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Fire Department Traditions
Jan 19, 2007

The most widely-accepted reason that fire engines are painted red dates back to the 1800s -- a time when there was a LOT of competition between the fire brigades of neighboring cities and towns.  The firefighters of each brigade took great pride in their pump. Each brigade wanted their rig stand out by being the cleanest, having the most brass, or being a regal color. Because red was the most expensive color, that's what color most crews chose to paint the pump.

Other sources cite the tradition of painting fire engines red going back to the early 1920's. Henry Ford wanted to make cars as inexpensively as possible and only offered cars in one color:  black. With all of these black vehicles on the road, the fire service began painting their vehicles red in an effort to stand out.

Today, just as you have many more choices of colors available to you for your vehicle, so do the fire engine manufacturers, and it is not uncommon to see white, yellow, blue, orange, green, or even black fire engines, in addition to red.  And while some studies hint that colors such as lime-green may be more visible to the public than traditional red, the vast majority of fire departments continue to use red fire engines -- a color instantly recognized by everyone as that of a fire engine.

Jan 19, 2007
The term Jake is affectionate New England slang for a Firefighter. This word was first used as a reference to firemen in the early 20th century in the Greater Boston area, and it's origins are recognized as officially unknown by several authors. While it is now a widely accepted term in the fire service, it is almost exclusively used in New England, and almost exclusively used to bestow great praise and the highest levels of respect. To be called a "Good Jake" is the highest form of praise a Boston area firefighter can possibly receive from a peer.

The term "Jake" is most probably derived from the term "J-Key". The first street-corner fire alarm box system was invented and constructed in the city of Boston, and was based on a telegraph system, novel in its day. Inside each box, next to the automatic alarm mechanism that tripped when someone pulled the hook, there was a small telegraph tapper, called a telegraph key, that firemen could use to communicate back to headquarters once they arrived on scene. As time passed, many World War One veterans had become Boston firefighters, and the telegraphs that these men were familiar with were the U.S. Army issue J-3 portable telegraph key (known as the WWI "trench key"), as well as other military J-Series telegraph keys, which were all known commonly as "J-Keys". These veterans probably used this as a common slang for the keys they used inside their fire alarm boxes.

Being a "Good J-Key" probably meant a fireman who was cool under the pressure and could send clear morse code. "J-Key" was eventually shortened to "Jake", and when spread to the public, "Jake" came to be a common term for firemen in general.

Jan 19, 2007

Saint Florian, the patron saint of firefighters, was an officer in the Roman army during the third century. Saint Florian had converted to Christianity but kept his new faith a secret to avoid persecution. When ordered to execute a group of Christians during the persecutions of Diocletian, Saint Florian professed his faith and refused to follow the order. He then had a stone tied around his neck and he was thrown into a river where he drowned.

Florian is said to have once stopped an entire town from burning by throwing a single bucket of water onto the fire. Saint Florian is the patron saint of firefighters, chimney sweeps, barrel-makers, soap boilers, harvests, Austria, Poland and others.

Jan 19, 2007

The Maltese cross is known around the world as a symbol of the fire service. It is often seen painted on fire trucks, on the clothing of firefighters, depicted on firefighters badges, and is quite often the chosen design of firefighter tattoos.

The Maltese cross has its origins going back to the era of the Crusades and is named after the island of Malta which came to be the home of the Knights of St. John. The Knights of St. John existed during the 11th and 12 centuries. To help identify friend from foe during the fighting, they needed a symbol that could be used to quickly and easily identify themselves. They chose the Cross of Calvary (which would later be known as the Maltese cross) as their symbol because the Crusades were battles fought for a holy cause. During these battles, the enemies of the knights commonly used fire as a weapon. It was not uncommon for a Knight to have to risk his own life to extinguish a fire or rescue a comrade. Because of their ability to fight fires, and the pride and honor they took in the care of their sick and injured, the Maltese cross evolved into a fitting symbol of the modern fire service.  The cross has since come to represent the principles of charity, loyalty, gallantry, generosity to friend and foe, dexterity of service, and protection of the weak.

Jan 19, 2007

In the centuries gone by fire has been looked upon by some peoples as a god, to be worshipped. Destructive conflagrations have been accepted as the angry expression of a deity. But with the progress of civilization the attitude toward fire has developed the philosophy that it is a splendid servant but a dangerous master.
The history of portable fire fighting apparatus is an interesting panorama of mechanical progress. It has been a long step mechanically, as well as in terms of years, from the earthen buckets to the modern pumping engine.

