Fighting fire

There isn’t a specific documented day in history that humans first controlled fire. However, my guess is that less than two weeks after that day, the same person probably burned down their kitchen or cave. Fire is something we love and need, but keeping it under control has always given humans trouble. Modern plumbing enabled firefighting to make our buildings exponentially safer from fires we create.  

I recently visited the Friendship Firehouse Museum in Alexandria, Virginia. They had an incredible old steam fire engine outside and two other antique machines in their museum. The Champion engine out front looked more like a Dr. Seuss contraption than a firefighting machine. It was an incredible mix of detailed metal work, and a quick glimpse into fire fighting history.  

The Friendship Fire Company was formed two years before the Declaration of Independence was signed. These volunteers worked heroically through the decades to keep Alexandria from burning down. Early homes in the U.S. were basically a laundry list of modern fire code violations. Knowing what we know now, just stepping foot into a 19th century building would have been ill-advised. The basic safety that a house created over a cave or temporary tent structure led to hundreds of new potential terrors. Fire was one of the most devastating.

Benjamin Franklin established one of the first volunteer fire brigades in the U.S. in Philadelphia. He was 30 years old at the time. This team of locals got together to figure out a more effective way to fight fires. Leather buckets were the best technology available, and without formal groups of volunteers, you would have to hope your neighbor liked you enough to help when your house was burning down. They typically would haul buckets of water from the closest river or well to the fire. Any amount of pre-coordinated reaction helped smooth out a low-tech process.  

Major advancements in the next decades came in the form of fire trucks. Initially, volunteers pushed wooden wheeled carts to the fires. Next, the carts were equipped with basic water cannons. Unfortunately, some of the early designs spilled as much water on the cobblestones as they put into the building.  

Even the components we take for granted have come a long way. Early fire hoses were made like a leather shoe; specifically, that they were leather and were sewn together. They didn’t work very well. Leather pieces are really only as big as the biggest cow you can find, and the seams blew apart with meaningful water pressure. Lightweight hoses with solid mechanical connection points made life easier. 

Creating water pressure was key for the early fire engines. Some designs used piston mechanisms that required people to push levers up and down to turn the crank and spray water. They gained the mechanical advantage, but created jumpy water pressure between piston cycles. These types of machines were much better than leather buckets, but had a long way to go.  

67 years after Franklin’s volunteers formed, Philadelphia had a major breakthrough. According to, in 1803, the creation of the Water Works in Philadelphia transformed the city’s ability to fight fires. It allowed engines to be filled quickly from stationary water sources around the city. Some of the first water mains were hollowed-out wood, so there was still a lot of work to be done. 

Fire sprinkler systems were invented about 40 years before they gained much attention in the U.S. Unlike the other plumbing-related advancements, which seemed to be adopted rather quickly. published a history that dated back to an 1806 patent filed in London by John Carey. Three years later, “William Cosgrove of London patented an improvement to the system that used 190 F rated fusible link actuators, an outside control valve and a fire department connection.” 

In 1912, Philly introduced their first motorized fire wagon. The technological pieces were coming together to effectively fight a fire. With any amount of technology, response time is key, and the U.S. is a big country.  

If a fire starts in the building you are in right now, chances are some of the responders will be volunteers. Paid firefighters and EMTs are relatively new to most parts of the U.S. Even today, volunteers who spend their free time training and get paid nothing or almost nothing, will be running towards danger, along with career firefighters, to an emergency. These people should be acknowledged as the heroes they are at every opportunity. Hopefully, plumbing and fire suppression systems can help make their jobs less perilous.

What are some advancements on the horizon? Segway, known by most for building machines for outdoorsy anti-walkers, has a commercial grade product offering, also. One of their four-wheeled robots is equipped with a Unifire water cannon. This concept model can carry 350 pounds of equipment and is remotely driven like a skid steer. It can drive into smoky or dangerous areas and safely spray water into a fire.  

Drones may also play a part in the future of firefighting. In the foreseeable future, firefighters will still run into burning buildings. Like the military, any safe intelligence for how best to handle dangerous situations is important. If a team of robots can detect and identify the source of a fire before boots are on the ground, the world will be a better place.  

Modern plumbing has helped us stop fires quickly after they start, and hopefully, we still have many advancements to look forward to. Just thank your lucky stars that in 2016 you don’t have to wait for a bell to wake up a sleeping Benjamin Franklin to grab a bucket of water. They didn’t have Segways back then. 

Max Rohr is a graduate of the University of Utah. He is the REHAU Construction Academy manager in Leesburg, Virginia. He has worked in the hydronics and solar industry for 16 years in the installation, sales and marketing sectors. Rohr is a LEED Green Associate and the Radiant Professional Alliance (RPA) Education Committee chairman. He can be reached by email at and on Twitter at @maxjrohr.

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