Hidden within the history of the United States, there is a wealth of information concerning the fire service and its prolific history and traditions. Over the years there has been a substantial change in firefighting equipment, techniques, and procedures. Each of these changes has affected fire department operations and in some cases substantially impacted its organizational structure and culture. An important historical change in the fire service came about in the 1800s with the use of steam-powered fire pumps. Transitioning from traditional man-powered hand pumps to steam provided greater water flow capability for extended periods and better fire streams with more reach. The new fire steamers also required less manpower to “man the pump”. A drawback was the weight of the steam pumper and the ability to get it quickly to the fire scene. At first, pulled to the scene by manpower, still requiring a significant number of firefighters/citizen volunteers, it was quickly determined that a new way of transporting this cumbersome and heavy apparatus needed to be developed. This ushered in the era of the noble fire horse or the institution of horse-drawn fire apparatus. This unique period of horse-drawn fire apparatus only spanned a brief period of about 60 years, from around 1860 to 1920. Though this era was short-lived in fire service history, it had a significant impact on operational and cultural changes that shaped the future of the fire service. Replaced in the early 1900s with motorized fire apparatus, the days of the fire horse and the traditions created by that period are still uniquely present in some form today.
The addition of steam-operated fire apparatus and the accompanying horses to pull them brought several changes. Less manpower or firefighters were required to produce needed water flows and get the apparatus to the scene. However, this equipment created a need for full-time personnel to keep the steam boilers that powered the pump properly maintained and the horses cared for and ready. This brought about a shift to fewer volunteers and assigned working shifts as volunteers or the addition of the first paid personnel to oversee the boilers, engines, and horses.
We could spend quite a bit of time reviewing how the steamers maintained a hot boiler to be able to get up to steam quickly and safely, but let us just say that this caused innovation and re-design of fire stations with a variety of ways in which to preheat boilers and light fireboxes. It also required the addition of trained and qualified engineers to maintain and operate the steam boiler and pump. This was another creation of specialization in the fire service. But let us continue our focus on the means of transporting the new fire steamers, the fire horse.