Saturday, December 28, 2013

Fire Companies and the Founders—An Introduction

It is difficult for those of us in this era to understand the unbridled fear that a cry of “fire” could rouse in the citizens of Revolutionary times.  It was both a friend, necessary for cooking, heating and life itself and at the same time, a destructive force which could lay waste to an entire city in a day if uncontrolled.  Benjamin Franklin is commonly considered the “father” of the volunteer fire company, which he organized in Philadelphia, but many of the ideas he used there were drawn from existing companies in his original home town of Boston.   

Church bells were the original station siren or pager of the day.  Such an alarm did not only bring out the engine men, but the community as a whole with their buckets.  Early truck work was aggressive and took the form of sometimes tearing down neighboring homes or buildings with their hooks to contain the fire and limit spread, the trench cut of the 1700s. 

In Boston, Revolutionary leaders such as Sam Adams and John Hancock were firewards (equivalent to a modern day Captain) and helped organize their companies as part of the resistance to the British.  Other firewards were participants in and gave aid in Paul Revere’s ride.  In some cities, fire companies adopted resolutions stating they would not fight a fire, should one occur, in the hated Tax Stamp office unless other property was endangered.  The Sons of Liberty, a Revolutionary era political organization with an anti-British focus drew a significant percentage of its membership from the ranks of the firemen in many cities.  That is not to say that firemen universally supported the Revolution any more than all firefighters today subscribe to a particular ideology.  Firemen then supervised actual political fires including effigy burnings and those of Tax Stamps.  Historians argue that fire companies provided a model and much manpower for Revolutionary ideals and organizations.  Many fought as part of the Continental Army and cities had difficulty maintaining their companies and engines.  As the towns and cities sprung up, so did the need for fire companies.   

Franklin wrote about the reasons men volunteered in their communities.  They did it “not for the sake of reward money or fame.  There is no provision of either made for them.  But they have a reward in themselves, and they love one another.”  Altruistic reasons aside, some things haven’t changed as the fire companies of the Revolutionary era enjoyed “a vibrant social life.”   

While it may seem simplistic, the development of American cities with the density of housing and other buildings as well as vertical expansion with taller buildings simply could not have happened without fire departments.  Today, fire departments are viewed by many as simply another public agency for which municipal budgets and taxes struggle to support.  In the era of the Revolution, they were truly part of the foundation without which the country could not have survived. 


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