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Firefighter with an axe
Firefighter with an axe

A firefighter, sometimes still called a fireman though women have increasingly joined firefighting units, is a person who is trained and equipped to put out fires, rescue people and in some areas provide emergency medical services. The fire service, also known as the fire brigade or fire department in some countries, is one of the emergency services.

Firefighting is the process and profession of extinguishing fires. Firefighting is important in urban areas where firefighters are on constant standby; in wildland areas, and on board ship.


Fire-fighting skills

Note: this mostly discusses urban firefighting. See wildfire for a discussion of forest fires.

Firefighting has several basic skills: prevention, self-preservation , rescue, preservation of property and fire control. Firefighting is further broken down into skills which include size-up, extinguishment, ventilation, and salvage and overhaul. Search and Rescue, which has already been mentioned, is performed early in any fire scenario and many times is in unison with extinguishment and ventilation.


Prevention attempts to ensure that no place simultaneously has sufficient heat, fuel and air to allow ignition and combustion. Most prevention programs are directed at controlling the energy of activation (heat). Fire suppression sprinkler systems have a proven record for controlling and extinguishing unwanted fires. Many fire officials recommend that every building, including residences, have sprinklers. Correctly working sprinklers in a residence greatly reduce the risk of death from a fire. With the small rooms typical of a residence, one or two sprinklers can cover most rooms.


Self-preservation is critical. The basic technique firefighters use is to know where they are, and to avoid hazards. Current standards in the United States require that firefighters work in teams, using two-in, two-out whenever in an IDLH (Immediately Dangerous to Life or Health) environment. Tools are generally carried at all times, and a special device called a PASS device is commonly worn to alert others when a firefighter stops moving for a specified period of time. In the United States, the National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA) sets a number of standards for firefighters. These standards may be adopted as law by state or local governments, or enforced by the firefighting organizations on their own.


Rescue consists of searching, and then removing people that are alive. Animals may also be recovered, if resources and conditions permit. Generally triage and first aid are performed outside. The general form of rescue is to shuffle through the structure with the right hand against the wall, or utilizing a tool. Many fire departments follow a two-in, two-out rule, and in a large room the second person would follow behind the first, usually on their immediate left. This is called a right hand search. There is also a left hand search, which is the same thing except the right and left are reversed. Rescuers must remember to search beds and cupboards, and to identify themselves to victims. Many children are very frightened of fire-fighters in breathing masks.

Rescue may also involve the extrication of victims of motor vehicle accidents. Here firefighters use spreaders, cutters, and rams, tools more commonly known as the Jaws of Life. More technical forms of rescue include subsets such as rope rescue, swiftwater rescue, confined space rescue, and trench rescue. These types of rescue are often extremely hazardous and physically demanding.


Buildings that are made of fuel, such as frame buildings, are different from fire-proof buildings such as concrete high-rises. Generally, the fire in a fire-proof building can be limited to a floor. Other floors can be safe simply by preventing smoke inhalation and damage. A burnable building must be evacuated.

Property preservation is a great help to people. Most fires can be limited to burning only the upper part of a frame structure. If possible, gas, electricity and water should be turned off during the search, and all movable property should be tipped into the middle of a room and covered with a heavy cloth tarp. This reduces damage from water, smoke and burning embers. If the structure doesn't catch, it's very helpful to ventilate it to reduce smoke damage.

Fire control

Firefighters at an urban--wildfire interface. This is becoming an increasing concern as people build more homes in and near forested land.
Firefighters at an urban--wildfire interface. This is becoming an increasing concern as people build more homes in and near forested land.

Fire control consists of depriving a fire of fuel, oxygen or heat. The standard way is to remove heat by spraying the burning solid fuels with water from a fire-hose. Some fuels float on water, and are actually spread by water (such as gasoline). Some departments can use chemical dust even on large fires. These are preferable because the property damage can be so much less than with water. Petroleum fires are more often smothered with foam. In electrical fires, the crucial thing is to turn off the electricity.

Most fires spread as hot gases move through the structure. Some fires can be controlled or limited by venting these gases to the outside. This can aggravate a fire if it introduces new oxygen, or permits a draft past fuel or structure, so it should be attempted only by veteran fire fighters.

Firefighters are constantly training and updating their skills on equipment. Some of their tools include extrication equipment, ladder trucks, tanker trucks, pumper trucks, and ambulances.

