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Between Alarms: January 2010

Fire fighting as a profession has a rich and interesting history, peppered with milestones dating as far back as 200 BC, when the first fire pump was developed by an Egyptian named Ctesibus.

January 8, 2010
By Jesse Challoner

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Fire fighting as a profession has a rich and interesting history, peppered with milestones dating as far back as 200 BC, when the first fire pump was developed by an Egyptian named Ctesibus. However, the commonly accepted birth of fire fighting is traced to AD 6 and the Roman Empire’s implementation of fire brigades under the order of Caesar Augustus. These brigades were the first known organized firefighters; they bore the responsibility not only to extinguish fires and parole the city on fire watch, but to enforce established fire codes and bylaws. These original firefighters were named the Vigiles, meaning Watchmen of the City.

Fast forward a few hundred years to AD 250, when a man named Florian Von Lorch was born. Florian served as an officer in the Roman military. A self-proclaimed Christian, he held the position of general with the Roman army and also organized firefighting brigades. Because of the social and political upheaval related to the spread of Christianity at that time, Florian was sentenced to be executed. A Roman soldier named Aquilinus was sent to carry out Florian’s demise by burning him alive. When Aquilinus threatened Florian with death by fire unless he repented his religious beliefs, Florian countered by exclaiming that he would climb to heaven upon the flames. Hearing this, Aquilinus became apprehensive and decided instead to tie a stone around Florian’s neck and drown him. After his death Florian was made a Christian saint and although Florian had been killed, his fearless stand in the face of a fiery death paired with his efforts in the fire service made him St. Florian, the patron saint of firefighters.

Another symbol with a significant historical connection to our profession is the Maltese cross. The origin of this worldwide symbol of the fire service originates in fire itself. Throughout the Christian crusades in the 11th and 12th centuries, a group of knights (the Knights of St. John) battled against Saracens. During the battles the Saracens used a new kind of weapon unknown to the knights previously. The Saracens would hurl glass bottles filled with naphtha into the ranks of Christian knights. After drenching their opponents, the Saracens would ignite projectiles and launch fire into the soaked warriors. Out of necessity the knights became proficient firefighters, dousing flames and extinguishing their comrades. As recognition for heroic efforts on the battlefield, warriors were awarded a stylized cross. Eventually these knights came to reside on the island of Malta in the Mediterranean Sea. Because of this, the knights eventually became known as the Knights of Malta and the cross aptly known as the Maltese cross. Through the actions of the knights, the Maltese cross took on new meaning as the emblem of firefighters everywhere. The eight points of the Maltese cross were meant to represent the traits of courage: loyalty; piety; generosity; bravery; honour; contempt of death; mercy for the poor and sick; and respect for the church.

Our modern-day cross is a loose rendition of the original one worn by the knights and is often referred to as a St. Florian Maltese Cross. Over time, the points of the cross have taken on meaning perhaps more appropriate for the fire service: pride, honour, charity, loyalty, gallantry, generosity, dexterity and protection. Many services have opted to impose other symbols of firefighters within the cross, such as: a trumpet/bugle signifying leadership; a helmet depicting safety; and the axe, hook/pike pole, ladder, and fire hydrant that represent the tools of the trade.

Historical timelines with reference to the fire service are intriguing. Our history is filled with symbols and metaphors, reminding us what we do and why. It is interesting and exciting to think that we are writing the eventual history of the service. This is why it’s paramount to ensure that we consistently act with consciousness and purpose.

Any organization or service that has been around for a few years is bound to have picked up some representative symbols. When the public sees us out on the job fighting a fire or tearing a vehicle apart, they do not see Johnny or Suzie from down the street; they see the uniform that is the face of the fire service. Our actions are the symbols and the way we carry ourselves is how we represent a tradition two millennia in the making. It’s a tradition of honour, respect and outstanding service in all regards.

If we care to look and listen, we find anecdotes from the fire service everywhere: the stories of the big save or that close call, of a Roman general or a knight saving his brother.

What does it all mean? If we blow the dust off history and discover where we’ve been, can that shed light on where we are or where we’re going?

Perhaps, at least, the knowledge gained can help us understand that we are part of something bigger then ourselves as individuals. We are ordinary people who choose to involve ourselves in extraordinary situations. We are looked over by a patron saint, we wear the cross of knights and we are the watchmen (and women) of the city. 


Jesse Challoner has been involved with fire/EMS since 2002 and has been with Strathcona County Emergency Services in Alberta since 2005. He is a second-year paramedic student with the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology and is an instructor at the Emergency Services Academy in Sherwood Park, Alta.


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