Millions of years ago, mankind first encountered fire, and a need to be protected from it has existed ever since. Even though mankind’s knowledge of fire has grown, fire accidents and damage still occur and having a water supply available for fire protection needs is crucial. It has taken centuries to develop the current rules, regulations and guidelines for fire prevention and protection followed today.
Until early modern times, the bucket was the primary equipment used to fight a fire1 . Water sources were limited and often provided an inadequate supply to extinguish a fire. Cisterns were drained and adjacent buildings were torn down in an attempt to contain fires, but this did little to prevent loss of life or damage. The quality of fire service was so poor that if a building caught fire, it was almost certain to burn to the ground2 .
In the 1800s, private fire brigades were formed as a for-profit industry. The brigade consisted of several men or several hundred who would line up near a water source and pass full buckets person to person while another line would pass back empty buckets to be filled again. Insurance companies would pay whichever brigade got to the insured property first. This led to dangerous competition and fights over territory. Sometimes buildings would burn to the ground before the stake-to-claim issue could be resolved, but little could be done since the brigades were often the only source of fire protection3 . However, this changed when the government took responsibility for fire protection needs and pumping devices were developed to draw water from rivers, ponds, and reservoirs.
The first fire engines were just small reservoirs carried on poles or wheels. The pumps were used to force water through a pipe to the bucket, but after the reservoir was empty, another nearby well or cistern was raided. Later, the hose was developed and some cities had wells drilled at strategic locations to help with accessibility, but the problem of water pressure still existed and adequate fire flows could not be reached during emergencies4 .
To solve water pressure needs and accessibility, many factory towns like Chicago and New York began building wooden water towers on the roofs of their factories, warehouses, and public buildings to provide water for fire protection5 . Basement pumps lifted the water to the elevated tank, and then gravity would do the rest to provide adequate fire flows during an emergency. Any building higher than six floors was legally required to have a water tank visibly standing on the roof for fire protection. Many of these tanks were dismantled, abandoned or left to deteriorate after electric pumps were developed, but some are still visible and in use. Wooden tanks constructed to hold water were mostly made from cypress, white pine, and redwood. Wooden tanks expand and contract with the variations in water level, making tightening of the hoops the only regularly required maintenance. However, as water needs increased so did the wooden tank prices.
Advances in technology such as noncorrosive materials, paint and galvanizing made it possible to prolong the life of steel, and water tanks made of steel started replacing the wooden ones. Improved welding such as arc welding provided a more cost effective and higher-quality tank that could be made easier, faster and of lighter material. Then, the electric pump made construction of ground storage tanks possible. A ground storage tank could be constructed to hold a larger capacity and could be maintained easier and safer than an elevated water tank.
Today, most fire water tanks are designed, fabricated and constructed in accordance with National Fire Protection Association standards. They are typically flat bottom tanks that provide a large supply of water to fire sprinkler systems. Great success has come from the development of fire sprinkler systems, but without the proper water supply, they cannot be used effectively. Fire protection tanks must be in proper working order at all times to provide the service fire sprinkler systems need. If one part of the system fails during a fire, lives could be lost.
Fire tanks should be protected from corrosion and inspected regularly for signs of pitting, corrosion or failure of coatings. They should also be cleaned regularly to prevent large amounts of sludge or debris that can restrict the flow of water and render the fire suppression system inadequate. A broken liquid level indicator or level alarm malfunctions could prevent a tank from filling properly – resulting in little or no water supply if there is an emergency. Protect fire protection tanks from freezing. They should be heated or insulated to prevent ice development that could render the system ineffective.
The National Fire Protection Association has devised guidelines to help fire tanks remain in safe operation. Follow these guidelines to insure water supply for fire protection is available when needed. For more information about water tanks and the services required to maintain them effectively, contact the author [email protected] (270)826-9000 ext. 350 or visit Pittsburg Tank & Tower’at www.watertank.com.
References 1. NAOED, “The History of Fire Fighting,” www.mergencydispatch.org. 2. Historic Memphis Fire Department, www.historical-memphis.com. 3. History of the Magnolia Fire Department: “A Look in the Past,” www.magnoliaar.com. 4. City of Turlock: “Turlock Fire Department” www.ci.turlock.ca.us. 5. Chicago Tribune. July 26, 2006. “Tanks for the Memories,” www. chicagotribune.com.