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The Edinburgh Fire Brigade

In forming the brigade in Edinburgh, where the firemen are only occasionally employed, the description of men, from which I made a selection, were slaters, house-carpenters, masons, plumbers, and smiths.

In forming the brigade in Edinburgh, where the firemen are only occasionally employed, the description of men, from which I made a selection, were slaters, house-carpenters, masons, plumbers, and smiths.

Slaters make good firemen, not so much from their superiority in climbing, going along roofs, &c., although these are great advantages, but from their being in general possessed of a handiness and readiness which I have not been able to discover in the same degree amongst other classes of workmen. It is, perhaps, not necessary that I should account for this, but it appears to me to arise from their being more dependent on their wits, and more frequently put to their shifts in the execution of their ordinary avocations. House-carpenters and masons being well acquainted with the construction of buildings, and understanding readily from whence danger is to be apprehended, can judge with tolerable accuracy, from the appearance of a house, where the stair is situated, and how the house is divided inside. Plumbers are also well accustomed to climbing and going along the roofs of houses; they are useful in working fire-cocks, covering the gratings of drains with lead, and generally in the management of water.

Smiths and plumbers can also better endure heat and smoke than most other workmen.

Men selected from these five trades are also more robust in body, and better able to endure the extremes of heat, cold, wet, and fatigue, to which firemen are so frequently exposed, than men engaged in more sedentary employments.

I have generally made it a point to select for firemen, young men from seventeen or eighteen to twenty-five years of age. At that age they enter more readily into the spirit of the business, and are much more easily trained, than when farther advanced in life. Men are frequently found who, although they excel in the mechanical parts of their own professions, are yet so devoid of judgment and resources, that when anything occurs which they have not been taught, or have not been able to foresee, they are completely at a loss. Now it happens not unfrequently that the man who arrives first at a fire, notwithstanding any training or instructions he may have received, is still, from the circumstances of the case, left almost entirely to the direction of his own judgment. It is, therefore, of immense importance to procure men on whose coolness and judgment you can depend. If they are expert tradesmen, so much the better, as there is generally a degree of respect shown to first-rate tradesmen by their fellows, which inferior hands can seldom obtain; and this respect tends greatly to keep up the character of the corps to which they belong, which ought never to be lost sight of.

Amidst the noise and confusion which more or less attend all fires, I have found considerable difficulty in being able to convey the necessary orders to the firemen in such a manner as not to be liable to misapprehension. I tried a speaking-trumpet; but, finding it of no advantage, it was speedily abandoned. It appeared to me indeed, that while it increased the sound of the voice, by the deep tone which it gave, it brought it into greater accordance with the surrounding noise. I tried a boatswain's call, which I have found to answer much better. Its shrill piercing note is so unlike any other sound usually heard at a fire, that it immediately attracts the attention of the firemen. By varying the calls, I have now established a mode of communication not easily misunderstood, and sufficiently precise for the circumstances to which it is adapted, and which I now find to be a very great convenience.

The calls are as follows:— 1 for red, 2 for blue, 3 for yellow, 4 for grey.[G] 5 to work the engine.

6 to stop working.

7 to attach one length of hose more than the engine has at the time the call is given.

8 to coil up the hose attached to the engine.

9 to coil up the hose attached to the fire-cock.

10 to turn to the left.

11 to turn to the right.

12 the call to work the engine answers also to move forward when the engine is prepared for travelling.

13 the call to stop working answers to stop the engine when moving forward.

In all there are thirty-six calls when compounded with the first four.

In speaking of the drilling of firemen, I shall give a short account of the plan followed here, which has been tolerably successful.

The present number of firemen in Edinburgh is fifty, divided into four companies; three of which consist of twelve and one of fourteen men. The bounds of the city are divided into four districts; in each of which there is an engine-house, containing one or more engines, one of the companies being attached to each engine-house. In each company there is one captain, one sergeant, four pioneers, and six or eight firemen.

The whole are dressed in blue jackets, canvas trousers, and hardened leather helmets, having hollow leather crests over the crown to ward off falling materials. The form of this helmet was taken from the war-helmet of the New Zealanders, with the addition of the hind flap of leather to prevent burning matter, melted lead, water, or rubbish getting into the neck of the wearer. The captains' helmets have three small ornaments, those of the sergeants one—those of the pioneers and firemen being plain.

