SLIGHTLY OFF THE MARK
Here’s a great Fire Prevention Week story: The City of Philadelphia is installing an historical marker to commemorate the 275th anniversary of the very first ever American volunteer fire company, which beats most Indiana departments by over 150 years.
The city received financial support from the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies, an organization that I’d imagine got hard hit by disasters this year. Say what you will about insurance companies, but you can bet they don’t like to see property burn down.
The man who pushed for the marker is Edward Welch, an historian and 35-year veteran volunteer firefighter in Pennsylvania. Volunteers, when they see something that needs to be addressed, have this habit of … volunteering.
In the early 1730’s, before we had a country, several prominent Philadelphia residents wrote a series of newspaper articles, in which they pointed out that fire protection in the growing city consisted mostly of people pointing, screaming, and running. It was like a colonial Godzilla movie. This, they decided, was ineffective, and also not very dignified. The leader of the group had mad organizational skills, so on December 7, 1736 – a day which would later live in infamy – Benjamin Franklin formed a fire company.
Yes, that Benjamin Franklin. (From one of those letters came the expression “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”.)
Considering his reputation as something of a party animal, one couldn’t be blamed for thinking the Union Fire Company, which came to be called Franklin’s Bucket Brigade, was organizing buckets full of something you wouldn’t want to throw on a fire. After all, didn’t Ben say “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy”?
Well, no. But he did say that rain, in growing grapes that could be turned into wine, was proof that God “loves to see us happy”. Wine, Beer – maybe he just wanted a fire department to protect the booze warehouses?
But Franklin also performed scientific experiments, wrote in newspapers that he published, became a great diplomat, and kept John Adams and Thomas Jefferson from killing each other. Oh, and he formed the US Post Office, but at this point it’s looking like the volunteer fire service might last longer.
Any man who works that hard has earned a few brewskies.
By 1799, Franklin’s efforts produced about 40 volunteer fire companies, not one of which took a dime in tax money to perform their services. Instead they fined their members for various offenses, including not showing up to fires or drills, cursing in public, drunkenness, lewd behavior … hm … maybe Ben paid for the whole thing himself.
Thanks to his organizational abilities, the various fire companies worked together so well that Philadelphia didn’t get a single paid firefighter until 1871, some whole buncha years later. And what did Franklin get in return? Elected President? No. State named after him? Almost, but no. Made fun of on stage and screen? Yep. But he spent most of his life shepherding beautiful ladies around, drinking wine and getting happily bloated at a time when fat was considered a sign of great success, so maybe the joke’s on everyone else.
I wonder how much success he’d have had if he’d tried to form the first fire department today?
His neighbor: “But Ben – just let the government take care of that. You’ll miss Desperate Housewives.”
His mayor: “You just don’t have the necessary permits, Doctor Franklin. You’re not zoned for a – what do you call it – firehouse? The neighbors will petition against all you men gathering there, ringing bells.”
His insurance agent: “Think of the liability, Doc! You run over some poor kid on your way to the fire, and next thing you know his dad will own your printing press.”
His state government: “I’m sorry, we just can’t come to an agreement – half the senate just sneaked into Maryland so they didn’t have to vote. Besides, we can’t let you go to fires until all your members are properly certified in bucket technology, and we just changed the requirements. You’ll have to pay to print up the new paperwork, then have it mailed to us in triplicate. Too bad we don’t have a post office yet.”
The Federal government: “I understand your complaint that our regulations make it too expensive for you to run a fire department, but don’t worry: We’re here to help. If a fire breaks out in Philadelphia, you just sent us a rider and we’ll have federal assistance to you in two or three weeks, assuming you’re willing to turn over control to us.”
“Control of what?”
“Everything, Doctor Franklin. Everything. But you see, then you won’t have to worry. Trust us.”
Yeah. Maybe it’s better that Ben got things going when he did. Ask any small businessman or community leader, and they’ll tell you it’s hard to build something from the ground up anymore.
Come to think of it, maybe what we need in our next President is another Franklin: A genius organizer, diplomat, common sense thinking man, someone who sees a need and addresses is, instead of leaving it for a committee to gnaw to death. I suppose the closest we’ll get is someone who drinks and sleeps around.
Still, the volunteer fire service is here thanks to Ben Franklin, and no matter what difficult times lie ahead, volunteers are here to stay. If that’s not something worth commemorating, I don’t know what is.