Ancient efforts at fire extinction were confined to the use of earthen, metal or leather buckets for carrying water and throwing it on the fire. The first mechanical device for fire extinction was a syringe. In England in the sixteenth century it was known as a "hand squirt." These "squirts" were of very limited effectiveness for their capacity was only about two to four quarts of water, and usually three men were required to operate them -- two to hold the cylinder and one to work the plunger. Other people were of course needed to carry the water.

Sometime about the middle of the sixteenth century a "fire engine" was built, consisting of a giant syringe having a capacity of perhaps a barrel of water, mounted on a two-wheeled carriage. The plunger, or piston, was controlled by turning a crank attached to a threaded plunger-rod. Water was poured from buckets into the syringe through a funnel near its mouth.

Then came the "pump engine" - a plunger pump set in a large tub of water. Two men operated the pump handle and another directed the jet of water. In order to transport this "engine" it was mounted on a sled and dragged by ropes to the fire.

This machine was more effective than the "hand squirts" because of its greater capacity, but its effectiveness was impaired because of the interrupted action of the jet. Water was projected in spurts, ceasing with the completion of the piston stoke. As a consequence, considerable water was wasted in falling between the engine and the fire. That disadvantage was greatly overcome later by connecting two such pumps to one discharge pipe, and operating the pumps alternately. But even this machine had its limitation, and much reliance was still placed on buckets and "hand squirts.

In the course of time there was developed the "man-power" pumping engine with the rocking handle operated by two or more men, and mounted on a four-wheeled carriage drawn by men. This type of engine, which was improved upon from time to time, was used a great many years. A few pieces of this type are still in existence.

The next mechanical device of importance for use in fire extinction was the steam pumping engine, drawn by horses. Its advent marked considerable progress in fire fighting equipment and though the first of such engines was crude, yet the idea was developed to a point where the "steamer" possessed a high degree of efficiency. For years it served very capably in fire extinction.

The idea of using the gasoline engine to both transport fire apparatus and to furnish power for the pump was approached from two directions; one, from the use of the gasoline engine as a transporting power only and the other from its being used only to drive the pump.

About 1908 a pumping engine consisting of a piston pump driven by a four-cylinder gasoline engine was built. This was mounted on a vehicle drawn by horses. This "pioneer" apparatus proved the practicability of using the gasoline engine for furnishing power for a fire department pump.

To adapt the gasoline engine to performing the double duty of transporting the apparatus and of driving the pump was soon accomplished. From that time, eventual motorization of fire departments was a certainty. It was then a matter of improving upon the principle whose inherent practicability had been demonstrated. Efforts at increasing the efficiency of the early motorized pumping engines included a study of the various types of pumps in order to ascertain which one of the three types could best be adapted to use with the gasoline engine. The three types were: the piston pump, the rotary gear pump, and the centrifugal pump. The factors entering into the suitability of these types of pumps for gasoline engine drive are discussed elsewhere in this book.

It has been a long step mechanically, as well as in terms of years, from the ancient bucket to the modern pumping engine. Who can say but that this transition is an accurate indication of the increased intelligence of the human family?

Reprinted From Seagrave Catalogue No. 5, ca. 1926

Jan 19, 2007

The tradition of bagpipes being played at fire department funerals in the United States goes back over one hundred and fifty years. When the Irish and Scottish immigrated to this country, they brought many of their traditions with them. One of these was the bagpipe, often played at Celtic weddings, funerals and dances.

It wasn't until the great potato famine and massive Irish immigration to the East Coast of the United States that the tradition of the pipes really took hold in fire departments. Factories and shops had signs reading "NINA" meaning No Irish Need Apply. The only jobs they could get were the ones no one else wanted -- jobs that were dirty, dangerous or both -- firefighters and police officers. It was not an uncommon event to have several firefighters killed at a working fire. The Irish firefighters funerals were typical of all Irish funerals-the pipes were played. It was somehow okay for a hardened firefighter to cry at the sound of pipes when his dignity would not let him weep for a fallen comrade.

Those who have been to funerals when bagpipes play know how haunting and mournful the sound of the pipes can be. Before too long, families and friends of non-Irish firefighters began asking for the piper to play for these fallen heroes. The pipes add a special air and dignity to the solemn occasion.

Today, the tradition is universal and not just for the Irish or Scottish. The pipes have come to be a distinguishing feature of a fallen hero's funeral.

