The Fire and Rescue Service as we know it today began its history rising from the ashes of the Great Fire of London when it broke out in Pudding Lane in 1666. There was no fire brigade, no hosepipes, and no protective clothing. Fires were essentially fought with leather buckets to carry water. Only 36 leather buckets were available to tackle the raging fire. Because of this disaster which destroyed much of the city and left 100,000 people homeless, new regulations were ushered in at a time when insurance did not exist. We have come a long way!
Did You Know?
The first insurance company, the Fire Office, was formed in 1667 by physician Nicholas Barbon who grasped this business opportunity. His company had its own fire brigade only for those who bought insurance and policyholders were given plaques for their homes showing their insurance number so that the fire brigade would know which fires to extinguish.
Other insurance companies followed with the Sun Fire Office forming in 1710 and is now the oldest insurance company in the world. They all operated the plaque system. No plaque, no fire extinguished! Not only that, but if the plaque was not one from the fire company who attended, then the building would be left to burn until the right company turned up!
It was not until 1866 that the Metropolitan Fire Brigade was formed. The innovative Captain Sir Eyre Massey Shaw became their Chief Officer and introduced new fire engines, a new uniform, and a new ranking system. Steam fire engines had the capability of pumping 300 gallons of water a minute. Horses were used to pull them and were housed at the station with the firefighters. Sloping floors in the stations were introduced to allow engines to move out more easily. This was called ‘on the run’ and the term lives on today.
The new uniform consisted of a blue double-breasted serge tunic and trousers and each firefighter carried an axe and a hose spanner and wore the iconic brass helmet. A number worn on the tunic represented rank – the lower the number the more senior the rank.
Scotland were the first country in the world to establish a municipal fire brigade in Edinburgh in 1824. Their Fire Chief, James Braidwood, moved to London in 1833 to take up the position there but was tragically killed when attending a warehouse fire. Busy issuing measures of rum to his firefighters to boost morale, he died when a wall fell on him.
During World War 2, the National Fire Service was formed and saw their busiest time ever with an enormous role to play, often whilst under fire from the enemy. Winston Churchill referred to the firefighters as ‘Angels with Grimy Faces’.
Indeed, dealing with the harshest of circumstances and tragedy, they have always been compassionate and charitable as well as being courageous in facing adversity. Now, their role has become much broader and a lot of their work is done ‘behind the scenes’ educating the public about prevention of fires and accidents. In attendance at road traffic accidents, acts of terrorism, and now assisting other frontline services to care for and protect the public in a pandemic, there have been some considerable changes to the service. As the situations they face grow in enormity and challenge, crucial developments have followed – thermal-imaging, uniforms allowing greater comfort and protection from the elements encountered, high tech equipment and a more in-depth understanding of training needs in life and death decision-making skills.