From the time of the first European incursion into the New World, Americans have been an inventive and innovative people. That this should be the case is due in large part to the accident of geography.
North America was (and is) a long way from Europe and travel was extremely slow in those early days. Thus the first colonists often felt, and in fact were, very isolated and thus, for the most part, dependent on their own talents and resources to meet their needs.
Consequently the underlying philosophy of the settlers was “if it is to be, it is up to me.” This applied to fire protection just like everything else.
The man who established the first formally organized volunteer fire department in 1736 also invented bifocals, wrote and printed Poor Richard’s “Almanack,” studied electricity and helped draft the Declaration of Independence. His name was Benjamin Franklin.
Franklin had moved to Philadelphia from Boston sometime after the disastrous fires of 1653 and 1676, and he was a child when, in 1711, Boston suffered yet another major conflagration in which 110 families lost their homes.
Thus he was all too well acquainted with fires as well as their effect on the lives and property of the citizenry along with the need for an organized force to combat them.
After the fire of 1711, concerned citizens of Boston banded together to form what were known as “The Mutual Fire Societies.” These groups, usually consisting of about 20 members, were really mutual aid organizations; in the event that any of their members were involved in a fire, the other members rushed to their aid.
Franklin realized the need for an organization that would respond to all fires, no matter what their location or origin, thus providing protection for all citizens including those who, for one reason or another, were not physically able to participate in the Mutual Fire Societies.
The Mutual Fire Societies became social as well as protective associations, setting a pattern for the organization of volunteer fire fighting groups, which would one day be the backbone of firefighting in America and would dominate it for a century and a half. Necessity was the mother of invention and invention spawned innovation in the arena of fire protection for rural America.
After the fire in 1676, Boston purchased a London pumper and hired Thomas Atkins and 12 other men to fight fires. These were the first paid firefighters in the United States.
Because there was really very little that could be done to suppress a fire once it had really got going and the fact that the oil lamps used for general illumination and the open fireplaces used for both heating and cooking both were open flame devices and offered a ready source if ignition, much attention was paid to fire and its prevention when different cities were being laid out.
Philadelphia was not far behind Boston. Laid out in1682 by William Penn, who had witnessed the London fire of 1666 and did not want Philadelphia to suffer the same fate, it had an ordinance that required regular chimney cleaning. The large number of brick buildings in this city provided additional protection from spreading conflagrations.
Philadelphia also purchased a fire engine in 1718 which was named the Shag Rag. For some reason this engine was not put into service until 1730 when a large fire destroyed much of the riverfront commercial district. The Shag Rag’s performance was not up to expectations to say the least; it produced only a trickle of water.
This is not surprising since in the 12 years that the city had owned it no one had preformed any maintenance (sound familiar?). Shortly thereafter, the city bought 400 fire buckets, 20 ladders and hooks (origin of the term “hook and ladder”?) as well as two additional engines.
We could go on with this theme ad infinitum (and perhaps ad nauseam) but this is not a history lesson. It is intended to bring out the point that from the earliest times in our country’s history, volunteers have been, and in much of the country still are, the main stay in fire protection.
Volunteer fire departments are chronically under-funded if they are funded at all. In all too many cases, local departments must rely on the generosity of the citizenry and their support of various fund raising activities. This state of affairs ensures that every dollar is stretched to the limit and that available resources are utilized to the maximum.
There seems to be some unknown force that attracts creative and innovative individuals to the fire service. Poll the membership of any department and you will find craftsmen such as welders, machinists, automotive mechanics, electricians and most other crafts represented. It is this cadre of skilled individuals that, in many (if not most) cases keeps the wheels turning and the water squirting.
The communities they serve often have no idea just how big a debt they owe to these dedicated souls. The ingenuity of these volunteers is truly amazing, and while some of their methods might seem a bit bizarre, they usually got the job done.
For example, the early sprinkler system consisted of a barrel of water situated on top of a small gun powder charge; this was placed in the attic of a building with the idea that a fire would set off the gunpowder which would blow up the barrel and extinguish the fire below.
