When you’re asked, ‘what’s the world’s oldest profession?’ you may be forgiven for coming up with the standard answer. But you’d forget one other ancient job: the firefighter. More than 5,000 years ago, even the Egyptians had firefighters dousing flames caused by oil lamps and open fires among the canvas awnings and piles of woven mats in the souks and homes of Egypt.
If fire was the source of danger, water was the solution; the Pharaoh’s Fire Brigade got it from the Nile, the Roman vigiles from the Tiber (the Romans also invented the concept of ‘passing the bucket’). The pompiers of Paris siphoned the Seine, and London’s ‘smoke-eaters’ pumped their water from the Thames.
Out of the four elements – earth, water, fire and air – it was air that was the problem. The flames and the heat could be dealt with, but it was the air, or the lack of it, that prevented the firefighters from entering a burning building. For millennia, extinguishing could only be done from outside.
What could be done about the infernal smoke? Stories abound of firefighters growing long beards, which they soaked in water, rolled up and stuffed into their mouths in order to breathe through the wet hair.
It wasn’t until the late 1800s that inventors began to come up with feasible solutions.
Many attempts were made. In 1883, the Chicagoan H.D. Harden had a brainwave and invented the fire grenade. It was introduced in Britain as a sort of extinguisher that could be used inside a burning building. This device comprised a container filled with water and supposedly fire-retarding chemicals that could be hurled into a building through a window or door, smashing to pieces and releasing its contents inside a room. The fire grenade turned out to be quite useless as a firefighting tool but nevertheless remained in use well into the 1920s.
No, the Holy Grail of respiratory safety had to be something else: something that allowed a firefighter to breathe clean, safe air in a smoke-filled environment.
Not only scientists, doctors and professors but also amateurs, tinkers, dabblers and enthusiasts worked on countless innovations. Even coal miners whose lungs blackened underground wanted clean air to breathe and tried their hands at various contraptions. It is difficult to establish one person who was the first to invent a workable breathing apparatus, and there are many famous names in the history of supplied air. Some of the early inventors include the diving specialist Sir Robert Henry Davis, the fire officer Sir Eyre Massey ‘The Skipper’ Shaw, the Irish physicist Professor John Tyndall, the Italian scientist Giovanni Aldini, and the miner and amateur inventor John Roberts. The French were at it too: the Sapeurs-Pompiers of Paris came up with the so-called Appareil Pauline, an upper-body covering, into which air was pumped with a bellows outside the building. In England, the device was known as the Smoke Jacket and was made of cow hide.
The early innovations suffered from one big problem: the firefighter had to drag a long air hose along with the heavy water hose. Couldn’t someone come up with something more portable?
Bags, tubes and fandangles
Enter the Scottish firefighter James Braidwood (1800–1861). His invention was the first device that could be called ‘self-contained’. He put together two rubber-lined canvas bags, filled with air and fixed to a shoulder harness. From the lower bag ran a tube to the firefighter’s face, supplying clean air. Another tube took the warm exhaled air to the top of the backpack, where it cooled and slowly sank and mixed with the clean air that was still left in the lower bag. And voilà! Here you had the world’s first re-breather. The problem was time. The bagged air lasted only three or four minutes – not long enough to do any serious work. Spare bags could be filled with clean air and plugged up with bungs, but swapping bags proved cumbersome and time-wasting. Nevertheless, Braidwood earnt a position as the First Chief Officer of the London Fire Brigade. He was later hailed as the ‘Father of the British Fire Service’, and there is a statue of him in Parliament Square in Edinburgh.
Another promising device was the Smoke Cap. This did not rely on air supplied from outside the building, but on filtering the smoke and fumes inside. The filter was invented by the Irishman John Tyndall, who gained both respect and recognition by many, including the London Fire Brigade, where the face-piece of the Smoke Cap was crafted of calfskin and fitted with Tyndall’s filter canister. The contrivance covered the face, nose and mouth, and was affixed to a fireman’s helmet. The filter was housed in a brass cylinder that hung down from the wearer’s mouth, and the user had to draw air through no fewer than seven layers of dry cotton wool, glycerine-soaked wool, crushed carbon, and fragments of lime.
