After a major fire in Boston in 1631, the first fire regulations in America were established. In 1648, fire wardens were appointed in New Amsterdam (later New York City), thereby initiating the first public fire department in North America. In 1736, Ben Franklin formed the first volunteer fire-fighting company in Philadelphia. Fire fighting was not an easy feat. Fire-fighters numbering up from fifty to one hundred men labored arduously at heavy pumpers of limited effectiveness. The enthusiastic but amateur volunteers were badly organized. Curious onlookers got in the way and looters stole whatever they could. Nearby buildings were often drenched or even pulled down with ropes to stop the fire from spreading; in the 1800s, firefighters also used dynemyte to blow up buildings to save cities from complete destruction from a raging fire.

By the 1700s, independent volunteer fire companies began receiving payment for their services from the insurance company or the property owner. Property owners displayed fire markers outside the building to indicate that they were insured; in some cases, no marker meant no effort would be made to fight the fire. In other cases, only the first arriving companies got paid, which led to fierce competition. Volunteers sabotaged each other’s equipment and fought off later-arriving companies, often using fire-fighting equipment as weapons. Often, the building burned down while the firemen brawled.

Fire Department Orgination

Early in 1853 the Cincinnati, Ohio, Fire Department Committee formulated a plan that would entirely change the way fires were fought in America. To end the frequently violent competition between companies, the plan called for full-time, paid city employees to fight fires using a horse-drawn steam engine. The steam pumper would allow four or five men to spray more water on a fire than hundreds of volunteers using hand pumpers. The City Council on 16 March 1853 authorized the plan and the creation of a Fire Department, effective 1 April. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, fire department personnel are either volunteer (nonsalaried) or career (salaried). Volunteer firefighters are found mainly in smaller communities, career firefighters in cities. The modern department, with salaried personnel and standardized equipment, became an integral part of municipal administration only late in the nineteenth century. In some cities, a fire commissioner administers the department. Other cities have a board of fire commissioners with a fire chief as executive officer and head of the uniformed force. In still other cities a safety director may be in charge of both police and fire departments. The basic operating unit of the fire department is the company, commanded by a captain. A captain may be on duty on each shift, although in some fire departments, lieutenants and sergeants command companies when the captain is off duty. Fire companies are usually organized by types of apparatus: engine companies; ladder companies; and squad or rescue companies.

Boston installed the first fire-alarm systems, which used the telegraph and Morse code, in 1852. Many communities are still served either with the telegraph-alarm system or with telephone call boxes. Most fires, however, are reported from private telephones. Many large cities have removed all or many of their street alarm boxes because of false alarms and maintenance problems. Alarms are received at a central dispatch office and then transmitted to fire stations, frequently with the use of mobile teleprinters and computers.

Apparatus is dispatched according to the nature of the alarm and location of the fire. Many modern departments are now equipped with computer-aided dispatch systems that track the status of all units and provide vital information about the buildings where fires occur. Typically, on a first alarm, more apparatus is sent to industrial areas, schools and other institutions, and theaters than to private residences. Additional personnel, volunteer or off duty, is called as needed. Fires that cannot be brought under control by the apparatus responding to the first alarm are called multiple-alarm fires, with each additional alarm bringing more firefighters and equipment to the scene. Special calls are sent for specific types of equipment. Mutual aid and regional mobilization plans are in effect among adjacent fire departments for assisting each other in fighting fires. A superior example of this was exhibited with the 11 September 2001 attack on New York City’s World Trade Center, when fire companies from all over Manhattan and from neighboring boroughs responded to the catastrophe.


Early on, pioneer firefighters fought fires with bucket lines. Men usually formed a line to convey water from the nearest source to the scene of destruction, while the women and children formed a second line to pass empty buckets back to the water source. The first fire engines were developed in the seventeenth century. They were merely tubs carried on runners, long poles, or wheels. The tub functioned as a reservoir and sometimes housed a hand-operated pump that forced water through a pipe or nozzle to waiting buckets. The invention of a hand-stitched leather hosepipe in the Netherlands around 1672 made it possible for firefighters to move nearer to the fire without risking damage to the engine. During the same period, the creation of pumpers made it possible for fire-fighters to use water from rivers and ponds.

