The Fireman of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow
Impressions Gleaned from Reading the 75-Year Records of the Fire Service in FIRE ENGINEERING and Its Predecessors.
Editor’s Note: This all-too-brief review of the fireman and his job, past, present and future, makes no attempt to hark back any further than the threequarters of a century covered by this publication and its forebears. There were firemen, and fire departments in the early Roman empire. Their story, and that of the early volunteers of our own country, must be told elsewhere. Our own concern begins with the transitory period, following the organization of the first paid departments, the conversion from the “armstrong” technique to the mechanical means of fire extinguishment, up to the present and concluding with an estimate of the future. No one can visualize the fire service of the next 75 years. But one thing is certain: if the rate of progress made during the last 75 years is maintained, anything can happen.
SEVENTY-FIVE years ago the fire service of America was attempting to get its feet on the ground following the conversion of the fire departments of most of the larger cities from volunteer to paid forces. The fireman himself, like his job. was still in the “first grade” of the “new school of fire protection,” ushered in by the introduction of equine-powered apparatus, and the fire alarm telegraph. Over the fire service generally still hung the mantle of “yesterday’s ways.” There was some inclination on the part of many “professional” fire fighters to turn a deaf ear to suggested improvements in procedures and techniques (we find the issues of 1878 analyzing the advantages of fine water spray over solid streams, and urging other improvements in methods). In the 1870’s we find a public only just beginning to recognize the fireman as an entity in the municipal government and we find the fireman himself, speaking of the paid municipal fire fighter, only just becoming conscious of his position, and of the need of better fitting himself and his organization for his job.
The transition from the old hand pumper to the chemical engine and the steam engine, and from hand propulsion to horse propulsion, and the beginning of the era of mechanization of fire apparatus were changes for the better, but they didn’t make life easier for the fire fighter, even if they armed him better in his battle against fire.
The situation is somewhat aptly summed up in the February 16, 1878 issue of National Firemen’s Journal, forerunner of FIRE ENGINEERING. In an article by “An Old Fireman” we read:
“One of the most encouraging facts to an observer on fire matters is the decided change for the better that has taken place within the past few years in the material, general tone, of the greater part of the fire departments throughout the country.
“Time was when the Firemen did not occupy a very exalted position in the estimation of the community at large, and when the name even of a Fireman, caused the bearer to be looked upon with distrust and his favor to be courted, and himself at the same time despised. . . . The old time Fireman was in some respects a singular being. His attire, combining a certain gorgeousness of shirt and neck-tie, resplendency of badge, and lavish display of boot-tops, combined with the somberness of hat and pantaloons, was well calculated to impress a feeling of awe upon all beholders; while his heartfelt yearning for an alarm, and his reckless haste to obtain “first water” marked him as anything but the staid and solid citizen.
“His soul delighted in the excitement attending a conflagration, and he scented the battle from afar. . . . His officers were chosen, not from the fact of their knowledge of fire matters, but were emphatically the ‘best men’ physically of his company. The efficiency of a company was. rated in direct ratio to its ability to ‘lay out’ all comers. . . . Drink played a part in all Company and Department affairs, and it is more than hinted that many a Chief owed his election to the fact of his ability to ‘set ’em up’ for the boys.
“If there was one thing that the old volunteer absolutely went his length upon, it was his Company Ball. Preparations were made for days and weeks, his particular district was scoured in the sale of tickets which were always purchased, not willingly perhaps, but from the feeling that policydemanded it. . . . That the affair often ended with a slight unpleasantness did not detract from the festivities, but rather afforded that spice cf dash and recklessness in which he delighted.
“The old Volunteer was always on hand, and missing a fire would rankle in his breast for years. His apparatus was an object of workship, and . . . being outdone by a rival stung him to the quick. . . . That there were many good qualities in the old Fireman is beyond dispute, and he possessed a certain chivalrous feeling in relation to his business that we now look for in vain.
“The paid Fireman of the present day (1878) is an almost exact contrast, lie is a staid, quiet person, who is paid for what he does and therefore does no unnecessary work; is neat to fastidious in his dress, which is as modest in style as its wearer and has a general air of coolness, and self-restraint that is refreshing. The apparatus in his charge is in perfect order, his quarters ditto; and the horses under his charge are trained until their intelligence seems almost human. He is a respecter of law and order, and is beginning to occupy the position in the public esteem to which his calling entitles him.
“He is brave in desperation, and sets about a dangerous task with a certain cautious recklessness that would shame many a soldier on the field of battle. The commands of his officers are as the laws of the Medes and Persians, and he hears hut to obey, even at the cost of his life.
