Fire Department - History and Trivia

SFD History

In 2003, Skokie Public Library received a grant to digitize materials documenting the history of the Skokie Fire Department. Approximately seven hundred photographs, documents, and artifacts were digitized, all of them housed in the Historical Society and collected by Ron Smith of the Skokie Fire Department. Funding for this grant was awarded by the Illinois State Library, a Division of the Office of Secretary of State, and State Librarian Jesse White, using funds provided by the Institute of Museum and Library Services under the federal Library Services and Technology Act.

To view the archive click here.
What is a Fire Mark?

 Fire marks and fire insurance date back to the Great Fire of London, in 1666. As British insurance companies sprang up in response to the fire, each formed their own fire brigades. The brigades used fire marks, or plaques to determine whether they were responsible for protecting the house or business in question from fire.

This idea was brought to the U.S. when Benjamin Franklin started the Philadelphia Contributionship for the insurance of houses from loss of fire in 1752. America already had volunteer fire brigades, so the marks were not needed to move the firefighters in to action, but they did serve as proof for the property owner and advertising for the insurance company.

Some of the marks were made of lead, copper, tinned iron, zinc, brass and ceramic. They bore the logo of the insurance company. Some logos were firemen, coat of arms, trees (because of Ben Franklin's theory that trees attracted lightening, causing fires to spread and hampered fire fighting equipment; insurance companies refused to issue policies for building surrounded by trees), the sun, hand-in-hand symbol, and many others.  Click here to view historic fire marks.

Some accounts claim that fire brigades would not put out a fire that was not marked. Some suggest these marks were just advertisement for insurance companies. The custom lasted for more than a century, until the organization of city fire departments. This alleviated the idea of separating adequately insured property owners from those who could not afford to pay for protection.

Some marks are still on original buildings; however, these prized marks are often in the hands of collectors or in museums keeping the history of firefighting alive.

What is a Fire Tetrahedron? The fire tetrahedron represents what is needed for a fire. All four elements must be present at the same time in order to sustain a fire. A fire will burn until one element is removed. The four elements are:
  • Fuel = something to burn
  • Heat = something hot enough to ignite the fuel
  • Oxygen = 21% is needed for optimum burning (that is what we need to breathe)
  • Chemical Reaction = consuming of fuel and oxygen to produce heat and light as byproducts that serve to keep the fire burning
Where do fire poles come from? The fire pole was invented in 1874 by Chicago Fire Captain David Kenyon. Fire poles are not used as much due to many firefighter injuries. Many other items were founded in Chicago like the fire hydrant, the collapsible fire escapee and even the familiar fire helmet "the Chicago helmet".
When did the first fire apparatus arrive in America?

In the early 1700's the first hand pumpers arrived from England. The hand pumper had long, parallel handles that required many volunteers to pump up and down rapidly, pumping water from the machine's tub. These pumpers far exceeded the capabilities of the bucket brigades. American manufactures copied and refined these machines and used them for almost 100 years.

In the 1800's what was developed in England that changed the technology of firefighting?

 The steam pumper was created. Steam was created by firing the boiler with coal.
The power created was transferred to enable the unit to supply water to hoses. The steam pumper could supply a continuous stream of water more effectively and with far less man power than hand pumpers.

Who pulled the steam pumpers to the fire scene?  These pumpers were hand drawn by firefighters. It was not until the 1850's that horses were used to pull the apparatus. This period coincided with the introduction of paid firefighters.
In the hit T.V. show of the 70's "Emergency!" what were the names of the paramedics?  Johnny Gage and Roy DeSoto.
On October 9, 1871 the infamous "Chicago Fire" killed 300 people, but there was an even more tragic fire that same day. It killed 1200 people. Where was that fire?  Peshtigo, Wisconsin. For more information pertaining to the Peshtigo fire click here.
How long have fire sprinkler systems been in use? Fire sprinkler systems have been putting out fires since 1860. There have been many design improvements, however; the basic technology has remained the same. For more information click here
Have you ever wondered why some fire apparatus display a green warning light? Why is it there? Why are red and green lights on fire stations? A former Chicago fire commissioner, Albert Goodrich (1927), had family ties to the shipping business and he himself was a boating enthusiast. He must have felt it made sense to incorporate these lights into the fire service to determine the direction apparatus were responding and to indicate where fire stations were located; very much like red and green lights were used for navigation.
What is a bucket brigade? It refers to an early method of firefighting before hand pumped fire engines. The firefighters would pass buckets to each other to extinguish the blaze. Before firefighters arrived all able-bodied citizens would run to the scene with buckets. A double line would be formed from a water source and filled buckets would be passed up the line to the fire, where the water was thrown at the burning structure. The empty buckets would be quickly passed back, via the second line of people to be refilled.
Where did the bagpipe tradition at fire department funerals originate? The tradition of bagpipes being played at fire department funerals goes back to when many Irish and Scottish immigrants came to this country. Bagpipes were often played at Celtic funerals and ceils (dances). Many Irish and Scottish immigrants took jobs that were considered "dirty", like firefighters and police officers so the tradition carried over.

