Man’s ability to create fire is often ranked as one of its greatest achievements, but fire is a fickle friend that causes great devastation when left unchecked. From ancient Rome to London to Chicago to Tokyo, conflagrations have wreaked havoc on entire cities, leaving a trail in their wake. The age-old struggle to create, control, contain, and prevent fires has continued into modern times with the widespread adoption of electrical fire alarm systems. Their design, installation, and overall function are the culmination of more than a hundred years of innovation, ranging from the invention of the central alarm monitoring station to the battery-powered smoke detector. Fire alarm history is long and storied, and reflecting upon past progress allows homeowners, business owners, and fire alarm security providers to better protect against fire threats in the present and find new fire prevention and detection methods in the future.
Before the alarm: the early days of fire detection
Before humanity harnessed the power of electricity, societies were left to combat fires as they broke out. In response to the constant fires plaguing ancient Rome, Caesar Augustus created the Corps of Vigiles in 6 AD, an organization of men tasked with patrolling the streets with buckets filled with water. He modeled this group after a fire brigade of a similar nature in Alexandria, Egypt. This approach focused on fighting fires as they broke out because there was no other method of fire detection or prevention. Fires could only be detected once the building was largely consumed and they could only be fought as they declined—essentially, after all the damage was done.
The “fight ‘em as we see ‘em” approach was the modus operandi for thousands of years. The reaction times were incredibly slow, a problem only compounded by the overcrowding of urban areas and the shift from stone to wooden structures. By the time bucket brigades arrived, entire city blocks were engulfed in flame. This problem carried over into the New World, where the police force in 17th century New York City hired men to walk the streets looking for fires while carrying buckets on ladders.
In the 1800s, as cities continued to crowd, authorities began utilizing bell towers as city-wide fire alerts. Their central locations were perfect for maximizing the effectiveness of the alarm and helped mobilize firefighting units faster than ever before. Philadelphia rebuilt its Independence Hall bell steeple with this specific function in mind and even developed unique ringing patterns to alert responders to which general part of the city the fire was burning in. Even with this development, response times remained abysmal due to the inability to communicate more specific locations, which kept firefighting tactics restricted to the declination phase of a blaze—too late, then, to save property and lives.
Several 19th century inventions fundamentally altered the fire detection landscape for the better. Samuel Morse invented the telegraph in 1837, and it didn’t take long for others to take advantage of the first form of long-distance communication. In 1852, Dr. William Channing spearheaded the first city-wide fire alarm system in Boston, Massachusetts. This system took the “central bell tower” idea and turned it into a “central station.” Essentially, a notification was sent from a box in a neighborhood to a centrally-located operating center. When a fire alarm was received, the central station would ring the bell tower and give responders the specific neighborhood the signal originated from. For the first time in history, dispatch times considerably improved because of the ability to pinpoint the location of a fire.
Dr. Channing also drew an important comparison between the increasing complexity of electrical systems to that of the nervous system of the human body. His sense that multiple “nerves” (field devices) would report information to a “brain” (control panel/central station) would lay the groundwork for commercial and residential fire alarm systems decades into his future.
Even with the rollout of new city-wide fire alarm systems, cities were still developing faster than they safely should have. The Great Chicago Fire in 1871 killed hundreds and devastated the city’s infrastructure, underscoring the need for buildings to be built to a certain standard to prevent fire outbreak and spreading. The new focus on safer building design brought to fruition the first set of accepted fire building codes. While this helped improve fire safety in residences and commercial buildings, firefighting was still predicated upon someone seeing a fire, reporting it, and then the mobilization of the fire department—and all the while, the fire raged on.
It took the harnessing of electrical power to bring about the age of early detection. Francis Robbins Upton, a partner of Thomas Edison’s, patented the “Portable Electric Fire-Alarm”—the world’s first hand pull station. The turn of the 20th century saw the invention of other detection devices—the smoke detector and carbon monoxide detector—that would eventually comprise essential components of modern fire alarm systems. While the technology existed over a hundred years ago, they devices were often too expensive to produce or too large for viable use in a home or business. It would take improvements in manufacturing and fire alarm technology before the modern fire alarm system could take on the form we’re familiar with today.
Ionized smoke detectors (using trace amounts of radioactive particles to detect smoke) were developed for use in 1951 but were too large and costly for even most commercial properties. It wasn’t until 1955 that compact, functional heat detectors began use in homes. Cost-effective, battery-powered smoke detectors were developed in 1965 by Duane Pearsall and Stanley Peterson, and by 1975 the devices were being mass-produced for consumer use. Battery-powered carbon monoxide detectors were developed en masse in the early 1990s, and the first combination smoke/carbon monoxide detectors hit the market in 1996.
For the first time in history, both businesses and homes were able to both locally alert occupants to a fire and send the signal to a monitored control panel. This period of time saw an emphasis on the development of central stations who could actually pinpoint specific locations and alarm signals and relay that to appropriate dispatchers and fire departments. Firefighting tactics shifted dramatically from fighting declining fires to trying to douse flames in the development phase—before the fires could transform into the block-burning fires of yesteryear. Because of this dramatic shift, fire fatalities have steadily dropped over the course of the past fifty years.
The beginning of the 21st century saw the development and wider acceptance of mass notification systems—specifically, voice evacuation fire alarm systems. Instead of the same light flashes and sirens going off for every unique fire event, a voice evacuation system could alert occupants to the location of a fire, the proper evacuation procedure, and the fact that the alarm was not a drill. By customizing the evacuation procedure during an alarm event, the ability to vacate buildings became even more efficient, further limiting the loss of life associated with fires.
Fire codes regulating the proper design and installation of fire alarm systems are slow to change, but rapidly improving technology may alter life safety systems for the better. Already, fire-rated cellular communicators are gaining popularity and will likely overtake old copper phone lines as the primary communication method for fire alarm systems as telecommunications companies move toward voice over IP (VOIP) lines. Fire marshals across the United States are pushing for stricter fire codes including widespread adoption of Underwriter’s Laboratory (UL) and Factory Mutual (FM) standards. Voice evacuation is set to make an ever bigger splash than it already has, and the technologies for early smoke and carbon monoxide detection are consistently improving.
Because the threat of fire is always looming, fire alarm systems remain the most critical component of fire protection in both businesses and homes. Regardless of what’s on the technological horizon, home and business owners alike can rest assured that fire alarm systems are always improving and providing the kind of fire detection that our ancestors could only dream about.