Believe it or not, there are accounts of this device actually working; hopefully the powder charge was not too large lest the “cure be worse than the disease.” While one might wonder about the collateral damage from such a device, we have to give credit where credit is due to the ingenious individual who first figured it out.
In early days America, municipal water mains were made of logs that had been bored thorough and then connected end-to-end. In order to access these mains for firefighting purposes, the colonial firefighters simply bored a hole in them. When they finished they repaired the hole by driving in a wooden plug (hence the term “fire plug’).
With the advent of the “Model T” and the Roxtel Axle, ae firefighter somewhere (probably a rookie who was tired of mucking out stables) sawed the tongue off the steamer, and attached the stub to a truck and the motor pumper was born.
Rigs of this type continued to serve until the advent of internal combustion engines large enough to power large capacity pumps. The last recorded certification of such a steam powered pumper in Texas was in 1925, and it can be assumed that the certification would be effective for a number of years after that.
The list of such inventions could fill more than one book but what happened was that there was an apparent need and the innovative firefighter, both career and volunteer, devised a way to meet it.
One only has to go to any fire equipment trade show to see this. There are always numerous exhibits of hose rollers, forced entry tools and rescue apparatus on display, nearly all of which have been developed by fire fighters to meet a specific perceived need. Those that work remain in the market place and those that do not will wind up on the trash heap but it is the perceptive ingenuity that is noteworthy.
Discussed small town volunteer fire departments does not imply that industry has been left in the dust; far from it. The members of the fire department or brigade of any industrial facility are usually drawn from the plant’s operating force; therefore, they are the people who are most familiar with the physical layout of the plant, as well as the characteristics and/or properties of the product(s) produced by that plant which may be involved in any incident.
They also have access to the shop and fabrication facilites maintained for the up-keep of the plant itself. Often these are considerable.
When the “stub sill” tank trailers were introduced as a way to reduce the gross vehicle weight of a truck and thus allow more payload to be carried, it became obvious that these could not be up-righted after a roll-over unless they were first emptied of cargo.
The fellows in the firehouse at Shell (and some other places) went to work and devised a protocol to off-load these containers under emergency field conditions. They used ordinary “off-the-shelf” equipment but they used it in an ingenious and innovative way. The procedure is still in wide use.
The story is told that another industrial firefighter was confronted by a fire in a large tank which could not be safely laddered. This imaginative fellow realized that foam, being lighter than oil, would rise to the surface of the burning liquid. So, he cobbled up a connection and pumped foam into the bottom of the tank. It did rise to the top of the liquid and spread across the surface extinguishing the fire.
Subsurface injection was born. It was not a product of a board meeting; there was no appointment of a committee; there was a need to be met and an imaginative firefighter who could come up with a means to meet that need.
The inventory of any fire department offers numerous testimonies to the effectiveness of firefighter inventiveness; there is the Halligan tool, the Eckert hook, the Cooper hose jacket, and the Pulaski axe, to name but a few. All of these are the result of an imaginative mind seeing an actual need and setting forth to find a solution. The solution may not satisfy the bureaucrats but it gets the job done.
The advent of the automobile on to the American scene brought with it the need to store large quantities of liquid fuels within local communities. This fuel is both immiscible with water and less dense than water, meaning it will float. This created a real problem for firefighters of the day and, as usual they rose to the occasion.
The story is told that the idea of applying suppression agents in the form of foam came to an off-duty firefighter who noticed the suds floating in the tub while he was helping his wife do the family wash. True or not, this is but another illustration of American ingenuity creating an innovative approach to the solution of a perceived need.
There is a very small village in the Black Range mountains of southern New Mexico (an old mining camp actually) that might, on a good day, boast 100 residents. The nearest fire department is some 40 miles away over a road that would break a snake’s back in summer and is often impassable in the winter.
There was no real fire protection except when forest fires threatened and then the U.S. Forest Service moved in. So, the men of the village got together and they cobbled up a fire trailer. This was during World War II so equipment for civilian use was at a premium.
The chassis was a two axle trailer with a low rail around the sides and across the front end. On it was mounted a recycled fertilizer tank and a gasoline powered pump bought at a garage sale in one of the larger towns. There were two 25 foot suction hoses and a couple of hundred feet of 1½-inch hose connected to an adjustable fog nozzle. There was also a small gas-powered generator of indeterminate vintage to provide lights at night.
