Help From the Hydrant
Looking back on the history of fighting fire, one can't help but wonder how man survived the infernos long enough to develop the technology for putting them out.
By the early 19th century, over 2,000 years after the invention of the aqueduct, the problem of tapping small amounts of water on short notice to fight fires still hadn't evolved much beyond ancient times.
Until the first steam-powered firetrucks were introduced in London in the late 1820s, firefighting consisted largely of "bucket brigades"people in assembly lines dumping pails of water on a blaze. Vehicles with small reservoirs were drawn by horses or pulled by hand. As a result, fires were a major source of death and destruction in urban areas. But they were also a modernizing force; in rebuilding, cities often took the opportunity to improve infrastructures and rethink ways to distribute water to prevent future conflagrations.
The modern network of fire hydrants, which produce highly pressurized streams of water, evolved from systems that involved running water through wooden or metal pipes that often had to be punctured on the spot.
By the early 20th century, hydrants were proliferating, and motorized vehicles allowed brigades to tote larger reservoirs. Postwar technological advances, such as better, faster vehicles, further dented what was previously a fundamental strategy for fighting fires: praying for rain.
But it is the modern sprinkler head that has had the greatest impact on fire safety. Like the hydrant, it had its origins in the days before indoor plumbing was standard in cities; the first such device was patented in 1872. Before continuous pressurized streams were available, systems drew water from tanks atop buildings that used gravity to power it to the sprinklers. Sprinklers are now required in most new commercial buildings of a certain size. As a result, blazes at such buildings today account for fewer than 5 percent of fire deaths in the United States.
This story appears in the June 4, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.