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A Brief History of the US Fire Department


When was the last time you revisited your firefighter roots? Whether it was recently or not, there’s a lot to be said about America’s rich history on the subject. And considering Fire Prevention Week was just last month (how many of you visited schools?), we thought it’d be a good opportunity to take a closer look at the history of the US Fire Department.

It’s only fitting that the man who’s widely credited with discovering electricity would also be responsible for organizing one of America’s first volunteer fire departments—it is always handy to have a troop of firefighters at the ready in case one of your electrical experiments goes wrong, after all.

Image Source: firehistory.org

While there were whispers of “fire clubs” scattered throughout New England in the 1600s with governors outlawing wooden chimneys andthatched roofs and citizens on “Rattle Watch” who’d assemble bucket brigades with a shake of a wooden rattle, it was Benjamin Franklin who organized the original volunteer fire department – also known as the Union Fire Company, or as others called it, Benjamin Franklin’s Bucket Brigade – in Philadelphia back in 1736, which was established to protect the community at large. He was likely inspired by watching the fire clubs in his hometown of Boston (which were led by Thomas Atkins) fight major fires in an effort to protect their own property, but not the community’s. So good ol’ Ben wasn’t just a Founding Father, an inventor, and, oh, about a zillion other things, but also America’s ultimate fire chief.

The Union Fire Company, which was founded in an effort to look out for the community as a whole in the tragic event of a fire, was made up of more than two dozen volunteer members, each of whom was responsible for providing his own leather buckets for transporting water, as well as linen bags to carry salvaged items from burning buildings. “Bed keys” were arguably one of their most important tools—they allowed firemen to swiftly dismantle wooden bed frames, which were often the most valuable piece of furniture in the home.

Image Source: firefighterparamedicstories.com

As the company grew, it acquired an engine affectionately named “The Shag Rag,” a fire bell that could be heard throughout Philadelphia, a fire hose, and a handful of hooks and ladders. The Union Fire company continued to grow, even sprouting up forms of fire insurance. Soon after, other volunteer fire companies began to crop up in Philadelphia and around the country, such as the Fellowship Fire Company and Heart-in-Hand, but it wasn’t until 1853 that a professional fire department even existed—the first on record to employ full-time, paid firefighters was Cincinnati, Ohio’s Cincinnati Fire Department.

Today there are quite literally hundreds of fire departments throughout the country, and the force – more than 70% of which is made up of volunteers – is comprised of responders willing to put their lives on the line for the safety and well-being of their community.

From nearly 30 guys with nothing but buckets and bags to the amazing organized responders and volunteers we have on hand today, it’s clear the fire department has come a long way (even despite the well-known adage of “100 years of tradition unimpeded by progress”), and we thank you for the amazing work you do every day.

Bumperchute exists to serve the needs of firefighters so you can be at your absolute best when on the scene of an incident—let us help make your job easier. Contact us today to see what we can accomplish together.

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