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Firefighter in full turn out gear with an axe

A firefighter is a person who is trained and equipped to put out fires, rescue people, and in some areas provide emergency medical services. The fire service, also known in some countries as the fire brigade or fire department, is one of the emergency services. Firefighters are sometimes referred to as firemen, although women have increasingly joined firefighting units.

Fire fighting is the process and profession of extinguishing fires. Firefighting is important in urban areas, where firefighters are on constant standby, in wildland areas, and on board ships. Not all firefighters are paid for their services. In some countries, including the United States, Australia, and New Zealand, there are often paid, or professional, firefighters working alongside volunteer firefighters. In the United Kingdom, the use of retained firefighters (who are part-time, but are paid when on duty) rather than volunteers is standard.

The three main goals in firefighting are the protection of life, the environment and property, in that order. When a life is not in danger, a firefighter must weigh the costs and benefits of protecting property and the environment. Is it logical to risk your life in an attempt to put the fire out in a gasoline storage warehouse or would it be more productive and safe to evacuate the area and prevent the explosion from harming anyone? This is the core of a firefighter's thought process as they evaluate any and all situations. Of course when a life is at risk, all attempts are made to save it.


Fire-fighting skills

Note: this mostly discusses structural firefighting. See wildfire for a discussion of forest fires.

Firefighting has several basic skills: prevention, self-preservation, rescue, preservation of property and fire control. Firefighting is further broken down into skills which include size-up, extinguishment, ventilation, and salvage and overhaul. Search and Rescue, which has already been mentioned, is performed early in any fire scenario and many times is in unison with extinguishment and ventilation.


Prevention attempts to ensure that no place simultaneously has sufficient heat, fuel and air to allow ignition and combustion. Most prevention programs are directed at controlling the energy of activation (heat). Fire suppression sprinkler systems have a proven record for controlling and extinguishing unwanted fires. Many fire officials recommend that every building, including residences, have sprinklers. Correctly working sprinklers in a residence greatly reduce the risk of death from a fire. With the small rooms typical of a residence, one or two sprinklers can cover most rooms.

In addition, a major duty of fire services is the regular inspection of buildings to ensure they are up to the current building fire codes to ensure they are able to resist fire damage.


Self-preservation is critical. The basic technique firefighters use is to know where they are, and to avoid hazards. Current standards in the United States require that firefighters work in teams, using two-in, two-out whenever in an IDLH (Immediately Dangerous to Life or Health) environment. Tools are generally carried at all times, and a special device called a PASS device is commonly worn to alert others when a firefighter stops moving for a specified period of time (usually from 10-30 seconds depending on manufacturer). Breathing apparatus known as the SCBA is worn to protect against smoke inhalation and toxic fumes. In the United States, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) sets a number of standards for firefighters. These standards may be adopted as law by state or local governments, or enforced by the firefighting organizations on their own.


Rescue consists of searching, and then removing people that are alive. Animals may also be recovered, if resources and conditions permit. Generally triage and first aid are performed outside. The general form of rescue is to shuffle through the structure with the right hand against the wall, or utilizing a tool. Many fire departments follow a two-in, two-out rule, and in a large room the second person would follow behind the first, usually on their immediate left. This is called a right hand search. There is also a left hand search, which is the same thing except the right and left are reversed. Rescuers must remember to search beds and cupboards, and to identify themselves to victims. Many children are very frightened of fire-fighters in breathing masks.

Rescue may also involve the extrication of victims of motor vehicle accidents. Here firefighters use spreaders, cutters, and hydraulic rams, tools more commonly known as the Jaws of Life. More technical forms of rescue include subsets such as rope rescue, swiftwater rescue, confined space rescue, and trench rescue. These types of rescue are often extremely hazardous and physically demanding. They also require extensive technical training.


Buildings that are made of fuel, such as frame buildings, are different from fire-proof buildings such as concrete high-rises. Generally, the fire in a fire-proof building can be limited to a floor. Other floors can be safe simply by preventing smoke inhalation and damage. A burnable building must be evacuated.

Property preservation is a great help to people. Most fires can be limited to burning only the upper part of a frame structure. If possible, gas, electricity and water should be turned off during the search, and all movable property should be tipped into the middle of a room and covered with a heavy cloth tarp. This reduces damage from water, smoke and burning embers. If the structure doesn't catch, it's very helpful to ventilate it to reduce smoke damage.

