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The Great Fire of London.

Firefighting and breathing protection then and now

Personal protection for firefighters has a long history. While many other technological developments sound as if they evolved out of a fairy-tale past, our modern firefighting equipment seems more as though it were plucked straight out of Science-Fiction.

Even the ancient Egyptians had firefighters. But the pyramids were built of stone, you might say, tongue-in-cheek. So why the need for firefighters? Naturally, because the cluttered cities and villages, albeit often built of mudbricks, were also full of flammable materials: reed floor mats were de rigueur, and walls were commonly covered with dyed linen sheets. Shade-cloths and awnings would have been needed to provide shelter from the sizzling Egyptian sun. And even in this largely tree-less land, the furniture was made of wood. Marketplaces and souks would have been as covered by canvas as they are today. Textile merchants and weavers of flax and wool must have been common, keeping bolt upon bolt of flammable material in their stores. All cooking and heating and lighting were, of course, done with open flame, and when the inevitable accident happened, the houses were clustered close enough together for the fire to spread rapidly through the neighbourhood.

Solution: the Pharaoh’s firefighters and water from the Nile.

The first brigades

Move in time and place to the Roman Empire. After several spectacularly disastrous fires, in the year 6 AD the Emperor Augustus decided that the sort of fire brigade used up until now, comprising slaves, wasn’t enough: now he put together a massive fire-response force of 7,000 so-called vigiles who worked as professional firefighters in their own designated sections of Rome.

The techniques were basic. Augustus’s early fire brigade used a method that could only be described as long lines of men ‘passing the bucket’. Others used heavy equipment to raze neighbouring buildings to the ground to stop the fire from going further.

Even today, some modern firefighting units call themselves vigiles brigades in the 2,000-year tradition.

Nevertheless, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and was in fact re-built many times due to disastrous fires. Emperor Nero himself, who supposedly played his fiddle while Rome burnt in AD 64, was the first to recommend that Romans make their houses more fire-proof, build them further away from each other, and live closer to available water supplies. Nero could thus be said to have instigated town planning with fire safety in mind.

Primitive breathing gear.

Primitive breathing gear.

Not so ancient

But effective firefighting equipment and protective gear for personnel were still a long way away. Even at the time of the Great Fire of London in September 1666, that most essential of tools, the fire hose, hadn’t even been invented. The fire started – perhaps ironically – in a bakery in Pudding Lane, raged on from Sunday to Thursday, destroyed 87 churches and 13,000 houses over a 5 km2 area, and rendered tens of thousands of Londoners homeless. Here, as in ancient Rome, the fire could only be stopped by destroying wide swathes of buildings in its way.

It is interesting to note that not only firefighting methods were adopted from Rome at this time, but commercial firefighting interests as well: in ancient Rome’s pre-Augustus days, private firefighters stood outside the burning house and bargained with the owner about advance-payment for extinguishing the blaze (too much haggling and the property burnt to the ground), while in England the firefighters were paid by insurance companies, and would only start their work when they had established that the building was insured by their particular underwriter.

What about the people on the job?

Over the next couple of hundred years, new types of firefighting equipment, machinery and vehicles were invented – but not much in the way of protective gear for the personnel. Water-pump technology became more sophisticated (this is why the word ‘fireman’ is pompier, pompiere, and bombero in French, Italian and Spanish respectively, all meaning ‘pumper’). Powerful pump vehicles may have revolutionised firefighting, but for a long time they were still horse-drawn.

It took much longer before fire authorities began to pay attention to the protection of the people who did the firefighting. Even helmets didn’t enter the scene until around the mid-1700s. Protective clothing made its debut much later, let alone respiratory protection.

It was important for the firefighter to get into the building. Just pumping water at it from the outside was only part of the solution. Leather clothing could perhaps withstand the heat and flame for a little while – but smoke was the biggest problem.

It has been said that, in desperation, some early firemen might have grown their beards in order to soak them in water and stuff the wet hair into their mouths during their smoky passes. The Italian scientist and inventor Giovanni Aldini had an idea. In 1825, he came up with the Apparatus Aldini, a sort of asbestos hood lined on the outside by a metal mesh. Many regard this as the seed of respiratory protection for firefighters.

From there, the step was short to an array of new inventions that strove to supply air to the firefighter, first through a hand-pump connected with an air hose to a fireman’s helmet, and then to various sorts of head and upper-body coverings. Filter respirators using various useful (and useless) filtering media also appeared.

…but we need self-containment!

All through the first half of the 1800s, new respiratory protection devices came and went, many using hoses to channel air from a remote air pump to the firefighter. This permanent hook-up was cumbersome, hindering and ungainly. It wasn’t until 1863 that the first contraption was patented that could vaguely claim to be ‘self-contained’. The firefighter had an air container strapped to the waist, made of a rubber balloon covered inside and out by canvas lining. It could be inflated by a pair of bellows. Two hoses ran to a mouthpiece between the fireman’s teeth. Sealing corks were pulled out to release the air when it was needed.

Invention and technology took off. In the next decades, many new apparatuses appeared – even a re-breather model that was launched shortly after the turn of the century.

For better or for worse, war is often a great technological catalyst, and two world wars served as a springboard for more and more sophisticated self-contained breathing protection, where high-tech respirators initially designed for Air Force pilots soon spread to the Fire Brigades.

It is from the significant developments during the early half of the 20th century that we still have several of the names of renowned SCBA designers and manufacturers today.

Leading-edge encapsulated protective suit.

Leading-edge encapsulated protective suit.

Hurtling towards the future

Today’s firefighting protective devices and apparel bear little resemblance to their rudimentary fore-runners. New materials have been discovered, manufactured and put to use: think Nomex, think Kevlar, think carbon fibre. Harnesses are ergonomically designed, light-weight, perfectly balanced, with non-textile straps, fire-resistant materials and cutting-edge design.

Even basic things have been taken into consideration, such as reflective strips, 360° location beacons and large rescue handles, should the person need to be dragged away to safety.

Modern BA face masks may feature heads-up displays (HUD), as well as crystal-clear voice communication.

Regulators may have both digital and analogue displays, and are constructed to show the same information unaffected by ambient heat. The BA set is probably fitted with a personal alert safety system (PASS).

Modern firefighter’s harness and face mask.

Modern firefighter’s harness and face mask.

In addition, BA sets are often used together with advanced protective suits made of various high-tech materials and material combinations, providing whole-body protection not only from heat and direct flame, but also from exposure to chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) substances.

Also on the rise are integrated global positioning systems (GPS), thermal imaging and other sophisticated tools for the firefighter.

All this is a far cry from Emperor Augustus’s vigiles, with their water buckets and their axes and battering rams and wall-pulling hooks, but without any means to protect themselves from their work environment. Modern firefighters still work with the same purpose as their predecessors from 2,000 years ago, albeit with much better training and personal protection through vastly more sophisticated technology.

For more information, go to www.sea.com.au

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Torbjorn Lundmark is a freelance writer in the field of occupational health and safety.

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