9 Things You Didn’t Know About Firefighters

Sep 25th, 2011

If you were once a little boy (or maybe even a little girl), there’s a good chance you wanted to be a firefighter at some point. And who could blame you? Firefighters get to run stoplights in their shiny red trucks, carry axes, and save people from burning buildings. Those of you who didn’t quite reach your firefighting dreams are probably missing out on information about the men and women who risk their lives each day to keep us safe and fire-free. Some facts make firefighters sound even more awesome than we already know they are, and some highlight the sacrifices they make for their communities. Here are 9 things, both good and bad, you didn’t know about our heroic firefighters.

  1. They used to use buckets

    Before fire hydrants and huge tanker trucks were available to help firefighters extinguish flames, men had to rely on buckets of water passed down an assembly line. These units were called bucket brigades. In the 1680s, people in New York were required to have a certain number of buckets on hand depending on their building’s risk of fire. For example, bakers needed three and brewers had to keep six handy. When there was a fire, people would throw out their buckets and form two lines between the town’s well and the fire. One line would pass buckets full of water to the fire, and the other would pass empty ones back to the well to be refilled. Luckily, the equipment we use today is much more sophisticated and effective so we don’t have to put out fires one bucket at a time.

  2. Benjamin Franklin contributed to firefighting

    What didn’t Benjamin Franklin do? The man who invented the lightning rod, bifocals, and the Franklin stove is also responsible for the first fire company in Philadelphia. The firefighters were known as the Union Fire Company or sometimes Benjamin Franklin’s Bucket Brigade. The men would meet every month to discuss firefighting techniques, and each was required to bring buckets and bags to fires in the city to tote water and protect valuables from theft. Though it was the first in Philadelphia, the Union Fire Company wasn’t the only fire club after long. Others sprang up later that year and the years that followed, and soon all of Philadelphia was protected pretty well from spreading fires — a major concern in a time of thatched roofs, wooden structures, and open hearths.

  3. Most are volunteers

    Of the more than 1 million firefighters in the nation, 73% are volunteers. Many fire stations use both volunteer and career firefighters to serve the community, and there are only about 2,000 career-only stations of the 30,500 stations in the country. This means that most of the firefighters that serve your community probably have other jobs on top of keeping their towns safe. Many of them have full-time jobs just like you do and volunteer their free time when someone’s in trouble. And don’t think that volunteer firefighters don’t face the same danger as career firemen. They have to undergo the same rigorous training and die in the line of duty just as frequently as those who fight fire full time.

  4. They started using Dalmatians for a reason

    If you thought firefighters chose the Dalmatian as their mascot because their white coats with black spots totally go with the red fire trucks, think again. While color coordinating may be a great way to choose your personal pets, firefighters used to have a specific use for the Dalmatian. Dalmatians were often referred to as "carriage dogs" in the days when horse-drawn carriages were the best way to transport goods and highway robberies were a common occurrence. The dogs got along extremely well with horses, protected the goods when the coach driver was away, and could run alongside the carriage for long distances. This made the dog perfect for firehouses, because the Dalmatian could guard the horses and equipment at the firehouse and on location at fires. Many fire stations still have Dalmatians, though their role has changed from guard dog to companion.

  5. Women firefighters have been around since the 1800s

    Even though firefighters are still often called "firemen," this term disregards all the ladies out there who put their lives in danger for their community. Men still dominate the field (just under 4% of firefighters are women), but the number of women firefighters is expected to increase. The first known female firefighter in the U.S. was Molly Williams, a slave from New York, who fought fires side by side with the men in the early 19th century. Another woman, Marina Betts, volunteered with the fire department in Pittsburgh in the 1820s. Since the early 1900s, there have even been several all-woman fire companies in Maryland, California, Texas, and other states. Women today still face many hurdles to becoming full-time firefighters, such as equipment that doesn’t fit feminine curves correctly and a lack of facilities for women to shower without having to endure male locker-room talk.

  6. They carry an extra 60 pounds

    Firefighters have to keep in tip-top shape to perform their jobs well. Not only do they have to run, climb stairs, and carry people, they have to do it all while wearing up to 60 pounds of equipment. That’s like lugging around a 9-year-old. The exact weight of the equipment varies depending on the materials used by the producers, but when you think of all the gear a firefighter has, it’s not surprising that it adds up. When responding to a fire, firefighters don thick pants, steel-toed boots, and a heavy jacket, which weigh at least 30 pounds on their own. Many wear a protective flame-proof hood and then put the helmet on top of it. Depending on the situation, a firefighter might use an air pack, comparable to the breathing apparatus used when scuba diving, or water tank, which allows those fighting wild fires to go where a hose can’t reach.

  7. They plan for fires in some buildings

    OK, so they don’t actually predict that certain buildings will catch fire (though that would be pretty awesome), but they do make plans for some buildings before a fire occurs. Places like schools and hospitals, as well as locations with highly flammable or hazardous materials, are normally at the top of the list for planning. These pre-incident plans contain information that helps the commander make important decisions when a fire or some other kind of disaster occurs. Knowing things like the floor plan, access points, hydrant location, and contents of the building has actually lowered the number of firefighter deaths.

  8. Heart attacks are their No. 1 killer

    You would probably think that the most frequent cause of death for firefighters would be, well, fire. At the very least, you would expect it to be buildings falling on top of them. But the top killer of on-duty firefighters is heart attacks. In fact, more than 45% of firefighters who die while on duty die from heart disease. A lot of Americans have heart problems, like high cholesterol or high blood pressure, but most Americans don’t have the sudden stress in their everyday jobs of dealing with life-threatening situations. When a firefighter has heart disease, they are putting themselves at risk of a heart attack every time they respond to an emergency. They are at least 12 times more likely to have a heart attack when they are putting out a fire than when they are doing non-emergency duties.

  9. They are twice as likely to get cancer

    If the increased risk of heart attack wasn’t bad enough, firefighters are also twice as likely to get cancer than the average person. When a building and the stuff inside go up in flames, the materials that are burning often emit dangerous chemicals like formaldehyde or sulfur dioxide. These can be absorbed into the firefighters’ lungs and through their skin if they’re not protected well enough or if they don’t clean their gear thoroughly after a fire. Combine this with the increased risk of asbestos exposure as firefighters deal with older structures, and you’ve got a profession that’s even more dangerous than you would’ve thought.