A Short History of Fire Protection and Safety From Ancient Rome To Today
Fire protection engineering on a mass scale can be traced as far back as Ancient Rome, through the Middle Ages and into modern times. Here’s a short history.
Fire protection is an integral part of any building’s makeup, not only for the safety of the people inside but also the building itself, and any surrounding structures and the people within. Such is the importance of fire protection that its providence can be traced as far back as Ancient Rome, through the Middle Ages and into countless modern applications that we deal with every day. Let’s dive into the history of fire protection.
The earliest relics of ancient fire protection engineering on a mass scale can be traced back to the Romans, in particular, the tyrannical Emperor Nero. After a catastrophic fire that ravaged the city in 64 AD, Nero ordered a complete rebuild utilising passive protection methods, as well as the fortification of the city’s external walls. This is the first recorded instance of large scale engineering with the sole purpose of fire protection, though it would not be many hundreds of years until we would see anything like it.
The Middles Ages
After the collapse of the Roman Empire, the onset of the Dark Ages saw a lull in the progress of engineering focused on fire protection. It wasn’t until the Renaissance in the 17th century that further developments were made to protect entire cities from fire. However, throughout the Middle Ages there were a number of political advancements made in the effort to reduce the devastation of fires, particularly in major cities.
The 12th century saw the first attempt to legislate for fire safety. The Mayor of London imposed that houses in the city were now to be built of stone. Thatched roofs were no longer permitted, and shared walls were to be of minimum height and thickness – regulations that laid the base for modern fire safety legislature.
A huge fire, known as “The Great Fire of Suthwark” ravaged London in 1212, killing 3,000 people (as history tells it, this is likely to be an exaggeration). This led to stricter regulations on the construction of alehouses, breweries and bakeries.
Timber chimneys were outlawed in the 15h century. We also saw the first Act of Parliament relating to fire which made provisions for fire prevention and fire fighting, and saw penalties against persons causing fires become a reality.
In 1666, The Great Fire of London tore through the city, destroying 80 percent of buildings after burning for four consecutive days. In response, London adopted its first building regulations requiring stone and brick houses with fire-resisting party wall separations. Main streets were also to be widened to prevent fire spread and narrow alleyways that snaked through the city were all but eliminated. In the following years, similar changes were seen throughout Europe. Interest in fire protection apparatus also grew, including fire-suppression equipment in the form of a hand-pumped apparatus.
Blazes were common throughout the Industrial Revolution but we began to see a decline in the number of major fires as manufacturing veered towards non-combustible materials – steel, concrete, stone. Dedicated fire departments were formed in major cities and public water supplies with underground water mains and fire hydrants were installed which greatly contributed to fire control.
The Fires Prevention (Metropolis) Act was introduced in London in 1774. It classed buildings into seven different categories based on thickness of external walls and party walls. The Act also included regulations on the maximum area of warehouses and stated that “every parish should provide three or more proper ladders of one,two and three storeys high, for assisting persons in houses on fire to escape therefrom.”
During the middle of the 19th century, a number of severe fires destroyed textile and paper mills in New England, caused by the prevalence of flammable paper and lint. The solution to these ravaging fires was to install ceiling-mounted sprinklers that were manually operated – one of the first instances of fixed fire-suppression systems, a technique that has prevailed in modern times. The patent for an automatic sprinkler was awarded to Henry S. Parmelee in 1874. Frederick Grinnell, a pioneer in fire safety, further refined sprinkler designs in the 1880s.
Throughout the 19th century, the increasing influence of insurance companies saw a greater interest in fire protection. In February 1862, insurance companies who were responsible for the London Fire Engine Establishment wrote to the Home Secretary saying that they could no longer be responsible for the safety of London from fire as it was far too costly.
Early 20th Century
The early 20th century saw a great number of fire protection acts come to fruition due to interminable fire instances. These include the 1901 Factory and Workshop Act, London Building Acts (Amendment) Act 1905, a Royal Commission in 1921, the London Building Acts 1930. Through these legislations, building fire codes and standards became the primary means of protection buildings and people against fire.
In this time, the quest for knowledge about fire protection and engineering continued to thrive, extending into more diverse fields of civil and mechanical engineering, architecture, psychology, and electrical engineering.
Late 20th Century
As early as the 1950s, fire protection engineering and consulting began to emerge as its own profession. This included the development of fire testing, the identification of industrial hazards and warehouse storage techniques, risk assessment and examination of roofing, and storage (especially for combustible materials like rubber and paper).
The results of these tests saw the introduction of more effective sprinkler systems and new fire extinguishing techniques (including halogenated fire extinguishing agents, hi-ex foams and water mists). Smoke detectors were also introduced, replacing heat detectors.
In 1971, a fire on the upper floors of a high rise in New York highlighted growing concern about fire safety in the city’s ever-growing number of skyscrapers. The result was a complete rehaul of fire protection engineering design parameters for high-rises, this included the introduction of automatic sprinkler systems as a standard. Further developments like this were made onwards into the 21st century.
Technological advancements in the late 20th and early 21st centuries saw the quantitative evaluation of fire protection continue to improve around the world.
As such, a greater array of protective aspects began to be considered with greater weight: smoke development and movement, sprinkler and smoke detector response, egress flow in buildings, the properties of particular materials such as fire release and combustibility, fireproof barrier systems like fire doors. Progress continues to be made today.