Thursday, October 30, 2008

History of Fire Fighting (part 1)

The history of fire and fire fighting dates back to thousands of years. Right from the time man gained knowledge of how to start a fire, accidents related to fire have occurred time and again. With time, we have established many agencies, forces and groups to fight fire and to help people recover form the loss of lives and monetary losses that a conflagration brings about. Right through this paper, we would be focusing on those moments in history that have led us to change the way we have perceived fire and firefighting. We will showcase the manner in which we have established different units to combat different inflictions caused due to fires, and how we have improved in our endeavor over these years.

Man had learnt to control fire thousands of years back, and archeological evidences found in Egypt and China are a testimony to this fact. According to sources in the history, the first ever fire fighting crew was formed by Caesar to protect Rome against fires.

Through the history of the United States, there have been massive fires; the first one being at Jamestown in 1608, just one year after it was founded. This was a mass conflagration and led to huge losses of life, property and money. This left the people with only two options, either to move back to England or to face the brunt of the angry Indians and the belligerent winter chill. This was the first major fire in the history of the United States, and many more were to follow.

In 1630, Boston was founded, and this city has probably been a witness to the most conflagrations in the United States. Fires in 1631, 1654 and 1676 hit Boston time and again. These fires accounted for losses unaccounted for even today. The fires were so harsh that it led the administration to give firefighting and fire prevention and serious thought. All this led to the formation of new codes and rules regarding fire fighting, including laws pertaining to the usage of open spaces, fire resistant building material and formation of fire fighting departments. These were the first 'written' rules pertaining to fire fighting and prevention.

Again, it was after the first great conflagration of Boston in 1631, that a law banning smoking at public places was passed at Massachusetts in 1638 in order to curtail the devastation caused due to fire and to ban public display of fire-causing elements. Peter Stuyvesant was the first American Governor to form a fire fighting association in the form of the "Fire Wardens" in 1648, who were supposed to protect the new establishments being set up at New Amsterdam (now New York). The 'Fire Wardens' was the first fire fighting group in America. Some of the responsibilities of the fire wardens include assuring the safe exit of everyone caught in the inferno, to specially escort persons with disabilities to the pre-defined safe exit, to ensure that all the doors, windows and all equipments that may cause fire in the future should be turned off provided there is no danger to the personal safety of the firefighters. Most of the rules and responsibilities laid down for the fire wardens have served as the base for most of the existing rules and guidelines, especially in the US.
Because Boston had been witness to some of the most devastating conflagrations of the 17th century, the first fire department, engine, and paid firefighters were established here in the later part of the same century.

Following in the footsteps of Boston's administration, administration of New York also established the Volunteer Fire Department in 1737. According to America's internal government records, about 73% of all the fire fighters in America have entered via VFDs or Volunteer Fire Departments. The main difference between voluntary fire fighters and regular firefighters lies in the fact that voluntary firefighters do not actually work on fixed shifts and do not reside in firehouses; rather they are called as and when they are needed. Right from the inception of Voluntary Fire Department in New York, firefighters have been coming to the service of the nation time and again through this medium.

From here on, awareness about fire, firefighting and the need to suppress the possible dangers of fire grew, and Benjamin Franklin established an insurance company covering losses due to fire, and was known as the American Fire Insurance Company.

This was the starting point of the long tussle between insurance companies and their customers in America. The first big incident that happened after scores of fire insurance companies- claiming to cover all losses incurred due to fire- came up in abundance, was in December 1835 at New York, when the Great Fire of New York left thousands homeless and jobless and most of the insurance companies who had covered the buildings involved were rendered bankrupt due to the Great Fire.

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