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The History of Fire Protection Engineering: The Fire Hydrant and More - Clowe & Cowan of El Paso Inc
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November 10, 2019
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Still of hand pressing on the lever of a fire extinguisher to prepare for fire protection with other fire extinguishers lined up in the back.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock—or your bed covers—you’ve likely heard of the Australian bushfires that have wreaked havoc across the whole country. Due to these fires, as of early January 2020, nearly 18 million acres of land had been incinerated including bushlands, forests, and national parks—home to plenty of the country’s native wildlife. The flames have also affected hundreds of people, especially in New South Wales. It was only about a year ago that the U.S. had its own experience with wildfires in the state of California. Wildfires are, of course, a different thing altogether but as the world pays attention to the destructive force of fire, we thought we might take a look at how fire protection in our industrial plants and businesses, even our neighborhoods, has come about and changed over the years. The broader industry is called fire protection engineering. 

The Initial Sparks of Fire Protection Engineering 

It’s not something we think about much when we enter a building or as we hang out in apartments, but a lot happened in order to achieve the peace of mind and protection against fires in most buildings, commercial, industrial, and residential. The ancient Romans had the first go at fire protection after much of the city was burned to ashes in the Great Fire of Rome. Most of the buildings at that time were poorly built and maintained timber-framed homes. 

As many times with destructive fires, the questions of arson arise and many historians have speculated that Emperor Nero deliberately set the fires in order to rebuild. Whether that was the case or not is for historians to deliberate. The important thing here is that it was after a moment in history that engineers began considering fire protection as they build structures. After the Roman Empire collapsed, however, this way of thinking, along with many other advanced engineering and scientific advances, fell into obscurity during the Dark Ages. Eventually, however, they reemerged. 

Fast forward to Europe in the year 1666, to the King’s bakery in Pudding Lane near London Bridge. This seemingly innocuous location was the harbinger of the Great London Fire of 1666. While fires were quite common during those days, the city had managed to quell them before they got worse. Not this one. Given the weather conditions and a particularly dry summer, 300 houses quickly collapsed and the fire swept from street to street. Two days later, half of the city was completely engulfed in flames. Even the King went down to help with buckets of water. 

After 80 percent of the great city was destroyed, and, as a result, several things changed. London adopted its first building regulations requiring stone and brick houses with fire-resisting walls. As the Industrial Revolution hit Great Britain and then the United States, the more vulnerable combustible construction was replaced with masonry, concrete, and steel. Around the same time, public fire departments were instituted and fire apparatuses improved. Regulations and safety considerations against fires also increased. 

U.S Fires that Shaped Fire Regulations 

Just like the Great London Fire, other historical fires have shaped fire regulations and codes that impact every structure built, every building engineered, and every fire-fighting apparatus. A couple of famous U.S fires made that kind of impact in the country, including the Great Chicago Fire and the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. 

The Great Chicago Fire decimated the city’s unregulated wooden structures and destroyed thousands of miles of property. The incident changed the way we construct, insure, and regulate buildings. After this, there was a clear ban on wooden building materials and require flame-resistant materials instead. 

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, which was largely preventable, happened just a few years later. Fire inspectors had already identified several potential issues that went largely ignored. The factory’s locked doors, piles of dry cloth on floors and bins, and lack of escapes led to the deaths of many factory workers and made a big impact on fire regulations in factories and industrial centers. 

The History of the Fire Hydrant 

By comparison, today’s firefighting is quite systematic and advanced. In the Great London Fire, for example, much of the response was people hurling buckets of water at the raging flames. This is not particularly effective. And so, the fire hydrant was born. Before hydrants, firefighters would uncover the main and drill a hole to get to the water supply. Once they finished, the firefighters would seal the hole in the water main with plugs. Sounds archaic, doesn’t it? This helped some but it wasn’t until mains were put at the street level so that fires could be put out immediately. In the 17th and 18th centuries, permanent valves replaced fire plugs in many European cities. The U.S was then the first to use the fire hydrant. 

The Development of the Fire Hydrant 

The first hydrant was developed by Frederick Grant Sr. in 1803, as a metal pipe attached to this line. Within a few years, the now-recognizable cast iron casing was placed around the metal pipe and became the well-known fire hydrant. At first, cities would customize the colors, and it was only later that the color red was adopted as the standard. 

Hydrants came in a dry barrel design, which placed the valve and water supply below the ground. Later, the wet barrel design came into play, placing the valve above ground for quicker access. The 20th and 21st century saw some advancements to the concept by adding extra valves to protect against vehicle collisions and so forth. 

When it comes to protecting lives and property in manufacturing and industrial facilities, fire protection engineering takes on a whole other level. Hydrants have been used for safety for many years and here at Clowe and Cowan, we aim to protect your facility and offer the highest-grade products and installations. One of our featured hydrants includes the Kennedy K81. It is a simple but effective design that is straightforward in installation, maintenance, and repair. 

Get Top-of-the-Line Fire Line Equipment and Components With Trustworthy Suppliers

At Clowe and Cowan, we specialize in providing customers with high-grade industrial equipment and installations. If you’re factory or the industrial commercial site or plant needs some fire line equipment, we are here to answer questions and provide. 

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