Firefighting History: From Water Buckets to Hydrants and The Modern Fire Hose

Posted by Glenn Hamm on

Modern day advances provide many tools that have contributed to the success in fighting fires. For example, the fire hydrant allows firefighters access to a water source in close proximity to the fire. However, it is easy to take such tools for granted.

Prior to the creation of the fire hydrant, firefighters used a bucket brigade and/or hand pumping system. Picture in your mind a fire that took place during Colonial Times and you’ll likely envision bucket brigades. In fact, individual homeowners were required to keep special leather buckets on hand so they could help to transport water from a nearby well or lake to the scene of the fire by volunteers.  As time went on, municipal water systems were developed. However, by today's standard, they were archaic.  These early systems were made of wooden pipe and did not have fire hydrants.  In order to gain access to a great amount of water, firefighters had to dig a hole into the water main. Once they no longer needed water, “fire plugs” were created in order to close the hole.  Interestingly the term, "catch the plug" comes from firefighters going back to existing plugs from previous fires and removing them for faster access to water.  Ultimately, these slow and inefficient systems did not suffice for extinguishing fires of great size and along came the Fire Hydrant and Fire Hose. 

Credit for the first fire hydrant in 1801 goes to Frederick Graff Sr., a fire engineer from Philadelphia. Although, the patent for his creation of the fire hydrant is not verified due to a fire that occurred in the patent office where all destroyed records. As a result, according to some sources, George Smith, a fireman, is given credit for creating the first fire hydrant in 1817.It is easy to take such tools for granted.

Fire hoses have a similar history and like the water supply, fire hose designs improved over time.  Originally the fire hoses, much like the first fire buckets, were made of sewn leather.  As new materials and manufacturing methods were developed, the leather hoses were replaced with rubber hoses. Eventually even these were replaced with more durable synthetic fibers that were lighter and more flexible. But firefighters soon learned that they could be much more effective if they could move greater volumes of water, so larger hoses were developed. Early hoses were 2 ½ inches in diameter, and they were expected to flow 250 gallons of water per minute. By comparison, today’s hoses are often 5 inches in diameter and can easily deliver more than 1,500 gallons of water per minute. And because the newer hoses are made with lightweight materials, they are no heavier than their predecessors.

We have certainly come a long way since the early bucket brigades.  However the passion to serve our fellow man is something that has remained strong in firefighters throughout the ages.

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