The jackets of the captains have two small cloth wings on the shoulder, similar to those worn by light infantry. Those of the sergeants have three stripes on the left arm, and, on the left arms of the pioneers and firemen, are their respective numbers in the company. Each company has a particular colour—red, blue, yellow, and grey. Each engine is painted of one or other of these colours, and the accoutrements of the men belonging to it correspond. There is thus no difficulty in distinguishing the engines or men from each other by their colours and numbers. Each man also wears a broad leather waist-belt, with a brass buckle in front. To the waist-belts of the captains, sergeants, and pioneers is attached eighty feet of cord; the captains having also a small mason's hammer, with a crow-head at the end of the handle: the sergeants have a clawed hammer, such as is used by house-carpenters, with an iron handle, and two openings at the end for unscrewing nuts from bolts; the pioneers a small hatchet, with a crow-head at the end of the handle; and the firemen each carry a canvas water-bucket folded up.

The captains assemble every Tuesday night, to give in a report of such fires as may have occurred in their respective districts, with a list of the men who have turned out, and a corresponding list from the sergeant of police of the respective districts. They then receive any orders which may be necessary; and any vacancies which have occurred in the establishment are filled up at these meetings.

For some months after this fire establishment was organized, the men were regularly drilled once a week, at four o'clock in the morning; but now only once a month at the same hour.

Among many other good reasons for preferring this early hour, I may mention, that it does not interfere with the daily occupation of the firemen. The chance of collecting a crowd is also avoided, as there are then comparatively few people on the streets; this is a matter of some importance, as a crowd of people not only impedes the movements of the firemen, but, from small quantities of water spilt on the by-standers, quarrels are generated, and a prejudice excited against the corps, to avoid which every exertion should be used to keep the firemen on good terms with the populace.

The mornings, too, at this early hour, are dark for more than half the year, and the firemen are thus accustomed to work by torch-light, and sometimes without any light whatever, except the few public lamps which are then burning. And, as most fires happen in the night, the advantage of drilling in the dark must be sufficiently obvious.

The inhabitants have sometimes complained of being disturbed with the noise of the engines at so early an hour; but when the object has been explained, they have generally submitted, with a good grace, to this slight evil. A different part of the city being always chosen for each successive drill, the annoyance occasioned to any one district is very trifling, and of very unfrequent occurrence.

On the Tuesday evening preceding the drill, the captains are informed when and where the men are to assemble. These orders they communicate to the individual firemen. A point of rendezvous being thus given to the whole body, every man, who is not on the spot at the hour appointed, fully equipped, with his clothes and accoutrements in good order, is subjected to a fine. Arrived on the ground, the men are divided into two parties, each party consisting of two companies, that being the number required to work each large engine without any assistance from the populace. The whole are then examined as to the condition of their clothing and equipments.

The captains, sergeants, and pioneers of each company alternately take the duty of directing the engine, attaching the hose, &c., while the whole of each party not engaged in these duties take the levers as firemen. The call is then given to move forward, the men setting off at a quick walking pace, and, on the same call being repeated, they get into a smart trot. When the call to stop is given, with orders to attach one or more lengths of hose to the engine and fire-cock, it is done in the following manner:—No. 1 takes out the branch pipe, and runs out as far as he thinks the hose ordered to be attached will reach, and there remains; No. 2 takes a length of hose out of the engine, and uncoils it towards No. 1; and No. 3 attaches the hose to the engine. If more than one length is required, No. 4 takes out another, couples it to the former length, and then uncoils it. If a third length is wanted, No. 3 comes up with it, after having attached the first length to the engine. If more lengths are still wanted, No: 2 goes back to the engine for another; Nos. 3 and 4 follow, and so on till the requisite length is obtained; No. 1 then screws on the branch-pipe at the farther extremity of the last length.[H] While Nos. 1, 2, 3, and 4 are attaching the hose to the engine, No. 5 opens the fire-cock door, screws on the distributor, and attaches the length of hose, which No. 6 uncoils; Nos. 7 and 8 assist, if more than one length of hose be required.

Immediately on the call being given to attach the hose, the sergeant locks the fore-carriage of the engine, and unlocks the levers. The fire-cock being opened by No. 5 (who remains by it as long as it is being used), the sergeant holds the end of the hose which supplies the engine, and at the same time superintends the men who work the levers. The call being given to work the engine, the whole of the men, Nos. 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5, the captain and sergeant excepted, work at the levers along with the men of the other company.

Although these operations may appear complicated, they are all completed, and the engine in full play, with three lengths, or 120 feet of hose, in one minute and ten seconds, including the time required for the water to fill the engine so far as to allow it to work.

