Firefighting Origins

Fire Protection During the Roman Empire

A brief history of the fire service worldwide will add a nice outlook on how far we have progressed to modern day firefighting.

Familia Publica

The first recorded attempts to control the ravages of fire took place about 300 B.C. in Rome, where firefighting duties and night watch services were delegated to a band of slaves, the Familia Publica, supervised by committees of citizens.

Corps of Vigiles

During the reign of Augustus Caesar (Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus) from 27 B.C. to 14 A.D., Rome developed what might be considered the first municipal-type fire department by organizing these slaves and citizens into a Corps of Vigiles (watch service).

The Corps of Vigiles represents the first organized form of fire protection. Night patrolling and night watch forces were its principal services. In addition, each of the vigils was assigned a particular task during a fire.

For example, some members called Aquarii, carried water to the fire scene in jars. Later aqueducts were built to carry water around the city and hand pumps were developed to help get the water to the fire.

Earliest Recorded Fire Chief
The earliest recorded Fire Chief was the Praefectus Vigilum who was charged with overall responsibility for the Corps of Vigiles. Roman law decreed that Quarstionarius, the Roman equivalent of today’s State Fire Marshall, determined causes of all fires.


During the time of the Roman Empire, leather hoses came in to use and large pillows were carried to the scene so people could jump from tall buildings.

Fire Protection In Colonial America

Night Fire Watches

Night fire watches were instituted in the larger cities of America in colonial times. In Boston in 1654, a bellman was put to work from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. These volunteers were called the “rattle watch” because of the large rattles used to sound alarms.

The night fire watch service was a community institution before there were municipal police forces. As a result of a disastrous fire in Boston in 1631, the first fire ordinance in America was adopted. It prohibited thatched roofs and wooden chimneys.

First Paid Fire Department

Another large fire in Boston in 1679 led to the organization of the first paid fire department in North America, if not the world. Boston selectmen imported a fire engine from England and employed a fire chief, Thomas Atkins, and twelve firefighters to operate it.

In colonial American communities, each homeowner was required to keep two buckets on hand. When church bells rang to report a fire, people formed lines to pass water from wells or springs to the fire. Although when fire engines were introduced, companies were organized to operate the engines, citizens still were required to respond with buckets to fill the engines.

As late as 1810, Boston citizens were subject to a dollar fine for failure to respond to alarms with their buckets. By 1715, Boston had six fire companies with engines of English manufacture. This was before either New York City or Philadelphia had a single engine in service.

Drawing of Benjamin Franklin, Fire Chief - Union Fire CompanyUnion Fire Company

In 1736, Benjamin Franklin recommended the formation of a volunteer firefighting force called the Union Fire Company and served on it as America’s first volunteer fire chief. Franklin also organized the first fire insurance company in the United States, the Philadelphia Contributionship.

However, the actual job of firefighting was performed either by the fire companies operating under the authority of the municipality or by independent volunteer companies that owned their own stations and apparatus. American insurance companies frequently contributed to the support of the volunteer fire companies.

Great Chicago Fire

Even in the 1800s, American fire protection and prevention regulations still required major disasters before they were enacted and enforced, as can be evidenced by the great Chicago fire. On October 9, 1871, a sweeping conflagration destroyed most of Chicago.

Following the great Chicago fire, the Chicago City Council decreed that the city be rebuilt of brick and stone. Fire Prevention Week, established in 1922 to mark the anniversary of the Chicago disaster, is intended to serve as a reminder of the destructiveness of fire and the importance of its prevention.

San Francisco Earthquake

In 1906 the San Francisco earthquake and resulting conflagration caused six hundred seventy-four (674) fatalities and destroyed more than 28,000 buildings. It is considered the last of the huge urban conflagrations in the United States.

Updated Equipment

Later in the early 1900s, fire hydrants, updated fire apparatus, hose, tools and equipment were all improved.