Fire control

Main article: Fire control

Firefighters at an urban—wildfire interface. This is becoming an increasing concern as people build more homes in and near forested land.
Firefighters at an urban—wildfire interface. This is becoming an increasing concern as people build more homes in and near forested land.
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Fire exercise in a boat; one of the main problems is the concentration of very calorific water vapor, therefore the raincoat-like equipment

Fire control consists of depriving a fire of fuel, oxygen or heat. Firefighters are equipped with a wide variety of equipment to accomplish this task. Some of their tools include extrication equipment, ladder trucks, tanker trucks, pumper trucks, and ambulances. Very frequent training and refresher training is required.

History of fire brigades

The history of organized combatting of structural fires dates back at least to ancient Egypt where hand-operated pumps may have been employed to extinguish fires. However, such attempts could be of limited value given the large structural conflagrations that could sweep through Rome and other cities. The Roman fire brigade (Vigiles) was formed in AD 6 by Augustus to combat fires using bucket brigades and pumps, as well as poles, hooks and even ballistae to tear down buildings in advance of the flames. It is generally thought that this is where the "hook" in "hook and ladder company" comes from. The Vigiles patrolled the streets of Rome to watch for fires and served as the police force.

Rome suffered a number of serious fires, most notably the fire that started near the Circus Maximus on 19 July AD 64 and eventually destroyed two thirds of Rome. The Emperor Nero was blamed for the conflagration, and may in fact have allowed the fire to burn. At least one Roman may have become very rich from this fire, buying properties in advance of the flames and using teams of slaves in attempts to defend his recent acquisitions from being consumed.

Another great city that experienced such a need for organized fire control was London, which suffered great fires in 798, 982 and 989. Little is known about the development of firefighting in Europe until after the Great Fire of London in 1666. It started in a baker's shop on Pudding Lane, consumed about two square miles (5 km²) of the city, leaving tens of thousands homeless. Prior to this fire, London had no organized fire protection system. Afterwards, insurance companies formed private fire brigades to protect their clients’ property. Insurance brigades would only fight fires at buildings the company insured. These buildings were identified by a badge or sign. Still, it was not until 1672 that the Dutch inventor Jan Van der Heiden invented the firehose. Constructed of flexible leather and coupled every 50 feet (15 m) with brass fittings, the length and connections remain the standard to this day.

Meanwhile, in America, Jamestown, Virginia had been virtually destroyed in a fire in January, 1608. Fire "wardens" were appointed in New Amsterdam in 1648. Wardens were to patrol the cities to inspect chimneys. "Rattle Watches" were performed at night by eight appointees, who were to rouse citizens to fight fires by bucket brigade if necessary. In Boston, serious fires in 1653 and 1676 had inspired the city to take greater measures towards combatting fire.

The fire engine was developed by Richard Newsham of London in 1725. Pulled as a cart to the fire, these manual pumps were manned by teams of men and could deliver up to 160 gallons per minute (12 L/s) at up to 120 feet (40 m).

Benjamin Franklin created the Union Fire Company in 1736 in Philadelphia, the first volunteer fire company in America. There were no full-time paid firefighters in America until 1850. Even after the formation of paid fire companies in the United States, there were disagreements and often fights over territory. New York City companies were famous for sending runners out to fires with a large barrel to cover the hydrant closest to the fire in advance of the engines. Often fights would break out between the runners and even the responding fire companies for the right to fight the fire and, therefore, the insurance money that would be paid to the company that fought it.

Napoleon Bonaparte is generally attributed as creating the first "professional" firefighters, known as Sapeurs-Pompiers, from the French Army. Created under the Commandant of Engineers in 1810, the company was organized after a fire at the ballroom in the Austrian Embassy in Paris which injured several dignitaries.

In the UK, organized firefighting arrived in Edinburgh, Scotland (, when the Edinburgh Fire Engine Establishment was formed in 1824, led by James Braidwood. London followed in 1832 with the London Fire Engine Establishment.

The first horse-drawn steam engine for fighting fires was invented in 1829, but not accepted in structural firefighting until 1860, and ignored for another two years afterwards. Internal combustion engine fire engines arrived in 1907, built in the United States, leading to the decline and disappearance of steam engines by 1925.

Today, fire and rescue remains a patchwork of paid and volunteer responders. Typically, fire services in rural areas consist of volunteers while full-time organizations dominate cities and urban areas, although there are exceptions.

