious Tammany Hall political machine, who got his start in politics as a member of the Americus Engine Company Number 6 (“The Big Six”) in New York City.