It did not look like much but the fellows that built it knew their equipment and, most importantly, they knew how to use it. Furthermore they kept it maintained. Every Monday and Wednesday morning you could hear the pump and the generator starting up and see where the gravel road had been wet down.
This village was sited along a creek and each house has a driveway that goes down toward the creek. Each property owner was asked to clear the end of his/her drive so that the fire department could access the creek. There was a large metal disk hung on a frame near the post office. When the mail arrived each day, the postman would open the post office and beat on the metal disk with an old wrench to announce that the mail had arrived.
This happened at about the same time each day. This disk became the fire alarm.
If you had a fire you ran to the post office and grabbed the hammer and beat the metal disk to spread the alarm. The firefighters heard it and responded. Now remember that the village is about a city block in size. If there was much of a fire it could be seen.
The first responding vehicle that arrived hooked onto the trailer and moved to the scene of the fire where it was backed down the driveway to the edge of the creek; the suction hose was immersed in the creek and the pump started. The water in the tank provided prime for the pump and firefighting water for the first few minutes until the hose in the creek could be primed.
This apparatus worked. I saw it and it was adequate for the little community. Certainly it was better than what they had before. Admittedly, this equipment was but a crude makeshift. There probably was not a regulation or standard in the book that was not violated in some way but it worked well, given the conditions under which it was operating.
A number of residents have verified the reports that this apparatus did, on occasion, put out some fairly significant fires and that is what counts. I can verify that the trailer was still in use as a reserve apparatus as late as the mid-1950s.
This spirit of independence, self reliance and finding the solution to a communal problem through mutual cooperation is typically American and hopefully it will remain that way.
This characteristic is unique to our culture and is in large measure responsible for our country’s success; in no other country is the spirit of independent self reliance so much in evidence.
The previous story is by no means unique. During the Great Depression of the 1930’s many local fire departments kept going by doing what our friends in New Mexico did; they made do with what they had and what they didn’t have they improvised.
The C.H. Darley Company got its start selling component parts (along with advice) to small fire departments during this time.
So far we have talked mostly about the local community fire department but those in the industrial world have not been left behind, New products demand new processes and new processes require new types of equipment. Innovation on the production line requires invention on the fire line. The introduction of ethanol (another name for ethyl alcohol) to gasoline is a case in point.
Many (if not most) of the foam formulations currently in use had to be re done to deal with the water solubility of ethanol. The introduction of the stub sill tank trailer necessitated the hot tap method of offloading an overturn. The introduction of polyethylene piping created problems in detecting underground pipelines.
The use of hydroflouric acid (HF) in the manufacture of lead free gasoline has propelled what was a laboratory curiosity usually kept in a 5 ml. paraffin bottle into a production reagent shipped in tank cars throughout the country. The advent of these large quantities of this very hazardous chemical have led to a total reconstruction of the response technology utilized for incidents such as derailments in which this commodity could be in the mixture.
The list goes on and there is no end in sight. As the number of entries on the list of hazardous substances in commerce increases so does the number of methodologies necessary to mitigate incidents involving them. To create these methodologies and the equipment and hardware required to implement them has been a challenge to the innovative and inventive skills of the American fire fighter in the laboratory and on the nozzle. May his tribe increase.
A few days ago on the highway, I was passed by a large semitrailer and as it pulled over into the lane in front of me I could not help but notice the sign on the back which said, “Our greatest asset sits 63 inches in front of you.”
While I’m sure that this statement applies to a large majority of the truck drivers in this country, it applies equally well to the American firefighters, career and volunteer, who have, through the application of their various skills, the contribution of resources and the dedication of their time created an entity that has given our citizens some of the best fire protection services in the world and they have done a large part of it without the intervention of the government (perhaps that is why it works so well).
At any rate, the American fire service, particularly the volunteer service, both civil and industrial, stands as a memorial to the dedicated citizens who have and continue to serve their communities and is an example of what can be accomplished by ordinary people making a united effort to meet a communal need and ensure the safety of themselves, their communities and their fellow citizens.