Firefighting

A firefighter puts out a fire using water. Image Source: Vimeo.com/user1108725 Steve Harryman

Firefighting is not exactly part of the criminal justice field, but because Fire Marshalls are the investigators of fires, their duties intersect with Law Enforcement. For this reason, we include information about firefighting and firefighters in criminaljusticelaw.org.

A Brief History of Firefighting

Government sanctioned firefighting was first established by Emperor Nero after the fire which nearly destroyed the city of Rome. Equipping 7000 citizens with buckets and axes, the goal was to quickly mobilize efforts to limit the spread of future fires. Given that much of the city consisted of wood and stone structures, the spread of fire was a very real concern.

An illustration from Franklin's paper on "...
An illustration from Franklin’s paper on “Water-spouts and Whirlwinds.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Throughout the middle ages, this same tactic was extensively applied in small villages and towns. By the 1500s, a device called a syringe was used, often set atop wheeled carts for rapid mobilization. However, these were generally restricted to larger cities. Smaller towns and villages around that time began to rely on what has been termed a bucket brigade. The idea was simple: Villagers would form a line from the nearest water source to the fire and buckets of water were passed rapidly from one to the other…sort of a living water hose.

About 100 years later, the city of Amsterdam constructed a cart with a tank which was kept full at all times to transport water nearer to a fire. This greatly expedited the bucket brigade system and provided more expeditious means of preventing the spread of fires in the city. This, along with efforts in England formed the precursor of the modern professional firefighter.

The Great Fire of London in 1666 caused the English to take a serious look at preventing the spread of fires in the city which was mostly constructed of wood. A physician named Nicholas Barebone (also Barbon) came up with an ingenious way to both protect the city and make a personal fortune.

Barbon created a company offering fire insurance. At the same time, he formed his own firefighting crew, a professional bucket brigade. He then offered protective services to clients who would mark their business so that should a fire erupt, they would be first in line for fire suppression. The idea caught on and eventually led to the development of the modern firefighting force in England.

The Great Fire of London destroyed 80% of the ...
The Great Fire of London destroyed 80% of the city in 1666. The Guildhall was damaged in this and other great fires. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Around the same time, several cities in the American colonies were confronted with devastating fires. From Jamestown to Boston including New York and Philadelphia, fires wrecked havoc on the small cities forcing colonists to establish their own fire brigades. By 1740, Benjamin Franklin had established fire insurance and made several important contributions to firefighting. Two of these were practical inventions to protect both movable and non-movable property: The salvage bag could be used to quickly remove valuables from a building and the fire key was installed on beds and other furnishings in advance of a fire. The fire key allowed such furnishings to be quickly dismantled for rapid removal to help reduce the spread of fire within.

By 1740, Benjamin Franklin had established fire insurance and made several important contributions to firefighting. Two of these were practical inventions to protect both movable and non-movable property: The salvage bag could be used to quickly remove valuables from a building and the fire key was installed on beds and other furnishings in advance of a fire. The fire key allowed such furnishings to be quickly dismantled for rapid removal to help reduce the spread of fire within. Eventually, rules were established, and both ladders and hooks were added to the arsenal of tools with which a fire could be effectively fought, items which continue to this day.

Before long, Franklin added one final, vital element which would shape the modern firefighting crew: A chain of command.

Much as with smaller communities today, early firefighters were volunteers, even those working with fire insurance companies.

Early horse and human-drawn fire engines were replaced by steam-powered engines by 1841, but with the advent of internal combustion engines in the early part of the 20th Century, the modern firefighter was born.

The Role of Modern Firefighters

"Firehooks" used to fight a fire at ...
“Firehooks” used to fight a fire at Tiverton in Devon, England, 1612. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since the time of Franklin, firefighting has continued to evolve as the needs of society demanded more services. Firefighters eventually became not just fighters of fires, but also emergency medical crews, preventers of the spread of dangerous chemicals, building demolition experts, fire investigators, and more.

Where early firefighting was a simple matter of throwing water on a burning structure, the modern role is far more advanced and specialized. Firefighters must undergo a rigorous screening process including physical strength and agility. Advancements within the ranks allow for a multitude of career directions including specializing in

  • fire analysis
  • search and rescue
  • building collapse
  • tactical paramedic support (generally for SWAT units)
  • wilderness fire suppression
  • airport rescue and firefighting
  • water rescues
  • confined spaces
  • cold-water rescue techniques
  • HAZMAT control
  • and more, often dependent on the needs of a city or region

In addition to specializations such as these, more firefighters today are well-trained to recognize how fires react in various situations. Such understanding can help them not only better combat a fire, but also save theirs and other lives. Such matters as how fire reacts in a low-oxygen environment, how to avoid smoke inhalation should the firefighter face a situation without a protective mask, and how to recognize and avoid a toxic environment are all taught as part of basic and continuing education.

The modern firefighter is not only trained to put out fires but to ‘read’ a blaze. They are trained to know when a fire poses an immediate risk to a structure and how to either avoid or escape the danger.

Finally, firefighters today have plenty of room for advancement, with one of the preferred roles being the Fire Marshall.

The Role of Fire Marshalls in Criminal Justice

Another term for Fire Marshall is Fire Commissioner. Regardless of the actual title, in every jurisdiction, the Fire Marshall is where firefighting and criminal justice/law enforcement intersect. The role of the Fire Marshall is one of investigations and enforcement.

English: Illustration from the trade card of J...
English: Illustration from the trade card of John Keeling of Blackfriars (1670s), showing his fire engine in use. Four men pumped water into a hose at the center. Inscription reads “These Engins (which are the best) to quinch great fires, are …” with the subtitle “John Keeling Fecit” (John Keeling made it). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Once a fire has been stopped, an investigation into the cause will be conducted. The Fire Marshall will conduct this investigation either alone or with other staff members. The goal is to determine the exact cause of the fire and should it be anything other than accidental, an official case file is opened. At this point, the investigator will begin seeking the person responsible for starting the fire.

In some cases, the fire may have been started without malicious intent, but if the intent was clearly for personal gain, the responsible party may well face criminal charges of arson. The Fire Marshall has full authority to question, detain, and arrest suspects of criminal behavior related to fires the same as a police investigator does so with other crimes. The key difference is that when a case involves fire, police investigators are generally in a subservient position to the Fire Marshall, often working in partnership with them to solve the case.

When not investigating fires, the Fire Marshall is responsible for code enforcement, that is, making sure that businesses and homeowners do not violate local building and fire ordinances. Another role of the Fire Marshall which is seldom known are public safety inspections such as with carnival rides. When a carnival rolls into town, before it can open for business the Fire Marshall must inspect each ride for safety.

Naturally, the Fire Marshall in most locations carries a badge and firearm. A pre-requisite to this position is generally many years of successful service in the fire department ideally combined with a related degree or equivalent experience in construction, government, or something similar.