A Short History Of Firefighters

Firemen fighting blaze with hose. (Ted Horowitz/Getty Images)

Humanity's control of fire may date as far back as 400,000 years and is often cited as the first step toward civilization, but as important as it is for mankind to make fire, it's just as important to put it out. The first evidence of firefighting can be seen in Ancient Egyptian artifacts, and we know that organized teams of firefighters sprang up under the rule of Augustus way back in 300 B.C.E. in Rome, but who are the firefighters we know today, and how did they come to be the way they are?

Red Trucks

When you think of a firetruck, you probably think of the color red. Why is this such a common color for firetrucks around the world? According to science, red is the most attention-grabbing color because it has the longest wavelength and thus can be seen from farther distances than any other color. It also helped that the first cars on the road in the U.S. were typically black because black paint was inexpensive, so in the early 20th century, fire departments painted their trucks bright red to stand out in a sea of dark vehicles.

Dalmatian in a fire service parade. (tinyfroglet/Wikimedia Commons)


Before they had trucks, firefighters used a variety of strategies for getting ahead of a crowd, including ringing bells and employing dogs to guide them through streets full of horses and carriages. Dalmatians in particular did a good job of keeping up with the horses' gallop and have an uncanny ability to keep horses calm next to a blazing inferno. They also stood guard at the carriages while the firefighters did their work, protecting their belongings from thieves.

Vancouver firemen using firepoles to leave their dormitory, 1910. (British Library/Wikimedia Commons)


Animals are also responsible for another firefighting quirk: the slide pole. Because old firehouses had to house and protect the horses between emergencies, they couldn't have regular staircases, lest the horses try to follow them up. That meant stations often only featured spiral staircases, but those aren't easy to bolt down carrying 50 lbs. of equipment, so in the 1870s, one firefighter at Chicago's Engine Co. 21 decided on a whim to simply slide down the pole that was used to secure the wagons on the bottom floor into which hay was dropped from the third-floor storage.

Everyone thought it was such a good idea that they replaced it with a sturdier pole for that express purpose, and while other firefighters made fun of the odd invention, this particular firehouse was the city's first all-black fire company, so no one was about to give them credit for anything. The laughter faded when it became apparent that Co. 21 was always the first to arrive at the scene, and by the end of the century, brass poles were commonplace in America's firehouses.