In order to excite a spirit of emulation, as well as to teach the men dexterity in working the engines, I frequently cause a competition amongst them. They are ordered to attach one or more lengths of hose to each of two engines, and to work them as quickly as possible, the first engine which throws water being considered the winner. They are sometimes also placed at an equal distance from each of two separate fire-cocks; on the call being given to move forward, each party starts for the fire-cock to which it is ordered, and the first which gets into play is of course held to have beat the other. The call to stop is then given, and both parties return to their former station, with their hose coiled up, and everything in proper travelling order; the first which arrives being understood to have the advantage.

The men are also carefully and regularly practised in taking their hose up common-stairs, drawing them up by ropes on the outside, and generally in accustoming themselves to, and providing against, every circumstance which may be anticipated in the case of fire.

When a fire occurs in a common-stair, the advantages arising from this branch of training are incalculable. The occupants, in some cases amounting to twenty or thirty families, hurrying out with their children and furniture, regardless of everything except the preservation of their lives and property, and the rush of the crowd to the scene of alarm, form altogether, notwithstanding the exertions of an excellent police, such a scene of confusion as those only who have witnessed it can imagine; and here it is that discipline and unity of purpose are indispensable; for, unless each man has already been taught and accustomed to the particular duty expected from him, he only partakes of the general alarm, and adds to the confusion. But even when a hose has been carried up the interior of a commonstair, the risk of damage from the people carrying out their furniture is so great, that the hose is not unfrequently burst, almost as soon as the engine has begun to play. If the hose be carried up to the floor on fire by the outside, the risk of damage is comparatively small, the hose in that case being only exposed for a short distance in crossing the stair.

During a period of four years the only two firemen who lost their lives were run down by their own engines; and, in order to avoid danger from this cause, they are frequently accustomed suddenly to stop the engines when running down the steep streets with which this city abounds. It is a highly necessary exercise, and is done by wheeling the engine smartly round to the right or left, which has the effect of immediately stopping its course.

There is a branch of training which I introduced amongst the Edinburgh firemen some time ago, which has been attended with more important advantages than was at first anticipated. I mean the gymnastic exercises. The men are practised in these exercises (in a small gymnasium fitted up for them in the head enginehouse) regularly once a-week, and in winter sometimes twice: attendance on their part is entirely voluntary; the best gymnasts (if otherwise equally qualified) are always promoted in cases of vacancy.

So sensible were the Insurance Companies doing business here, of the advantages likely to arise from the practice of these exercises, that on one occasion they subscribed upwards of 10l., which was distributed in medals and money among the most expert and attentive gymnasts of the corps, at a competition in presence of the magistrates, commissioners of police, and managers of insurance companies.

Amongst the many advantages arising from these exercises I shall notice only one or two. The firemen, when at their ordinary employments, as masons, housecarpenters, &c., being accustomed to a particular exercise of certain muscles only, there is very often a degree of stiffness in their general movements, which prevents them from performing their duty as firemen with that ease and celerity which are so necessary and desirable; but the gymnastic exercises, by bringing all the muscles of the body into action, and by aiding the more general development of the frame, tend greatly to remove or overcome this awkwardness. But its greatest advantage is the confidence it gives to the men when placed in certain situations of danger. A man, for example, in the third or fourth floor of a house on fire, who is uncertain as to his means of escape, in the event of his return by the stair being cut off, will not render any very efficient service in extinguishing the fire; his own safety will be the principal object of his attention, and till that is to a certain extent secured, his exertions are not much to be relied upon. An experienced gymnast, on the other hand, placed in these circumstances, finds himself in comparative security. With a hatchet and eighty feet of cord at his command, and a window near him, he knows there is not much difficulty in getting to the street; and this confidence not only enables him to go on with his duty with more spirit, but his attention not being abstracted by thoughts of personal danger, he is able to direct it wholly to the circumstances of the fire. He can raise himself on a window sill, or the top of a wall, if he can only reach it with his hands; and by his hands alone he may sustain himself in situations where other means of support are unattainable, till the arrival of assistance. These are great advantages; but, as I said before, the greatest of all is that feeling of safety with which it enables a fireman to proceed with his operations, uncertainty or distraction being the greatest of possible evils. The cord carried at the waist-belt of the captains, sergeants, and pioneers, being fully sufficient to sustain a man's weight, and with the assistance of their small hatchets easily made fast, and the pioneers always being two together, there is thus no difficulty in descending even from a height of eighty feet: the cords should be doubled by way of security.

Reference book: Fire prevention

Tags: Fire, Fire fighter, safety, Fire brigades,

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