The Smoke Cap was praised by Sir Eyre Massey Shaw as ‘very light and portable, and can be brought into use almost instantaneously by a man working alone’ and was ‘an apparatus by means of which a man is able to breathe when working in dense or poisonous vapours.’
Then came the Smoke Helmet, a return to remote air pumped to the firefighter through a breathing hose. It had clear connections to deep-sea-diving equipment and was used in both Europe and America. And indeed, lowered over the fireman’s head, the Smoke Helmet made him look as though he were about to descend into the depths of the ocean.
SCBA at last
Around the turn of the century, hose-less, self-contained breathing apparatus took off, often using oxygen bottles. Two companies were in the vanguard: Dräger in Germany and Siebe Gorman in Britain. An early BA-set was the Siebe Gorman Proto, a re-breather purely for industrial use, not diving. The Proto, first made in 1907–14, was adopted by fire brigades and remained in use until the 1960s.
While other technological innovations have improved and become increasingly more sophisticated and efficient at a fairly steady rate since the industrial revolution, the firefighter’s BA-set has developed at an almost exponentially increasing pace. It is interesting to follow a timeline from the earliest humble attempts at bringing safe air to the fire professional to today’s electronic, ergonomic, efficient marvels that have become a part of the modern turnout gear that we now take for granted. But some might find it surprising how new developments have come at an ever-accelerating speed.
In 1954, the Swedish Interspiro company introduced the Divator, as demonstrated by a department store mannequin in the sexiest bathing costume of the day, sporting the equipment in a setting of mock seaweed and sunken fishing nets. This was a forerunner to BA-sets made for firefighting.
Interspiro’s innovative designs, models and features followed in quick succession:
1965 3000psi/200bar double cylinders
1973 radio communication
1974 the first positive-pressure extra mask
1977 bleed valves used to ventilate the firefighter’s protective suit
1981 first-breath activation of positive pressure
1991 cylinders of light-weight composite materials
2013 in-mask voice communication with team-talk, along with voice amplification and wireless radio interface augmented with PTT (push-to-talk) to relay over long-range radio
Not to mention the new types of ergonomically designed harnesses with features that fire professionals could only dream of.
Today’s firefighter can truly rely on the ‘very latest’. But let’s not forget about the first stumbling steps – if not the very first breaths – that firefighters took less than 150 years ago.
For more information, go to www.sea.com.au
- Calthorpe, Kevin D. & Capell, Kenneth 1997, Brisbane on Fire: a history of firefighting 1860–1925, K. Capell, Brisbane, Australia
- Compton-Hall, Richard 2004, Davis, Sir Robert Henry (1870–1975), inventor of diving and breathing apparatus, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford, UK
- Curthoys, M. C. 2004, Sir Eyre Massey Shaw, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford, UK
- Green-Hughes, E. 1979, A History of Fire Fighting, Moorland Publishers, Ashbourne, UK
- Hasenmeier, Paul 2008, The History of Firefighter Personal Protective Equipment, fireengineering.com personal protection e-newsletter
- Ingram, Arthur 1978, A History of Fire-fighting and Equipment, New English Library, London
- Interspiro AB 2020, The Story Behind Interspiro, https://interspiro.com/en-gb/our-story
- Kenlon, John 1913, Fires and Fire-fighters: a history of modern fire-fighting with a review of its development from earliest times, George H. Doran Company, New York
- Shaw, Sir Eyre Massey 1876, Fire Protection: a complete manual of the organization, machinery, discipline and general working of the Fire Brigade of London, Charles and Edwin Layton, Fleet Street, London
- Tyndall, John 1872, ‘Fireman’s Respirator’ in Fragments of Science for Unscientific People: a series of detached essays, lectures and reviews, p. 316 ff., Longmans, Green, London
- Tyndall, John 1873, On Some Recent Experiments with a Fireman’s Respirator, Proceedings of the Royal Society