Research - History of Fire Fighting

Early fire fighting
The first fire fighting forces are thought to have been formed in Roman times. They were made up of bands of slaves called Familia Publica. This system didn’t really work so in AD6 Emperor Augustus replaced the slaves with military fire fighters called the Corps of Vigiles.

7,000 Vigiles in Rome had equipment such as hand squirts, buckets and axes.

These soldier-fire fighters were also used in other parts of the Roman Empire, and there may even have been Vigiles in Britain.

When the Romans left, Britain didn’t have any protection against fire for the next 1,000 years. If a fire started whole towns could be destroyed very quickly. Houses often had thatched roofs and open fires. As the houses were built very close together it was easy for fires to spread from one house to the next.

After the Norman Conquest in 1066, William the Conqueror ordered that all household fires should be put out at night to prevent fires from starting. Fires were put out with a metal cover known in Norman French as a couvre-feu (which actually means fire cover). In English this became the word ‘curfew’. The time for putting out fires was marked for 800 years by the sound of the ‘curfew bell’.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, church or town authorities occasionally provided very simple fire equipment such as thatch hooks or buckets. People started to think about fire prevention measures such as not stacking fuel (bunches of gorse or sticks) too high outside bake houses.

The Great Fire of London
The Great Fire of London in 1666 made people think seriously about fire protection. The Great Fire of London started in a bakery in Pudding Lane on 2nd September. It burned for four days and destroyed a lot of the city. Over 13,000 houses, 84 churches and most public buildings were lost. Fire needs three things to sustain it – it needs heat, fuel and oxygen. The fire stopped only when the Navy was called in to blow up houses that were in the path of the fire. This took away the source of fuel for the fire and so stopped it. Miraculously, only six people died. The Monument, which can still be seen today, was built to commemorate the fire. It is at the junction of Monument Street and Fish Street Hill in London. The total height of the monument is 61 metres equal to the distance of the Monument from the point where the fire started in Pudding Lane.

Two things happened as a result of the Great Fire of London: very primitive fire engines were built and the first organised fire brigades began to appear.

Fire insurance companies
After the huge losses in the Great Fire of London some entrepreneurs decided to take advantage of the situation and offer fire insurance. The first fire insurance company was formed in 1667. These early insurers soon realised they needed to protect their own interests and so began to provide men and fire appliances to deal with outbreaks of fire. For over 100 years, insurance company fire brigades provided the main fire fighting force in Britain.

There was a lot of competition between the different fire insurance companies, especially in the larger towns. They had smart uniforms, brightly coloured fire engines and strict discipline. This was all designed to attract new customers.

Each insurance company protected buildings where they provided the insurance.

They could tell which buildings they insured because each insured building had a fire mark. A fire mark was a metal plate displaying the company’s trademark and the householder’s policy number. The fire mark was fixed to an outside wall of a house or business.

Local authority fire services
Local authorities also tried to provide fire engines, water supplies and fire fighters but they were not able to match the services provided by the fire companies.

In the early 19th Century, smaller towns and villages often had no fire service at all.

As the number of fire losses increased, local authorities gradually began to provide a fire service. The very first municipal’ fire service was formed in Edinburgh in 1824, and two years later Manchester had its own fire service. This sort of development usually led to insurance brigades being disbanded but it would be over 100 years before the last insurance brigade would be disbanded (in 1929).

Money was the main problem for towns and cities that wanted to provide a fire service. Insurance companies sometimes donated fire engines and stations. Sometimes fire services were paid for by public subscription. To cover costs, it was normal to charge for putting out fires.

Fire service in Victorian times (1819 to 1901)
The Victorian era was a time when towns wanted to show their wealth and the local fire brigade was often seen as a prime example of this. Each town, especially in the prosperous textile areas in the North of England tried to outdo each other with the finest town hall, tram shed and of course the most magnificent fire station. Towns often celebrated when they bought a new steam fire engine. They would have a procession and christening ceremony.

