BY JOHN M. BUCKMAN
AS FIRE ENGINEERING CELEBRATES ITS 125TH anniversary, you can see that it has evolved much over the years. Likewise, much progress has been made during the past 125 years of the fire service. On the other hand, some of the problems we faced in our early days have persisted until this day—the people have changed, but the problems remain. When you analyze the situation, you see that the United States has been exposed to numerous dangerous and tragic fires—more than enough to have given us more experience with fire than any other nation in history.
“PROGRESS” FOSTERED FIRE THREATS
Fire threatened to wipe out our first colonies. Many of those tragic fires occurred because of a lack of building codes or a lack of enforcement of building and fire codes. The debate about adequate fire codes still rages today.
Fire devastated rural areas as well as urban areas. Fires have been used as a vicious mechanism to create social and political unrest.
Immediately after the Civil War, there was a great population movement from the East to the West. In the late 1800s, America’s urban area population grew twice as fast as the rural population. The war also stimulated our country’s ability to produce new materials and natural resources. Steel, petroleum, electricity, coal, and iron—and the railroad—became focal points for production and capital, but the concentration of buildings in the major industrial and mercantile areas created the conditions for future holocausts.
Means of communication expanded with the innovations of the telegraph and telephone systems, which brought quick alert signals for practically every emergency.
Communications challenges at the scene of a fire were subjects of considerable debate in 1879. Dr. Goodrich of Akron Rubber Works, Cleveland, Ohio, proposed one solution. He invented what was termed the “electric” or telegraph hose. Its purpose was to run a telephone line in the hoseline so those on the outside could remain in contact with the nozzleman.
The National Association of Fire Engineers (NAFE), the parent organization of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, was formed in 1873 to standardize hose couplings. The NAFE Hose Committee recommended that the fire hose thread be in the form of a “V” and that the angle of the thread be that as recommended by the Franklin Institute of Phil-adelphia.
In 1879 fire hose specifications were still being debated. Leather hose was still in use and, if well cared for, frequently lasted 25 years or more. The new fire hose was being constructed of a rubber-lined cotton jacket and because of its flexibility and ease of deployment was attractive to the fire service.
The year 1878 saw the development of respirators, or smoke masks. The fire service resisted this new tool because it was not totally trusted. The chiefs were concerned about the rubber masks’ being able to hold up in a fire.
The transition from horse-drawn to motorized steamer pumpers was hard fought. J.C. Howe introduced the first fire department piston pump that could be brought to the scene by a team of 20 men or a team of horses. Howe established the Howe Fire Apparatus Company in Indianapolis, Indiana (it was later moved to Anderson, Indiana).
In 1908, the Howe Company began experimenting with pumps on automobiles and produced its first practical automotive pumper. In those early years, however, this type of pumper was more of a novelty than an efficient machine, and fire departments were slow to accept the change.
By 1906, Waterous Company of St. Paul, Minnesota, developed a self-propelled apparatus with dual engines, one for pumping and one for driving. Waterous Company remains in business today, building water pumps that are in use in many of our fire trucks.
It is difficult to say exactly when horses were first used to pull fire apparatus. Apparently, the credit for this innovation goes to the Good Intent Fire Company of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The city’s volunteer fire departments strongly resisted this move. Such opposition was common throughout the fire service. The fire service did not fully accept horses until fire department pumpers powered by steam pressure became a practical reality. Even then, the volunteers were more willing to test their strength against the steam fire engines than against disobedient horses. Once the steam pumper proved capable of sustained performance on the fireground, it was only a short time before the volunteers realized they could not match such performance by manual effort.
The other reality was that such engines were tremendously heavy—some were five to eight tons. Hauling them to a fire called for a number of personnel who were not always present at the time of an alarm.
A third reality was that horses were intelligent, affectionate, easily trained animals who quickly adjusted to the excitement and demands of fire department action.
The San Francisco Fire Department’s last response by horse-drawn steamer was on August 21, 1921. The Boston Fire Department retired its horse-drawn equipment in 1925.
Fire departments improved their capabilities by purchasing new steam-powered pumps and more functional apparatus. Before long, the first mechanically operated aerial ladder truck and other mobile apparatus became available.