National information


French firefighters are called Sapeurs-Pompiers, and reflecting the rural nature of much of the country (wide areas with low density of population), the Volunteer Fire brigade (SPV, sapeur-pompier volontaire), with over 190,000 firefighters is the largest firefighting force in France. In addition to being called out from work to attend an incident, they may be on standby at firestations outside their working hours; the intervention and attending hours are paid by the session. The volunteer firebrigade is also a way to promote the culture of civil defense and of solidarity amongst the population. The Professional Fire Brigade (SPP, sapeur-pompier professionnel) numbers over 30,000 firefighters, employed by the départements and working on shifts. In some towns there is a mixture of professionals and volunteers, in others only one or the other.

In Paris and Marseille, the fire brigades are made up of military personnel, but under the control of the Ministry of the Interior in a similar way to the Gendarmes. The Paris Fire Brigade (BSPP) has around 7,000 firefighters, and the Marseille Marine Fire Battalion (BMPM) has over 2,000.

French firefighters tackle over 3.6 million incidents each year:

With the SAMU (French EMS), they are the backbone of the French civil defense.


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German Löschzug

German fire brigades (Feuerwehr) are organised on a town/village basis, with each town having at least one brigade. In Germany there are about 25,000 fire departments - 24,000 volunteer fire departments (Freiwillige Feuerwehr), 800 private fire departments (Werkfeuerwehr; which mostly protect large industrial complexes) and 100 public fire departments (Berufsfeuerwehr; in the larger towns and cities). These have a total of 1,300,000 active fire fighters. German fire departments are often very well-equipped - each fire engine can carry as much material as up to four American fire engines. For further information read the article in the German Wikipedia.

the Hong Kong SAR, People's Republic of China

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Fireboat 'ELITE', the HKFSD

The Hong Kong Fire Services Department (HKFSD) not only has firefighters, but Ambulanceman/Ambulancewoman. As of 14/5/2005, there are 8,675 uniformed personnel (including ambulanceman/ambulancewoman) and 676 civilian members.

The head of HKFSD is called Director but not Commissioner. Assisted by the Deputy Director, Director of the HKFSD is the head of three Operational Fire Commands: Hong Kong, Kowloon and N.T.(i.e. The three Districts). Each of the Commands is under the control of the Chief Fire Officer(CFO). In reality, there is one additional Command : The Heartquarters(HQ), which is under control of the CFO(HQ).

See for more information (


Spanish firefighters are famous for their collaboration with Third World countries. They are led by Jorge de Miguel San Martin, the chief of staff of the Spanish fire department.

United Kingdom

The fire brigades in England are organised on a county basis, with each post-1974 county having its own brigade. In Scotland and Wales they are on a regional basis, with eight and three brigades respectively. Northern Ireland has a single brigade, the Northern Ireland Fire Brigade. In rural areas, there are often fire stations manned by part-time retained firefighters. In addition there are a number of independent fire brigades, such as the Peterborough volunteers, the Downe House School brigade and those run by large industrial concerns. As well as responding to fires and such like, British fire brigades also have a legal obligation (in the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004) to respond to any emergency, which can pose a threat to life, and the environment. Many of these legal changes have come about as a result of the increased terrorist threat and recent industrial action. More information can be found here ( Information on fire safety issued by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister can be found here (


In popular literature, firefighters are usually depicted with Dalmatian dogs. This breed originated in southern Europe to assist with herding livestock and run along with horses, and in the days of horse-drawn fire apparatus the horses were usually released on arrival at the fire and the Dalmatians would lead/direct the horses to a safe place to wait until the fire was out. Dalmatians also filled the role of protecting the horses feet from other dogs as the fire equipment was being transported to the fire scene.

Firefighters often refer to law enforcement officers as "blue canaries", tongue in cheek, because one can evaluate a hazardous material incident from a distance by watching the police—they always drive right up to the scene, and if their cars don't stall, it's not an oxygen deprived atmosphere. Then they jump out of their vehicle, and if they don't die, it's not a poisonous atmosphere. Then they start lighting flares, and if there isn't an explosion, it's not an explosive atmosphere, and if the car doesn't melt into a puddle, the atmosphere isn't corrosive, and the firefighters can move in. This is a reference to the practice of using canaries to test for oxygen depletion in early mines.

Another tongue in cheek reference is the "New Jersey Taste Test", where a firefighter or police officer walks to a hazardous material, dips up a little with their finger, then tastes it. See "blue canaries" above.

The "Hazmat Rule of Thumb": If you can hold your thumb up and still see the incident, you are still too close.

Roughly 72% of fire departments in the United States are all volunteer.

See also

ca:bomber de:Feuerwehr es:Bomberos fr:Sapeur-pompier nl:Brandweer ja:消防 nds:Füerwehr pl:Straż pożarna


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