Associated with cities such as Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Chicago, pipe bands representing both fire and police often have more than 60 uniformed playing members. They are traditionally known as Emerald Societies after the Emerald Isle. Today, the tradition is universal and not just for the Irish or Scottish. The pipes have come to be a distinguished feature of a fallen hero's funeral.

What are fire grenades? A fire grenade was a bottle of thin and fragile glass that was designed to be thrown on the fire and to break easily, therefore, the contents would extinguish the flames. You could often find them in homes and buildings around the turn of the century. The grenades were filled with various liquids; however, carbon tetrachloride seemed to work the best. The grenades are very collectible today. They may come in many different colors and shapes. If you are lucky enough to find one, remember, they were made to be broken and destroyed, so use extreme caution in handling these grenades. Today, the fire grenade has been replaced by fire extinguishers. To view and learn about fire grenades click here.
Who invented the "modern" portable fire extinguisher? The portable fire extinguisher was invented by Captain George William Manby in 1819. It consisted of a copper vessel of 3-gallons of pearl ash (potassium carbonate) solution under compressed air pressure. Over the years, many effective fire extinguishing agents have been discovered but, their use was discontinued because of side effects such as toxicity. To view and learn about fire extinguishers click here.
What is a "Squirt"? In the middle ages a "squirt" was used to extinguish fires. It looked like a bicycle pump. The nozzle was dipped into water and only about 1-litre of water was pulled up using the plunger. The charged "squirt" was then directed at the fire and the plunger pushed to eject the water. It is said that "squirts" were used in 1666 on the Great Fire of London. Guess they were not too effective!
Who is St. Florian? St. Florian Mart A.D. 304 has been long regarded as the patron saint of Poland, Linz, and upper Austria. Many miracles of healing have been attributed to him. He is known as a powerful protector of danger from fire or water, making him the Patron Saint of Firefighters.
What is the Star of Life? The Star of Life is a blue, six-pointed star, outlined with a white border which features the Rod of Asclepius (an ancient Greek symbol associated with astrology and healing of the sick). It consists of a serpent entwined around a staff. Traditionally, it represents emergency medical services (EMS) units and personnel. A similar orange star is used for search and rescue personnel.
Who were the "Prowlers"? They were an organization formed following the fire wardens. They were furnished with buckets, hooks and ladders. They were often called the "rattle watch". They patrolled the streets during the night looking for fires.
Where did organized fire fighting in America begin? It began in New York (New Amsterdam) in 1648. A fire watch of eight "Wardens" were required each day, and every male citizen had to stand watch.
What you always wanted to know about the fire horse... In the 1850's horses became an integral part of urban fire fighting. This is due in part to equipment becoming heavier. Systems were developed to quickly harness the fire horse teams. Often, when the alarm sounded, stall doors would open and the horses were moved below their suspended harness. The harness, complete with collars, was placed on their backs and secured in place by the driver. The entire process could be completed quickly. Speed of response was and continues to be essential in fire fighting. Percherons (Draft Horses) were often selected as fire horses due to their speed and strength.
Do you know what a novelty lighter is? It's one that works like any other lighter except that it looks like a child's toy. There are literally hundreds of lighters disguised as toy animals, cell phones, key rings, balls and other colorful items that are attractive to children. If you have novelty lighters, please remove them. Let's protect our children and our community from the dangers created by these unsafe products.