November/December 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 6
For almost a century these were the only way of putting water on the flames. In many cities, each house and business had to keep at least one bucket, sometimes painted with the owner’s name. At the cry of “Fire!” everybody was required to race to the site and join the bucket brigade.
Since at least the ancient Romans, man has sought a mechanical means of spraying water on fires. One of the first people to make it practical was Richard Newsham of London. In 1731 New York City purchased two of Newsham’s simple hand-pumped engines, eventually building its first firehouse to store them. When fires broke out, men dragged the engines to the site and formed a bucket brigade to fill their reservoirs. Then the pumps were manned and water began to shoot out of a gooseneck nozzle emerging from the top.
Leather fire hoses, invented in seventeenth-century Holland, leaked and needed too much care to be very useful. But when, in 1808, a Philadelphia company devised a method of closing the seams with copper rivets, leather hoses quickly made buckets obsolete. However, they still needed constant maintenance with grease and oil to keep them from drying and cracking. With the arrival of canvas and rubber hoses in the 1820s, firefighters thankfully said goodbye to leather hoses forever.
Until the early nineteenth century firefighters had to rely on wells, rivers, ponds, and reservoirs for water. If one of these wasn’t nearby, the building burned to the ground. New York City’s first water mains were hollowed-out logs. They leaked and clogged, but they were better than nothing. In 1808 one was fitted with the first fire plug—a sort of large cork—and the first real fire hydrant came in 1817. Today firefighters in most high-rise areas use high-pressure mains as their source of water.
The first fire alarm was somebody seeing smoke and yelling. By the mid-nineteenth century New York City had a series of eight watchtowers manned by sentries looking for signs of flame. In 1852 a Boston doctor named William Channing invented an alarm system that could send a telegraph signal from a street box to an alarm office. Soon every big city had telegraph alarm boxes, which lasted until the 1970s, when more efficient telephone systems were developed. Today most alarms come in from home phones and cell phones, with the information sent to centralized dispatch centers.
Many volunteer fire companies fought tooth and nail against the purchase of the first steam-powered fire engines. At demonstrations, the men proved they could pump harder and shoot water higher than the early smoke-belching machines. But for government officials, the clincher was that the steam-powered engines never got tired. Starting in Cincinnati in the 1850s, every major city switched over to steam. By the turn of the century the most powerful of these could generate more pressure than the average modern-day fire engine.
Ship and dock fires were once regular occurrences in every American port. In 1800 New York firefighters built the first fireboat, really a hand-pumped engine attached to a barge. In 1867 New York hired a tugboat for putting out fires and outfitted it with hoses and other equipment. In 1873 the Boston Fire Department launched the William F. Flanders , the first fireboat specifically built for that purpose. New York City’s largest fireboat, the Fire Fighter , is one of the most powerful pieces of fire apparatus ever built, capable of pumping 20,000 gallons of water every minute.
As buildings rose to 5, 7, and even 10 stories, firefighters had to figure out how to keep up. In 1882 the FDNY purchased French-made scaling ladders—short ladders with hooks on one end that could be moved up floor by floor—and soon brought its first aerial ladder into service. Today aerial ladders can reach as high as 130 feet, and they ride on special ladder trucks. After the tragic consequences of the first skyscraper fires, however, fire departments realized that they needed a whole new array of tactics.
After 146 people died in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, in 1911, citizens’ outrage led to a wholesale revamping of New York City’s fire code. Buildings had to strictly control the storage of flammable materials; fire doors had to open; fire escapes had to be firmly attached; and sprinkler systems were required in every factory. Other cities followed suit, usually after their own deadly fires, as people realized that the best way to stop fires is to keep them from starting.
The beloved fire horses were the muscle that moved the steam pumpers. In 1901, when New York’s fire chief bought a Locomobile to travel to fires, some firefighters may have suspected that the horses’ days were numbered. The FDNY bought its first (not very fast) gasoline-powered engine in 1909. On December 20, 1922, a team of horses made its last run pulling a fire engine through the streets of New York and then was sent off to a peaceful retirement.
Modern technology has brought great benefits to human life, and also great dangers. In 1945 New York City’s fire department formed the nation’s first fire, gas, and chemical unit in response to the threat of attack during World War II. Its preparation proved crucial in 1949, when a truck carrying chemicals exploded in the crowded Holland Tunnel. Radiation training was added during the Cold War. This unit has since become the model for hazmat squads across the country.
In 1965 the FDNY purchased the Super Pumper, the most powerful land-based apparatus ever developed. It was capable of shooting 8,800 gallons of water per minute (still less than the big fireboats). It was the size of a large semi-truck, however, which made it difficult to navigate narrow city streets, and it needed special tenders—“satellite trucks”—to help it operate. Although it performed well at a number of fires, it was eventually deemed too complicated and expensive and was retired from service in 1982.