Although it is probably our very mastery of fire and ability to use it as our tool, for heating, and lighting, and cooking, that allowed our species to reach its position of preeminence, few are the screams that can evoke instant terror as much as “It’s going on fire!” Flames devour and destroy, leaving no trace, all those parts of our life, like buildings, home, entire cities, that we like to think of as indestructible and eternal. A fear that has always walked at our side, and that we’ve always fought, as shown by the history of firefighting that we asked Avotec, a company that has been designing accessories for security systems, especially fire alarms, for fifteen years, to tell us. The story has distant roots, in Rome, where already two thousand years ago Augustus, copying Marcus Ignatius Rufus’s original idea, formed the Vigiles, a group of men serving both purposes of night watch and firefighting, by patrolling the City and setting up bucket chains whenever and wherever flames erupted. After the fall of the Empire, organized corps such as this one vanished almost completely from Europe: we see them resurfacing in France in 1200, with citizen bands bearing the authorization to patrol the city and fight fires, and let us also remember the terrible London fire of 1666, which destroyed the homes of tens of thousands of inhabitants, and which was followed by the local Insurances Companies establishing a private firefighting system, with privates trained to extinguish fires – only, of course, if they erupted in insured buildings, which were to this purpose duly marked with a sign. A similar private system was also active for a long time in the United States, where we actually have notes of amateur firefighter bands fighting each other to be the first ones to reach a fire, thus obtaining the insurance company’s reward.
No matter how bizarre, this state of things lasted for a long time, if we consider how the first municipal firefighter corps only appears in Edinburgh, Scotland, no earlier than 1824, two centuries ago; and we still have to wait thirty years after that date to see the first professional full-time paid firefighters corps being born in Cincinnati, Ohio. An amazingly slow reaction, which could puzzle us, if we stop and think of the deep fear we have of fire as a species.
But the answer might lie in how, actually, the best way of fighting a fire is never getting to the point where you have to extinguish it. The moment flames erupt, in fact, the matter becomes no longer about avoiding damage and tragedy, but simply reducing them: an uphill battle, which can instead be well avoided with an intelligent prevention. And if the respect of Laws concerning building materials, and implementation of fire drills to verify evacuation procedures, is an obvious and common-sense habit for prevention, it is also true that those systems which sense the erupting fire and warn people of the impending danger, helping them find a safe way to the exit even amidst the chaos and the flames, hold a definitely key role. These system may not actually be extinguishing the fire – but they surely save the lives of people involved.