When the fire bell rang, it used to be common for firefighters to take the stairs.
Then on this day in 1878 a Chicago fireman named David Kenyon assisted in installing something that would become a staple in firehouses around the country: a wooden pole, three inches in diameter, that punched through the two upper floors of the firehouse. That allowed someone on one of those floors to get to the ground—and to the fire—quickly.
Kenyon, who was the captain of Fire Company No. 21, had discovered pole-sliding’s timesaving potential only a week earlier, writes Zachary Crockett on Gizmodo. He “was helping a fellow marshall stack hay on the third floor of his firehouse when an alarm rang,” Crockett writes. “In the loft was a long wooden binding pole used to secure hay during transport; without a quick route of descent, Kenyon’s accomplice grabbed the pole and slid two stories down, easily beating out the dozens of firemen scrambling down the spiral staircase.”
The next week, Kenyon convinced the fire authorities to install a fire pole and just try it out. That first pole was made out of Georgia pine. As Company 21 got a reputation for being faster to get to the scene than other companies, the idea caught on. Then in 1880, writes Randy Alfred for Wired, the Boston fire department improved on the idea, making their poles out of brass.
Speed aside, there are obvious issues with firepoles and giant holes in the floor. Take an early example: one injury-prone member of Boston’s Hose Company No. 5 hurt himself badly in 1887, wrote Arthur Brayley in his 1889 history of the Boston fire department: “he fell from the sliding-pole to the floor, while responding to an alarm of fire, with such force as to receive a concussion of the spine, from the effects of which he has not fully recovered.”
Concerns about injury have led fire authorities to more recently get rid of fire poles altogether, according to Tim Newcomb for Time. Although the imperative to get to vehicles quickly is still there, fire poles are among the biggest sources of injury in an already-dangerous profession, he writes, and they’re one that can easily be avoided, often simply by just building a one-story firehouse.
But as fire poles began to be phased out, wrote Michelle O’Donnell for The New York Times in 2005, veteran firefighters were unsettled by the change in something they had considered normal. “Every firefighter seems to tell stories of pole-related broken ankles, sprains, blown-out knees, friction burns, concussions, twisted and broken backs,” O’Donnell wrote. Yet veterans didn’t welcome the transition to stairs. Descent from a distance of about 20 feet was so much faster on a pole, and part of a long tradition, O’Donnell wrote:
Suddenly, the alarm wails, and, like a merry band summoned by a whistle in a forest, firefighters rain from the ceiling. They shoot down in rapid succession, full of bounce and grace. All the signature styles of descent whisk by: not only the ankle cross and the two-hand hold but the one-arm hook and the straight-legged-one-arm-hook combo.
It’s over in about 10 seconds, and a visitor who did not think to look up could miss it without ever knowing.
In some places, Newcomb writes, firefighters are using another new alternative to poles: slides. They’re “a little bit safer” than poles, Wilson, North Carolina fire services Commander Ben Smith told him, if not more stylish.