“An alarm, instead of (as in the old days) being the signal for general stampede and burly burly, involving the jamming of apparatus and noses, is considered by him in much the same light as a call to dinner, being a matter of course, creating no excitement and no noise.
“The fighting of a fire has, with him, been reduced to a science, and he proceeds about his work in an appropriate manner. That there is yet room for improvement is not to be doubted, and if ever brought about it will be mainly by the circulation and general perusal by Firemen, of publications devoted to their particular interests, and also by gatherings of representative Firemen from different organizations, to consult and compare notes as to the requirements of their business. . . .”
Time and experience have continued to mold and shape the professional fireman—yes, and the volunteer fireman, also. They have progressed a long way from these days the “Old Fireman” wrote about.
Photo courtesy Homelite Corp.
Today’s professional fireman has shed the pomp and ceremony of tradition, or is rapidly doing so. With him fire fighting and fire suppression is a “job.” He may not admit it, but ten-to-one he gets a tremendous kick out of his job. The thrill and excitement, and the danger, get into the blood and once there, the average fireman sticks to his trade.
Today’s fireman is well aware of the changes that have taken place, and are occurring in the world in which he lives and works. He has seen one, and possibly two World Wars, and their effect on the fire service. He has seen the growth of, and the shifting population, and of building hazards; he has witnessed the growth of automotive traffic and its attendant hazards. He has beheld the beginning of air transportation, seen airports come to almost every city of any size, with attendant demands for added protection of life and property. And perhaps most important of all, he has been present at the unveiling of what is destined to be the most momentous period in the history of the world, the Atomic Age.
Photo courtesy New Haven F.D.
Within the span of the presentday hreman’s association with his job, he has, whether he knows it or not, witnessed greater progress in the science and business of fire protection and fire prevention than has occurred in any other generation in history. His own job has been made more secure; more inviting through better working and living conditions. His future, after he retires as a fireman, has likewise been better provided for. His duties, though fully as arduous and dangerous as those of his predecessors, are being made easier by the introduction of new and better tools of his trade—-better apparatus and equipment, all along the line. Likewise, he is being better fitted to meet the new. added responsibilities which this Chemical Era and tomorrow’s Atomic Age are already imposing upon the fire service.
Today’s fire fighter has at his command communications facilities as never before, to help detect fire, notify him of the fire, alert his fellow-firemen; help him to attack it and conquer it with least loss of time and waste motion, than ever before in fire service history. He has the advantages of electronic eyes, of “sealed beam,” and of rate-of-heat-risefire detection devices. He has seen short wave radio communication facilities, considered probably one of the most valuable aids tofire suppression ever devised, adapted to his use.
He has watched continued improvement in fire control equipment: more powerful, streamlined apparatus; special equipment for coping with special types of fires, such as in aircrash and industrial hazards. He has seen revision, or at least attempted revision, of the laws governing building and of storage and transportation, to eliminate life and property hazards. And he has witnessed a new approach to the problem of educating and training the fire fighter to better do his duty.
It is true that notwithstanding this improved status of the modern fireman, fires are continuing to increase, along with fire losses to life and property. Much of the reason of course for the highest losses in the history of the nation are due to the current inflationary value of the dollar. Nevertheless, the nation is, on the whole, having more fires, more serious fires, more fires of conflagration possibilities, all of which means more work for today’s firemen.
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One can only ponder what the situation would be were it not for the fire service firemen of today—paid and volunteer!
The Fireman of Tomorrow
The fireman of the future will not differ greatly outwardly from the fireman of today. The changes we may expect in tomorrow’s fire fighter will be those in knowledge and skill required to cope with the hazards and fire control problems that will develop through the years incidental to new products and processes in industry and new customs that will shape our living.
Requirements for entering the fire service will continue to stiffen together with requirements for advancement in rank. The job of the fireman will continue to grow in importance and in stature, as a profession and a business for the ambitious-minded. It will continue to attract men of higher education and intelligence who will seek in fire control and prevention the ideal vocation.
Although the exciting danger thrill of attack on fire will remain, perhaps multiply, the romance and the glory of yesterday’s fire service will die out except, of course, in certain of the volunteer fields. As municipal fire protection and prevention become more businesslike, more professional, more scientific and more regulated, in line with industry, so will tomorrow’s fire fighter tend to become more studious, more scientific, more businesslike in his field. Even today there are not many old-time firemen left, who can remember the excitement of the three-horse hitch, the pounding hooves and shining steamer, answering an alarm.