Jan 19, 2007

Dalmatian DogOne of the most beloved symbols of the fire service is the Dalmatian dog. The origins of the breed are shrouded in mystery. Experts are unsure really how old the breed is.

It is known that the Dalmatian, because of its poor hunting abilities, was relegated to the stable area of fine homes. It was in these stables that the Dalmatian became acquainted with the horses. Dalmatians were adopted by the fire service in the days of the horse-drawn fire wagons because they were agile and not afraid of the horses. The Dalmatian, with its superior agility and endurance could run out in front of the horses and clear the streets for the approaching fire wagon. When the horses were replaced by gasoline-driven fire engines, many fire departments kept their Dalmatians. In some areas you can still see the Dalmatian standing proudly on top of the fire engine as it races to another emergency.

Jan 19, 2007

Long before the Internet was invented, or telephones and radios were used across our great nation, fire departments used the telegraph to communicate - using special codes to receive fire alarms from those once-familiar red fire alarm boxes which stood on practically every street corner of America.

When a firefighter was killed, or in the language of the military and public safety: "fell", in the line of duty, the fire alarm office would tap out a special signal. This would be tapped out as five measured dashes - then a pause - then five measured dashes - then a pause - then five more measured dashes.

This came to be called the Tolling of the Bell and was broadcast over the telegraph fire alarm circuits to all station houses in the vicinity. Heard outside on the streets - with the fire department's windows open, the resonating echo was similar to that of fire stations of old where fire alarm gongs sounded the locations of thousands of emergencies throughout the history of our growing country.

This was done for the purpose of notification, and as a sign of honor and respect for all firefighters who had made the ultimate sacrifice in service to their communities. Such symbolism has been a time-honored fire service tradition and is repeated at each service of a fallen firefighter.

Apr 10, 2009

Fire Fighters and MDA: A Historic Partnership

One Man's Vision Becomes an IAFF Tradition

The lifelong bond between the IAFF and MDA is well acknowledged but, how did it all start?

The tradition began 51 years ago, when a father in desperate need ran to IAFF member George Graney's Fire Engine Company 1 in South Boston. The man's name was Charlie Crowley, father of two crippled sons and a high school friend of George Graney.

"They will not live to be 21 years old," said a somber Crowley. Crowley's sons couldn't walk, attend school, run around, or play games with their friends. The doctors had diagnosed both the children with muscular dystrophy, an incurable and dreadful disease.

Charlie Crowley needed money to take care of his sons. IAFF Local 718 member Graney immediately rounded up 20 fire fighters and set in motion a door-to-door canister drive that raised $5,000. Graney soon learned that there were many families and suffering children like those of Crowley, and Graney made it his lifetime mission to help such families and children. In 1953, he launched a citywide fundraising campaign with the help of fire fighters across Boston. Graney joined hands with Crowley and made presentations across Massachusetts about children suffering from Muscular Dystrophy.

Feeling confident from his success in the commonwealth, Graney suggested Crowley and his friends at the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) to go nationwide with fire fighters in their fundraising efforts. Realizing the potential of fire fighters and their excellent image in the community, Graney and Crowley approached and convinced IAFF members to promote the cause of MDA and to raise money for it.

Finally, between August 9 - 14 1954, Graney raised his voice at the IAFF's 22nd convention in Miami and proposed to make MDA the International's "charity of choice." MDA's Luis Grant, a victim of muscular dystrophy, gave a tear jerking presentation to the IAFF members and Graney's proposal was approved with fervor. This marked the beginning of a formal bond between the IAFF and MDA. Since then, fire fighters have taken Graney's vision and made it their mission, raising funds a thousand ways: by placing collection jars in stores and restaurants; sponsoring charity softball games, and running auctions. These days their favorite fund raising activity is the "fill the boot" drive at intersections and sports venues.

George Graney, 90, founder of the MDA "Fill the Boot" campaign and past president of Boston, MA Local 718 died in Boston, Massachusetts on December 21, 2004. Graney retired from the fire service in 1969.

Graney's eyes were not strong enough to see the world, but the world could see the splendor of this man's heart that has touched the lives of millions. Graney's life gets richer every day, with blessings of people helped by the IAFF's contributions to MDA.

Graney was honored by IAFF General President Harold Schaitberger at a special ceremony held during the 2004 IAFF Convention in Boston. "He gave a gift to MDA families and our union that has lasted 50 years. With George's work now done, it is our responsibility to make sure that the legacy of the IAFF-MDA relationship continues to grow," Schaitberger said.

