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Fire kills more Americans than all natural disasters combined. The United States had an average of 2,495 deaths a year in residential buildings from 2009 to 2011, according to the National Fire Data Center of the U.S. Fire Administration. Civilian injuries averaged 13,250 a year during this time span. There were 364,500 residential building fires in 2011, resulting in about $6.6 billion worth of damage. In addition, in 2011 there were 85,400 nonresidential building fires resulting in 80 deaths, 1,100 injuries, and approximately $22.4 billion in damage.
Throughout history, fighting fires has been extremely difficult. Volunteers would form lines, known as bucket brigades, to pass water buckets in an attempt to douse the fires. Some volunteers used long swabs for putting out roof fires. Others contributed ladders.
People began forming voluntary fire societies to protect each other's property. This lead to the establishment of the first volunteer fire brigade by Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia in 1736. Franklin served as the Union Fire Company's first volunteer fire chief. However, the idea of the modern fire department with paid personnel and standardized equipment did not become an integral part of municipal administrations until the middle of the 19th century.
Early fire engines were hand pumps equipped with reservoirs that were pushed by volunteers or hauled by horses to fire scenes. For large fires, the reservoir was kept full by a bucket brigade. This method was inefficient because the short range of the pump's water stream made it necessary to position the apparatus dangerously close to the fire. The introduction of more powerful pumps and flexible hoses helped solve this problem.
The industrial revolution, particularly the invention of the steam engine, brought increasingly sophisticated equipment to fire fighting. Nevertheless, when a fire broke out in a major city, the results could be devastating. In 1871, the Great Chicago Fire killed 300 people, left 100,000 homeless, and destroyed more than 17,000 buildings. Legend has it that the fire began when Catherine O'Leary was milking her cow. The animal allegedly knocked over a lamp, setting the O'Leary's barn ablaze, and the rest of the city along with it. Whatever its origin, the fire quickly took its toll, burning more than 2,000 acres in 27 hours.
Early in the 20th century, internal-combustion engines were used to power pumps. The newly created pumper (automotive hose carrier) carried a powerful pump, a large amount of hose (usually about 1,000 feet), and a tank of water for use when a supply of water was not available.
But while these innovations helped to advance fire-service technology, other problems still plagued the industry. The Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire of 1911 occurred in a New York City sweatshop and resulted in the deaths of 146 people, mostly young immigrant women. The fire began on the eighth floor of the Asch Building just east of Washington Square Park and quickly spread upward to the two top floors. Fire truck ladders, which only reached to six stories, were of little help. Some workers, trapped by doors that had been illegally locked to prevent theft, leapt from windows to their deaths. Other workers died when the building's overloaded fire escape collapsed. This fire, as well as other urban fires of the time, spread easily because of the crowded conditions, poor building techniques and materials, and sparse water supplies available for fighting fire.
After the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire, building codes and regulations were established that would make fires less likely to start and spread to other buildings. An emphasis on fire prevention, as well as fire suppression, started to emerge. New techniques and materials for preventing fires were developed. Devices, such as hydrants, extinguishers, fire alarms, and sprinkler systems, made it easier to respond to fires more quickly and efficiently. Many people began specializing in designing, developing, installing, and maintaining fire-prevention systems.
Because of an increased knowledge of fire science, fire fighting has evolved from a relatively low-skilled but noble occupation to a highly specialized, technical profession that has expanded considerably in scope to keep pace with the staggering losses of life and property from fire. Perhaps the most dramatic development is that providing emergency care to the ill and injured is now a major part of firefighters' jobs. Most professional firefighters are not only trained in fire suppression but are also trained as emergency medical technicians (EMTs) or paramedics. In addition to hoses and axes, firefighters use lifesaving equipment, including cardiac defibrillators and medication. Rapid response from a well-trained firefighter is often the difference between life and death in emergency medical calls.
Firefighters also deal with incident command, hazardous-materials spills, high-angle and rope rescue, disaster response (tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes), confined-space and trench rescue, vehicle extrication, terrorism response, water/ice rescue, and canine search and rescue.
Other duties include fire prevention, fire investigation, fire education, and community relations. Firefighters teach their communities about the hazards of fire. They often visit schools to discuss with children the dangers of fire and the correct reactions to emergency situations.
Fire department officials are often responsible for inspecting public and private facilities to ensure that fire codes are strictly enforced. Others investigate the causes of fires. When a fire is judged to be the result of arson, they pursue and arrest the suspected arsonists, as well as testify at their trials.
Many private individuals and companies are also involved in fire-prevention and protection efforts. Several companies develop fire-safety products, including fire extinguishers, specialized firefighting equipment, and sprinkler systems. Other professionals are specially trained to plan, design, install, and maintain fire-safety systems. Independent testing laboratories perform inspections on fire apparatus.
Firefighters are hired by insurance companies, building departments, and divisions of state governments, whose responsibility it is to provide bases for evaluating fire dangers and to determine ways of minimizing damage from fire to buildings and their contents. Architectural firms often hire or consult fire-science professionals to examine the fire safety of proposed building designs. Many industries have their own fire-protection staffs and private fire brigades. Other employers of firefighters include airports, national forests, shipyards, and military bases.