Firefighters have a long and colorful history, with many of the most famous figures in Western history playing a big role in forming the firefighting profession we know today. By understanding where professional firefighting originated we can appreciate it not only for saving countless homes and lives, but also for the cultural heritage firefighters have all over the globe.While firefighters have existed as a concept since the dawn of civilization, the first record in history we have of an organized firefighting unit dates back to 6 A.D. in Rome. Made up mostly of slaves and soldiers, the Corpis of Vigiles was founded by Augustus Caesar in order to combat the frequent fires that spread throughout the roman city. Alarms would sound anywhere near a fire and the Corpis of Vigiles would rush to the scene to both extinguish the fire and punish the people responsible for starting it.
During the Crusades a group of men called the Knights of Malta were formed to tend to the wounded on the battlefield. Soldiers could recognize them by their symbol of the Maltese cross they wore. This same symbol has been adapted by modern day firefighters to indicate their dedication to saving lives.
Throughout the next few centuries groups across Europe would form to combat fires, usually at the behest of their local government. These groups would be paid to fight fires, making them some of the first groups to do so not by order or simply volunteering. Most notably was the famous French emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, who created a special regime of his army dedicated to fighting fires.
By the 18th century the first volunteer firefighting departments were founded in America. The first company dedicated to fighting fires was started by Benjamin Franklin, and made Franklin the first fire chief. Many of the founding fathers served as volunteer firefighters including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Hancock, and Samuel Adams.
Firefighting companies spread across the United States, however these were all still volunteer and privately owned. Because of this, neighboring departments would get into fights as to who got to put out the fire and get paid, leading to no one actually putting out any fires. In response the first paid firefighting department was established in Ohio and run by the city government.
During the Civil War many fire departments enlisted and fought. However, at the end of the war many departments kept this military mindset they had learned during battle. This changed fire departments from a socially structured place to be more like the military, including a rank system.
One of the most famous fires in America is the great Chicago fire of 1871. By the end of the fire nearly 20,000 homes were destroyed, nearly 100,000 people were left homeless, and nearly 300 people had died. Because of this tragedy, Fire Prevention Week is observed every October in order to remind people the importance of fire prevention.