Fire Poles Are Sliding Into History

By Heather Ramsey on Sunday, April 19, 2015
ThinkstockPhotos-84462008
“Choosing safety is a choice of life over career.” —Warren Farrell

In A Nutshell

In the late 1800s, firefighters crafted the first firehouse pole of wood to speed up their response to emergencies. Shortly after, the poles were made of brass. Although they improved efficiency throughout the US in multi-story fire stations, fire poles are sliding into history because of high costs and serious, sometimes deadly, accidents. Although not all firefighters agree with the change, fire poles are being phased out in favor of stairs, slides, and one-story fire stations.

The Whole Bushel

Nothing captures the spirit of a fire station more than the image of firefighters sliding down a fire pole to dash off to an emergency and save lives. In a profession where every second counts, fire poles have given firefighters that crucial edge in response time for over 100 years. In multi-story fire stations, the fire engines and other equipment stay on the first floor while the firefighters usually remain on the upper floors between calls. Prior to the late 1800s, firefighters in multi-story stations depended on inefficient sliding chutes or spiral staircases to get to their equipment on the first floor.

Then, in 1878, David Kenyon from Chicago Engine Company No. 21 came up with the idea that would transform emergency response times for firefighters. Kenyon and another man had carried hay to the third floor of their fire station and stored the wooden pole that had bound the hay to a wagon in the hayloft. When Kenyon saw one of his coworkers slide down the wooden pole to respond to an emergency, Kenyon decided it was time to make the pole a permanent fixture. He persuaded his chief to make the necessary changes to the fire station, although the chief insisted that Kenyon bear any maintenance costs himself.

They crafted that first pole out of wood and coated it with varnish and paraffin. Initially, other fire companies made fun of the station with the fire pole. But they stopped laughing when Engine Company No. 21 was almost always the first one to get to an emergency. Eventually, the chief decided to install fire poles at all the stations in Chicago. Shortly after, the poles were made of brass, starting with the first one used by the Boston Fire Department in 1880. In time, the use of poles spread throughout the United States.

Although they improved efficiency in multi-story fire stations, fire poles are sliding into history because of high costs and serious, sometimes deadly, accidents. As cities across the nation update existing fire stations or build new ones that are only one story, fire poles are becoming obsolete, replaced by stairways or slides where necessary. In Seattle, officials cited costs as high as $150,000 per pole with new safety features as a reason to find alternatives for some stations. Some firefighters believe the extra costs are being exaggerated.

Some also disagree with removing poles because they think response times will suffer and that stairways are an accident waiting to happen. “We’re going to be forced to have six, seven, possibly eight, maybe even nine people running down stairs,” one Seattle firefighter complained. “It only takes one person’s misstep and you’re going to have a crew of people at the bottom of the staircase.” A veteran New York firefighter put it more succinctly. “Now at 4 o’clock in the morning, you’ve got 11 guys going down the stairs,” he said. “Stupidest thing I ever heard of.”

Some firefighters think the problem is less about the costs of fire poles and more about the costs of lawsuits. There’s always the danger of a newly awakened firefighter hitting his head on the swinging doors that surround the hole for the fire pole or even hitting the edge of the hole itself. In 2003, both a firefighter and a young boy fell through holes at different Seattle fire stations and were severely injured. The family of the young boy, who sustained a traumatic brain injury, and the firefighter, who can no longer work due to his injuries, sued the city. In some cases, especially with older poles that lack safety features, firefighters have died from falling through pole holes.

Show Me The Proof

ABCO: The History of the Fire Pole
On Scene with Car 1: September 4: A Tragic Day For St. Paul Fire
NY Times: From pole to pole, a firehouse symbol is falling
Seattle P-I: What’s a fire station without a fire pole? $150,000 cheaper

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