History of fire brigades

The history of organized combatting of structural fires dates back at least to ancient Egypt where hand-operated pumps may have been employed to extinguish fires. However, such attempts could be of limited value given the large structural conflagrations that could sweep through Rome and other cities. The Roman fire brigade (Vigiles) was formed in AD 6 by Augustus to combat fires using bucket brigades and pumps, as well as poles, hooks and even ballistae to tear down buildings in advance of the flames. It is generally thought that this is where the "hook" in "hook and ladder company" comes from.

Rome suffered a number of serious fires, most notably the fire that started near the Circus Maximus on 19 July AD 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 burn. 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 experience that experienced such a need for organized fire control was London, which suffered great fires in 798, 982 and 989, and the Great Fire of London in 1666. This last fire, which started in a baker's shop on Pudding Lane, consumed about two square miles (5 km²) of the city, leaving tens of thousands homeless. 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 (15 m) 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 fires by bucket brigade if necessary. In Boston, serious fires in 1653 and 1676 had inspired the city to take greater measures towards combatting fire.

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 (12 L/s) at up to 120 feet (40 m).

Benjamin Franklin created the Union Fire Company in 1736 in Philadelphia, 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, therefore, 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 UK, organized firefighting 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, fire and rescue remains a patchwork of paid and volunteer responders. Typically, fire services in rural areas consist of volunteers while full-time organizations dominate cities and urban areas, although there are exceptions.

National information


Reflecting the rural nature of much of the country (wide areas with low density of population), the Volunteer Fire brigade (SPV, sapeur-pompier volontaire), with over 190,000 firefighters is the largest firefighting force in France. In addition to being called out from work to attend an incident, they may be on standby at firestations outside their working hours; the intervention and attending hours are paid by the session. The volunteer firebrigade is also a way to promote the culture of civil defense and of solidarity amongst the population. The Professional Fire Brigade (SPP, sapeur-pompier professionnel) numbers over 30,000 firefighters, employed by the départements and working on shifts. In some towns there is a mixture of professionals and volunteers, in others only one or the other.

In Paris and Marseille, the fire brigades are made up of military personnel, but under the control of the Ministry of the Interior in a similar way to the Gendarmes. The Paris brigade (BSPP) has around 7,000 firefighters, and the BMPM in Marseille has over 2,000.

French firefighters tackle over 3.6 million incidents each year:

With the SAMU (French EMS), they are the backbone of the French civil defense.


Spanish firefighters are famous for their collaboration with Third World countries. They are led by Jorge de Miguel San Martin, the chief of staff of the Spanish fire department.

United Kingdom

The fire brigades in England are organised on a county basis, with each post-1974 county having its own brigade. In Scotland and Wales they are on a regional basis, with six and three brigades respectively. Northern Ireland has a single brigade, the Northern Ireland Fire Brigade . In rural areas, there are often fire stations manned by part-time retained firefighters. As well as responding to fires and such like, British fire brigades also have a written responsibility (in the 1947 Fire Services act) to come to the aid of "animals in distress" (stereotypically, cats stuck up trees). Although this is still the law, many fire brigades now charge for this service. More information can be found here .


The German Firebrigades (Feuerwehr ) are organised on a town/village basis, with each town having at least one brigade. In Germany there are about 25 000 Fire departmenst - 24 000 volunteer firedepartments , 800 private fire departments and 100 public fire departments . The german firedepartments often are highly technisied. Each Fire Engine can carry as much material as up to 4 American Fire Engines while the cars are smaller. For further information read the article in the German Wikipedia .


In popular literature, firefighters are usually depicted with Dalmatian dogs. This breed originated in southern Europe to assist with herding livestock and run along with horses, and in the days of horse-drawn fire apparatus the horses were usually released on arrival at the fire and the Dalmatians would lead/direct the horses to a safe place to wait til the fire was out. Dalmatians also filled the role of protecting the horses feet from other dogs as the fire equipment was being transported to the fire scene.

Firefighters often refer to law enforcement officers as "blue canaries", tongue in cheek, because one can evaluate a hazardous material incident from a distance by watching the police—they always drive right up to the scene, and if their cars don't stall, it's not an oxygen deprived atmosphere. Then they jump out of their vehicle, and if they don't die, it's not a poisonous atmosphere. Then they start lighting flares, and if there isn't an explosion, it's not an explosive atmosphere, and if the car doesn't melt into a puddle, the atmosphere isn't corrosive, and the firefighters can move in.

Another tongue in cheek reference is the "New Jersey Taste Test", where a firefighter or police officer walks to a hazardous material, dips up a little with their finger, then tastes it. See "blue canaries" above.

The "Hazmat Rule of Thumb": If you can hold your thumb up and still see the incident, you are still too close.

See also

Last updated: 02-08-2005 11:04:10
Last updated: 05-03-2005 17:50:55