Firemen’s working and living conditions will continue to improve. But some prophets believe tomorrow’s fire fighter will be busy his entire work period. In short, municipal government will be thinking up tasks to keep the fireman occupied for his entire 8-hour trick, or whatever his duty period. The fire station will become a more and more business “office” or a workshop.
Improvements such as short-wave radio will play a greater part in this business, of fire control and prevention by giving the fireman, fire marshal, inspector and others of the fire service added new, outside duties. Many students of fire control see no reason why every fireman should not be a fire prevention specialist as well as fire fighter. If this comes to pass, as it will, and as some believe it must if the fire service is to keep abreast of the new hazards imposed by business and industry in this chemical and atomic era of today, and tomorrow, it will almost certainly mean a reduction in fire losses—and may well result in a complete overhauling of the basis of establishing fire insurance coveiage and estimating losses and of adjusting claims. Concurrently, this may quite naturally lead to new methods in rating fire protection forces and evaluating the fire service generally.
Despite the intrusion of politics into the fire service and the oracles’ prophecies, there will be politics played as long as the fire service is under the control of or is a part of municipal government, the fireman will continue to rate high in public esteem. It is inconceivable that graft and petty politics, political favoritism and other drawbacks which have tainted the police services, and to lesser extent, some municipal fire departments, will increase in degree and effect. Rather, the reverse. Much, of course, depends upon how the nation and the world goes politically and economically. A serious recession or an all-out war may alter the entire tomorrow’s picture. Incidentally, can anyone visualize what our fire service would be like under a dictatorship form of government.
Organized education for the fire service will continue to advance and the demands made upon existing educational and training facilities will increase. In extent and in quality, firemanship training will continue to improve. There will be more fire colleges and schools. There will be more research, more testing, more getting at the facts, more scientific study of the causes of fire, and of methods and technique of fire control and extinguishment than ever before. Where today only one University offers a college degree in fire protection, there will be many institutions doing so tomorrow.
In-service training will be revised; fire departments will have better educational “plants” of their own. They will have firemen who can teach firemanship because they have been taught the principles of teaching. Tomorrow’s training grounds and drill schools will be equipped to permit firemen to learnby-doing, by putting out fires, as well as hearing about them from lectures.
As the fireman’s job becomes more specialized, he must have more specialized training. Tomorrow’s fire fighter will not be content with a perfunctory, nodding acquaintance with the principles of chemistry, with building, with electrical and other contracting, with hydraulics and the other occupations that impinge upon his job; he will have to know a great deal more about each, and its application to his job.
More and more the task of administering fire departments will require trained, capable brains. Less and less will the titular head of a large fire department be called upon to direct all fire extinguishing operations in the field, as well as to administer his fire fighting “business” in the office. As fire control becomes more complicated, so too the “business” of running a fire department becomes more intricate. Today there is little training for this administrative work available even if a chief wanted to acquire it. Tomorrow much will be available.
Another large-scale development to be watched is that of the legal factors affecting fire protection and prevention. There will continue to be more statutes adopted by states and municipalities affecting the fireman and his job. Many of these new laws will stem from disasters, in some cases, perhaps, the result of a new hazard, such as increased air travel.
Firemen will have to work more closely with architects and builders to impose upon them better fire prevention and fire safety regulations, which must come with the radical developments already taking place—developments such as the supermarket, the shopping center, the outdoor theatre, the drive-in, automatic gas filling station, off-street parking and so on. Firemen will have to be more concerned with traffic and related problems bearing upon the movements of people and vehicles. They will have to be closer to the nation’s law-makers to maintain the importance of their position to protect themselves and their service against encroachments of government, or of other interests. Therefore fire service associations and other organizations will play an increasingly important role.
In the field of fire control, apparatus and equipment, including automatic fire detection, alarm transmission and fire extinguishment, as well as in fire department facilities for saving life and putting out fires, there will continue to be improvement, perhaps some of it radical. The pace of progress may be expected to accelerate rather than slacken. There will be more manufacturers supplying the fire service, rather than fewer. There will be more research and invention in the field of fire apparatus manufacture design and construction than in the past. There will be new ideas in firemanship which will call for new facilities to apply those ideas.
There will be continual development in cooperative fire control, i.e., mutual aid. More intra and inter-county, state and regional pacts and programs may be expected, regardless of the threat of war. In a word, every state will eventually have as a part of its government, some agency or branch concerned with the menace of fire and other disasters, and with preparing for such emergencies by encouraging better training, adoption of better, more modern fire control facilities, and by systematizing and legalizing fire prevention and protection.