In the 19th Century, the larger boroughs operated as police fire brigades with both the police and the fire service under the control of the Chief Constable. In some cases policemen served as auxiliary firemen, in others the Chief Constable took charge at fires and occasionally police and firemen shared duties. Usually, however, the ‘fire bobbies’ (as they were sometimes known) did one job only, under a fire officer who had the rank of police Superintendent. Discipline was strict and conditions were hard. Most firemen in towns lived over their stations and worked on a continuous duty system with only one day off in two weeks. They slept and ate in their residential quarters (turnout bells were fitted), but all other hours were spent on station duties. Rural fire stations still relied on part-time or volunteer fire fighters.

Whole time recruits usually came from the building trade or the Navy. They made good fire fighters because they were used to working hard in all weathers and often at great height. Sailors were particularly well-suited to fire brigade life and their dress, speech and other characteristics are part of the fire service traditions.

The 20th Century
In the 20th Century, the fire service became much more professional as brigades had to adapt to new problems such as fires from petroleum, celluloid and explosives. Lots of fire fighters learned about this type of fire as a result of munitions and chemical fires of World War One. At this time there was an increase in the number of organisations like the Institution of Fire Engineers and the Professional Fire Brigades Association, which aimed to advance the science of fire fighting and to unify standards.

There was still a wide range of ability in fire fighters, from the professional police-firemen to volunteers. Because of the difference in standards, country estates or large industrial concerns (known as isolated risks) operated their own private fire brigades.

In 1938, a Fire Brigades Act was passed which, for the first time, gave the local authority the responsibility for providing an efficient, free fire service. In many rural districts this was achieved by pooling resources. Under the new Act, around 1,600 separate fire brigades covered every inch of the country.

The Second World War
As the Second World War approached, one of the great fears was possible enemy air attack. Part-time Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) units were set up to work alongside regular fire fighters. The AFS had its own appliances, stations and uniform. The AFS units were trained by professional fire fighters and worked alongside them. In the air raids in 1940/41 a lot of AFS staff were killed or injured.

The Blitz placed an enormous strain on the country’s numerous hard-pressed fire brigades. On 18th August 1941, all regular and AFS fire services were merged into one National Fire Service (NFS). This merged service lasted for the next seven years. Although it missed the worst of the air raids that it had been created for, the NFS was responsible for the first real improvements in co-ordination and standardisation in the British fire service. Many of the lessons and innovations in appliance design, structure of the brigades and communications are still used today.

After the war
Three years after the end of the War, the NFS was disbanded and the control of fire services returned to the local authorities, though only the larger towns kept their former brigades. New County Council Fire Brigades such as Lancashire and Cheshire protected smaller boroughs and towns.

The Fire Services Act 1947 laid the foundation for the modern service, with the new fire authorities taking on some additional duties such as fire prevention inspections, attending road traffic collisions and other ‘special service’ calls.

1950s and 1960s
Through the 1950s and 60s there were many changes in industry and transport. This meant the fire service had to change to be able to cope with any eventuality. In the North West traditional textile trades began to die out but the old mill buildings were then used for new purposes, often with a higher risk of fire.

The growth of the motorway network and the rise in road transport has meant that the fire service has had to have more sophisticated crash rescue equipment. The development in the chemical and plastics industries, together with the use of synthetic materials in furniture means fire fighters have to rely much more on breathing apparatus and protective clothing.

Reorganisation in the 1970s
In 1974 local government was re-organised and this meant a cut in the number of brigades in Britain. New Metropolitan Fire Authorities such as Greater Manchester were formed as smaller brigades joined together.

Technical developments, not thought possible a few decades ago, followed including heat seeking cameras, advanced hydraulic cutting equipment and computerised control rooms.

The Fire and Rescue Services Act of 2004 recognised the wider role of fire brigades, and made way for modernisation. As well as coping with the traditional types of incidents the men and women of today’s fire and rescue service are ready to deal with major environmental problems, large-scale chemical incidents and even terrorist attacks.

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