In the early 1900s, stitching on hoses gave way to copper rivets and fifty-foot lengths coupled with brass fittings that enabled firefighters to convey water through narrow passages, up stairways, and into buildings while the pumps operated in the street. The pumper threw a stream of water up to 133 feet while twelve men pumped for a few exhausting moments at a time. In about 1870, rubber hoses covered by cotton came into use. The steam-pump fire engine, introduced in London in 1829, gained popularity in many large cities in the 1850s. Most steam pumpers were equipped with reciprocating piston pumps, although a few rotary pumps were used. Some were self-propelled, but most used horses for propulsion, conserving steam pressure for the pump.

After establishing the first professional fire-fighting force, Cincinnati also briefly led the way in technological developments. Cincinnati inventors Able Shawk and Alexander Latta developed “Uncle Joe Ross,” the first successful steam fire engine in America. First deployed in 1853, the fire engine had the capacity of the six biggest double-engine hand pumpers and needed only three men to operate it. It could supply three hand companies with water while at the same time shooting a powerful spray of water 225 feet onto the fire. The Ahrens-Fox Manufacturing Company of Cincinnati, an early leader in developing steam engines, replaced the horses with motorized tractors, and produced compressed-air aerial ladders to reach windows of tall buildings. By the 1920s, the last of the horse-drawn engines had disappeared.

With the development of the internal combustion engine in the early twentieth century, pumpers became motorized. Because of problems in adapting gear rotary gasoline engines to pumps, the first gasoline-powered fire engines had two motors, one to drive the pump and the other to propel the vehicle. The first pumper using a single engine for pumping and propulsion was manufactured in the United States in 1907. Motorized pumpers had almost entirely displaced steam pumpers by 1925. The pumps were originally of the piston or reciprocating type, but these were gradually replaced by rotary pumps and finally by centrifugal pumps, which are used by most modern pumpers. Modern pumpers consist of a powerful pump that can supply water in a large range of volumes and pressures; several thousand feet of fire hose, attached to a hydrant by a short segment of wide hose; and a water tank to be used in places lacking a water supply or to enable firefighters to begin their work while the hose is being attached to a hydrant. In the countryside, pumpers are used along with suction hoses to obtain water from rivers and ponds.

The late nineteenth century saw other innovations in fire fighting including the chemical fire extinguisher. The first was a glass fire extinguisher, the Harden Hand Grenade Extinguisher. The extinguisher, or grenade, contained carbon tetrachloride, later banned because at high temperatures it emitted a hazardous phosphene gas. The grenade, when tossed into the fire, broke open and released the carbon tetrachloride. The sprinkling system also came into use at this time and fireproof construction materials were developed as well. Several catastrophic blazes in the early history of San Francisco, California, led to other innovations. San Francisco’s Fire Department Maintenance Shop Supervisors developed the Hayes Aerial Ladder in 1868 and the Gorter Nozzle in 1886, both of which were adopted by fire departments worldwide. The department was among the first to employ fireboats and to place water towers on many roofs. It also recommended sixty-foot height limits for buildings and fire escapes and standpipes on all multistory edifices.

Beginning in the late 1950s, new equipment and materials emerged on the scene: the snorkel truck, equipped with a cherry-picker boom to replace the traditional extension ladder; the super pumper, which is capable of pumping eight thousand gallons of water per minute at very high pressure (used in fighting fires in very tall structures); and foam and other chemicals to fight fires. To fight forest fires, specially equipped airplanes and helicopters are used to drop water or chemicals from the air, and to insert “smokejumpers” (firefighters who parachute in) to fight fires in remote locations. In the 1990s, fire companies began using thermal imaging cameras. Infrared technology allows firefighters to see through smoke to locate the seat of the fire and to quickly locate hazardous hotspots. With thermal imaging, large areas of land or water can be searched quickly and accurately, requiring less manpower than do conventional methods. Searches can be conducted efficiently during nighttime darkness or full sunlight, in a variety of weather conditions. Thermal imagers can be used for searches carried out on foot or from automobiles, watercraft, and aircraft.