‘An ounce of prevention’ – Benjamin Franklin and private fire companies

by J Michael Waller / Serviam / February 2, 2009.

Out-of-control wildfires out West show the severe limits on government’s ability to protect society from one of nature’s weapons of mass destruction. Federal and state officials waited for more than a half-million acres to burn last June and July before calling the National Guard for help.

With hundreds of homes destroyed among the billions of dollars’ worth of damages, some policymakers and entrepreneurs are considering the revival of private firefighting companies that can be contracted to help authorities battle blazes.

Naysayers call the idea preposterous, denouncing the concept that businesses should profit from other people’s misfortune. But with private ambulance and rescue services, private medical practices, and private hospitals being a firm part of the American tradition, proponents say, private firefighting contractors are an idea whose time has come.

Like so many “new” ideas, private fire departments are an old idea.

Boston’s great fire of 1679 led to the creation of “the first paid fire department in North America, if not the world,” according to the National Fire Protection Association. Though employed directly by the city of Boston, the 12 firemen, like members of the local militia, were essentially private contractors. The colony of Massachusetts was run by a private company at the time.

Firefighting in colonial cities was an ad-hoc affair in the 1600s and 1700s. Some colonial or city governments provided ladders and leather buckets for public use in battling blazes, which were all too common in an age where most urban construction was made of wood. In 1718, the city of Philadelphia bought an English-made pump, mounted on a wagon, to aid in fighting fires.

Franklin’s Union Fire Company

There were still no organized and trained firefighters in America. That changed in 1736 when Benjamin Franklin organized the Union Fire Company in Philadelphia. Franklin had seen the professional firefighters in his native Boston, and he saw the need for a well-trained and organized force in his adopted city. He was worried that untrained firefighters could inadvertently spread or even start other fires. The Union Fire Company is recognized as the first fire “department” in what is now the United States.

We usually think of Franklin from his portraits painted in the later years of his life, when he had become a wealthy and famous statesman. At first glance, the idea of Franklin as a fireman strikes one as odd. Biographer Walter Isaacson estimates that, at just under 6 feet in height, Franklin weighed as much as 240 pounds in his older years, when he suffered from obesity and gout. As a 29-year-old when he first came up with the private fire company idea, Franklin was vigorous and athletic, a barrel-chested man noted for being an excellent swimmer. He once had to jump out a second-story window to escape a house fire.

‘. . . a pound of cure’

One of Franklin’s most famous sayings had to do with firefighting. He had seen the city government’s response to the destructive waterfront fire of 1730, in which the old pumper had proven almost worthless. According to the Fireman’s Hall Museum in Philadelphia, the city council authorized the purchase of three more pumpers, 400 leather buckets, and other firefighting gear, but did not organize people to use them.

Early in 1735, Franklin wrote a letter under a pseudonym to his own newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, about the need to train citizens in basic firefighting techniques. He had been publicly urging action for a few years. This time, he referred to the practice of safely cleaning ashes out of a fireplace with a shovel, or carrying a bed warmer or warming pan from the fireplace to the bedroom on cold nights. The pan consisted of a shallow, long-handled metal box that contained hot embers from the fireplace. A hinged lid kept the burning coals safely in the box, which was placed between the cold blankets of the bed. Even small children knew how to carry warming pans, he said, using basic fireplace safety as an example of how a firefighter must be trained.

Franklin wrote: “In the first Place, as an Ounce of Prevention is worth a Pound of Cure, I would advise ‘em to take care how they suffer living Coals in a full Shovel, to be carried out of one Room into another, or up or down Stairs, unless in a Warmingpan shut; for Scraps of Fire may fall into Chinks and make no Appearance until Midnight, when your Stairs being in Flames, you may be forced, (as I once was) to leap out of your Windows, and hazard your Necks to avoid being oven-roasted.”

Everyone at the time knew that residue buildup inside chimney flues also caused fires, but not all were good about cleaning the shafts regularly, and even those who were often used the dangerous cleaning practice of burning soot out of chimneys. Given urban population density, in which one person’s carelessness could cause the loss of other people’s homes, Franklin urged Philadelphians to follow Boston’s example of using chimney sweeps, licensed and regulated by the city, to reduce the likelihood of chimney fires. Building in an accountability measure, Franklin argued that the city should hold chimney sweeps liable for the quality of their work.

With Franklin as its chief, the Union Fire Company was a volunteer organization, independent of the city government. Its members were civic-minded men who took no pay. So many locals volunteered that Franklin urged them to set up their own fire companies in their neighborhoods.

Civic minded businessman

Throughout his long life, Franklin combined his spirit of public service with private entrepreneurship. He arrived in Philadelphia as a teenager with nothing and became wealthy through a seemingly endless range of business ventures, all the while using his daring and his wit to improve the lives of others.

Years later, in 1752, Franklin founded the city’s first insurance company, in partnership with several members of other local private fire companies. The for-profit venture was known as the Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insurance of Houses from Loss by Fire. “This was a mutual company organized to offer its members monetary compensation in the event of fire,” according to the Fireman’s Hall Museum. “Premiums varied depending upon the type of structure, the materials used, and the thickness of the party walls. The Deed of Settlement further stipulated that every insured house be equipped with a trap door to the roof and iron rails to facilitate fire fighting.”

This idea led to the widespread practice of private fire companies that were funded not by taxpayers but by subscriptions. For a regular fee, individual citizens or businesses would purchase firefighter protection from specific fire companies so that, in the event of a blaze, the company would come and put out the fire. To mark their buildings as protected under the policies, owners would attach cast iron “firemark” symbols, usually oval or rectangular markers with the name or recognizable symbol of the respective fire company, to the front wall facing the street.

The private fire companies were not liable to extinguish fires at properties of nonsubscribers, much as insurance companies do not pay damages to those who do not buy their financial protection. Insurance companies would later own or fund fire companies as a means of protecting their investments. The practice all but died out with the rise of full-time municipal and volunteer fire departments, some of which still refer to themselves or their units as “fire companies.”

Today in the western United States, the American International Group (AIG) offers subscribers an option for intervention in the event of wildfires. AIG is the largest insurance company in the world. Its Mobile Wildfire Protection Unit doesn’t put out the fire if the home is being destroyed, but it does spray the home and surrounding vegetation in advance of the flames to spare the insured property from destruction.

Legacy of first responders

Franklin’s private firefighting system served Philadelphia for 135 years, until the city—much larger and more prosperous than ever—created the Philadelphia Fire Department in 1870. The department recognizes Franklin as its ultimate founder.

The International Fire Chiefs Association calls Franklin “a prime contributor to the wealth of tradition that symbolizes the fire and emergency service worldwide.” The association’s most prestigious annual award is the International Benjamin Franklin Fire Service Award for Valor.