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History of the Fire Service

History of the Fire Service

This picture published in 1808 shows firefighters tackling a fire in London using hand-pumped engines.


Napoleon Bonaparte, drawing from the century-old experience of the gardes-pompes, is generally attributed as creating the first “professional” firefighters, known as Sapeurs-Pompiers (“Sappers-Firefighters”), from the French Army. Created under the Commandant of Engineers in 1810, the company was organized after a fire at the ballroom in the Austrian Embassy in Paris which injured several dignitaries.

In the UK, the Great Fire of London in 1666 set in motion changes which laid the foundations for organised firefighting in the future. In the wake of the Great Fire, the City Council established the first fire insurance company , “The Fire Office”, in 1667, which employed small teams of Thames watermen as firefighters and provided them with uniforms and arm badges showing the company to which they belonged.

However, the first organized municipal fire brigade in the world was established in Edinburgh, Scotland, when the Edinburgh Fire Engine Establishment was formed in 1824, led by James Braidwood. London followed in 1832 with the London Fire Engine Establishment.

On April 1, 1853, the Cincinnati, Ohio (USA) Fire Department became the first full-time paid professional fire department in the United States, and the first in the world to use steam fire engines.

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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 afterwards. 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 mix of paid, call, and volunteer responders. While urban areas are typically served by the large, well-coordinated paid responders, there is no requirement demanding either paid, call, or career firefighters and many departments are so-called “mixed” or combination departments – full time responders handle the day-to-day needs of a department and work with either call or volunteer responders when more manpower is needed. Other departments are completely “call” or volunteer, depending on local tradition, needs, and, most importantly, financial ability.