The IAFF has emerged as the single largest sponsor of the MDA under the leadership of General President Schaitberger, who is also a Vice President of MDA.

The money raised by the IAFF is used for research and treatments to prolong children's lives. It is spent on braces and wheelchairs, on community health centers, support groups, and summer camps. Just as in their profession, fire fighters are determined to fight the battle against neuromuscular diseases that haunt the faces of innocents.

Oct 12, 2014

Fire Alarm Boxes

They stand like sentinels on city sidewalks. Mounted on each black pedestal is a red box shaped like a miniature house, with a white pull-handle on the front, its purpose spelled out plainly in capital letters.

"FOR FIRE," it reads, then continues simply: "OPEN THEN PULL DOWN HOOK."

Whenever that lever is pulled, a metal wheel inside the box turns and transmits a signal via telegraph to the Fire Department.

That's the way it was over 150 years ago, when the world's first fire-alarm telegraph boxes were invented here and horse-drawn carriages rattled down the city's cobblestone streets.

And that's the way it is today, in this age of enhanced 911, two-way radios, cellphones, and GPS devices, leaving some to wonder why the city still operates a telegraph alarm system. 

Fire officials say the wireless world hasn't negated the system's value. They point to the Sept. 11 attacks, when cellphone networks became overloaded. And in a blackout, they say, people can't recharge their cellphones.

Born before the phone
The world's first municipal fire-alarm system was developed by an engineer named Moses Farmer and Dr. William Channing, a Harvard-educated Bostonian who preferred tinkering with electronics to practicing medicine. Their revolutionary creation was installed in Boston in 1851, more than two decades before Alexander Graham Bell gained his patent for the telephone, and consisted of 40 miles of wire and 45 boxes. It quickly became a national model, and cities and towns across the country installed similar systems that were manufactured by the Gamewell Fire Alarm Telegraph Co. in Newton Upper Falls. By 1890, there were Gamewell systems in 500 cities and towns across the country.

In case of any emergency
The system operates separately from electric and telephone lines, and isn't affected by power outages, downed phone lines, bad cellphone reception, or radio interference. If a major disaster knocked out power for days, and people couldn't charge their cellphones, the boxes would be a public safety lifeline.

When a computer glitch caused New York City's 911 system to crash for two hours in March 2004, the street boxes continued to work, and someone used one to report a serious fire in Brooklyn. When he was mayor of New York, Rudolph W. Giuliani tried to get rid of the city's fire boxes, but failed. A court ruled that eliminating them would violate the rights of deaf people.

They're also helpful for people who have speech problems or are simply unfamiliar with the city, because the box transmits their exact location.

If someone is new to the city, and don't know where they are, or if they're new to this country, and don't speak English, help is on the way, no matter what.

The sheer speed and precision of the old-fashioned pull-box system is still unmatched. If you called 911 on your cellphone, you have to wait for the call to be routed to a dispatcher, who will then ask you a series of questions. The pull-box sends the signal instantly, no questions asked.

The importance is that, in this day and age, fire-alarm boxes are still a fantastic, dependable system for notifying the Fire Department of emergencies. Technology has advanced, but they still have a place.

How the Boxes Work

Miles of copper wiring throughout the city connect each alarm box to an electronic grid. Inside each box is a clock-like mechanism.

First, the force exerted by pulling down on the lever causes a gear inside the box to spin. Each box is identified by a specific number, and the spinning gear has a series of notches on its outer edge that correlates with that number. For example, the outer edge of the gear inside box 1818 has one notch, then a space, then eight notches, then a space, then one notch, a space, and eight notches.

Spinning gears complete electric circuits, which transmit information via copper wires to the Fire Alarm Office. On the fire department’s end, the message 1-8-1-8 appears on a computer to show an alarm was sounded, and where.

Newer computers makes the location process relatively quick but as a back up incoming telegraph messages work by punching holes in a piece of paper.

So if someone pulls alarm box number 57, the message will be sent to the dispatch office with five holes in a piece of paper, a space, and then seven more holes. Fire department dispatchers then turn that hole-filled paper into coordinates to send a team.

It’s obviously old technology, but it’s fairly simple and it Works.

Essentially, you pull the lever and the fire department knows it.

Page Last Updated: Jan 19, 2007 (13:30:35)
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