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2006 marks the 2000th anniversary of firefighting as it is known today.

In 6 A.D. after a disastrous fire in Rome, Emperor Caesar Augustus established the first organized fire brigade known as the Vigiles. The Corp of Vigiles consisted of ex-slaves who were trained in firefighting; they also served as watchmen of the city during the night.

The duties of the Vigiles were divided into Uncinarius, the hook-man who carried a large hook for removing burning roofs; Siphonarius, the firefighter who was responsible for the supervision and operation of water pumps; Aquarius, the firefighter whose main duties were to supply water to pumps and organize bucket chains, and the Emperor who was the fire chief.

There were seven battalions of firefighters, each working in two of Rome’s fourteen fire districts. Each battalion, which were known as cohorts, consisted of 560 men. Each battalion had one chief and he was assisted by administrative personnel and four physicians.

Firefighters used hooks, pick-axes, ladders and ropes as equipment. They also brought their own water to the fire using buckets. Powerful pumps were used which could reach a height of 20 to 30 meters. Water was drawn from public fountains, basins and wells inside buildings.

Fire codes were developed and enforced; a 4% tax was levied on the sale of slaves to pay for the Corp of Vigiles.

The Corp of Vigiles, which consisted of 7190 members grew to become one of the most powerful, esteemed and elite organizations in the Roman Empire. The fire service known today is a direct result of the Vigiles.

In the following years, the Vigiles expanded to other cities in the Roman Empire to provide fire protection.

“Rome suffered a number of serious fires, most notably the fire that started near the Circus Maximus on 19 July A.D. 64 and eventually destroyed two-thirds of Rome. The Emperor Nero was blamed for the conflagration, and may in fact have allowed the fire to bum. At least one roman may have become very rich from this fire, buying properties in advance of the flames and using teams of slaves in attempts to defend his recent acquisitions from being consumed”.

“Another great city that experienced such a need for organized fire control was London, which suffered great fires in 798, 982, and 989. Little is known about the development of fire fighting in Europe until after the Great Fire of London in 1666. It started in a baker’s shop on Pudding Lane, consumed about two square miles of the city, leaving tens of thousands homeless. Prior to this fire, London had no organized fire protection system. Afterwards, insurance companies formed private fire brigades to protect their clients’ property. Insurance brigades would only fight fires at buildings the company insured. These buildings were identified by a badge or sign. Still, it was not until 1672 that the Dutch inventor, Jan Van der Heiden invented the fire-hose. Constructed of flexible leather and coupled every 50 feet with brass fittings, the length and connections remain the standard to this day.”

“Meanwhile, in America, Jamestown, Virginia had been virtually destroyed in a fire in January, 1608. Fire “wardens” were appointed in New Amsterdam in 1648. Wardens were to patrol the cities to inspect chimneys. “Rattle Watches’ were performed at night by eight appointees, who were to rouse citizens to fight fire by bucket brigade if necessary. In Boston, serious fires in 1653 and 1676 had inspired the city to take greater measures towards combating fires.”

“The fire engine was developed by Richard Newsham of London in 1725. Pulled as a cart to the fire, these manual pumps were manned by teams of men and could deliver up to 160 gallons per minute.”

“Benjamin Franklin created the Union Fire Company in 1736 in Philadephia, the first volunteer fire company in America. There were no full-time paid firefighters in America until 1850. Even after the formation of paid fire companies in the United States, there were disagreements and often fights over territory. New York City companies were famous for sending runners out to fires with a large barrel to cover the hydrant closest to the fire in advance of the engines. Often fights would break out between the runners and even the responding fire companies for the right to fight the fire and receive the insurance money that would be paid to the company that fought it.”

“Napoleon Bonaparte is generally attributed as creating the first “professional” firefighters, known as Sapeurs-Pompiers, from the French Army. Created under the Commandant of engineers in 1810, the company was organized after a fire at the ballroom in the Austrian Embassy in Paris which injured several dignitaries.”

“In the United Kingdom, organized fire fighting arrived in Edinburgh, Scotland when the Edinburgh Fire Engine Establishment was formed in 1824, led by James Braidwood. London followed in 1832 with the London Fire Engine Establishment”.

“The first horse-drawn steam engine for fighting fires was invented in 1829, but not accepted in structural firefighting until 1860, and ignored for another two years afterwards. Internal combustion engine fire engines arrived in 1907, built in the United States, leading to the decline and disappearance of steam engines by 1925”.

Today the fire service has modem fire suppression engines, cameras that can see through smoke, breathing apparatus that protect our firefighters and the best in communications equipment. One can only imagine what firefighting will be like in the next 2000 years.

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