NAFE 1873 CONFERENCE
At the first conference of the NAFE in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1873, a committee was established to study the practicality of adopting a hose thread standard and to report back to the next conference.
Other topics on the agenda during that first meeting included debate about departments’ fire prevention activities and the fractured system of management, the precursor to our continued debate on organizational structure.
During the first NAFE meetings, there was considerable opposition to having politics govern who the fire officials should be. This continues to be a subject of serious debate even today.
STRUCTURES’ VULNERABILITY TO FIRE
Even though the 20th century began with the promise of scientific and technical advancement, there was no diminishment in the vulnerability of American buildings to fire. From the early 1900s until the end of the 1930s, the number of fires and explosions that occurred, and their diversity, provided convincing evidence that the fire problem in America was unique and devastating and in need of urgent correction.
The Iroquois Theatre fire in Chicago, Illinois, in 1903 is one such conflagration that resulted in numerous lives lost. The factors that contributed to this disaster are similar to those that cause many of today’s disasters:
- There were no automatic sprinklers above the stage, although they were required by a Chicago ordinance, which was not enforced in any of the theaters.
- There was no effective first-aid firefighting equipment.
- The asbestos curtain was obstructed. It never got down within 12 feet of the stage for various reasons and later was shown to have been of poor quality.
- The exits were blocked with draperies, wood and glass doors, and barred iron shutters.
- Exit and directional exit signs were absent.
- A faulty exit pattern channeled too many people into a single exit.
- One fire escape was blocked by flames from an exit door below.
- Electrical failure plunged the theater into total darkness when the disaster was at its height.
- The theater had 140 more seats than had been approved.
- At least 200 standing room admissions were sold, resulting in the additional overloading of the balcony’s exit capacity.
Each of these deficiencies was attributed to lack of vigilance by the city officials charged with enforcing the fire laws.
In 1877, fire chiefs first viewed with disdain the problem of “high-rise” buildings—their resultant challenges for fire prevention and fire suppression activities. Inherent in the discussions were aerial ladders and their appropriate use at these “high-rise” buildings. The term used was “self-supporting” ladder.
VOLUNTEER COMPANIES VS. PAID DEPARTMENTS
Conflagrations, beginning with the Chicago, Illinois, fire on October 8, 1871, devastated U.S. cities. Helped by a strong wind, this fire spread through some 2,150 acres, killing an estimated 300 and destroying thousands of buildings. Because Chicago was a new, important, rapidly growing midwestern center, this tragedy sent a shock wave of immediacy throughout the nation.
Around 1890, many large communities began a shift from volunteer to paid fire departments. City leaders viewed fire as a major threat and wanted a well-trained and well-equipped group of firefighters available to respond promptly to every fire emergency. (The volunteer fire service had served well for 100 years up until that time and continues to serve communities all across America to this day.) [The Honolulu (HI) Fire Department is the only U.S. fire department to have recorded that authentic kings served on a volunteer fire department. In the 1850s, King Kamehameha took an active interest in the department, and King Kalaka was the fire secretary of Honolulu’s No. 4 engine company.]
This was not an easy transition; some communities violently resisted the change. In many states and communities, volunteer fire departments had become highly important to the social and political fabric of the democratic process, and change to a tax-supported fire department simply would not be accepted. Even today, the assessment of the role of the fire department in a given community is argued on the same premises that caused violent controversy more than 100 years ago.
Rivalry between volunteer fire companies and paid fire departments existed as much then as it does in some places in our country today. The rivalry sometimes erupted into violent fights on the incident scene. “Taking a hydrant” became a maximum objective in every fire alarm response, as was the race to be “first in.” It was not long before companies figured out that they needed “plug guards” to save hydrants for the first-in company and to protect the hoseline from damage by the second-in companies. In urban areas, this violence was not tolerated for long. In many cases, it caused the demise of the volunteer fire company.
JOHN M. BUCKMAN is chief of the German Township (IN) Volunteer Fire Department in Evansville, Indiana, where he has served for 22 years, and the immediate past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC). He was instrumental in forming the IAFC’s Volunteer Chief Officers Section and is past chairman. He is an adjunct faculty member in the National Fire Academy residence program, is an advisory board member of Fire Engineering, and lectures extensively on fire service-related topics.