The man who established the first volunteer fire department also invented bifocals, wrote and printed Poor Richard’s Almanac, studied electricity and helped draft the Declaration of Independence. His name was Benjamin Franklin. The first volunteer fire department began in Philadelphia in 1736.
Ben Franklin moved to Philadelphia from Boston at the age of eighteen. Boston had been greatly affected by fire. The city of Boston experienced major fires in 1653 and 1676. After the fire in 1676, Boston purchased a London pumper. The city then hired Thomas Atkins and twelve other men to fight fires. These were the first paid firefighters in the United States. In 1711, another major fire occurred in Boston. One hundred ten families lost their homes. At the age of six Benjamin Franklin witnessed this fire. Concerned citizens banded together and formed The Mutual Fire Societies in 1711. When fire struck a member of the Mutual Fire Society, other members of the club rushed to help battle the blaze. Each society had approximately twenty members. Dennis Smith stated the following: "The Mutual Fire Societies became social as well as protective associations, setting a pattern for organized volunteer firefighting groups, which would one day be the backbone of firefighting in America and would dominate it for a century and a half."
In 1682, the city of Philadelphia was founded by William Penn. When determining where to locate the city Penn gave careful thought to the dangers of fire. He had witnessed the London fire in 1666 and did not want Philadelphia to suffer the same fate. To reduce the possibility of fire, a fire ordinance in Philadelphia in 1696 required chimney cleaning. Philadelphia also had a large number of brick buildings that made it less susceptible to fire.
In 1718, Philadelphia bought its first engine. It was named The Shag Rag but it was not put into service until 1730 when Philadelphia had a fire that destroyed much of the commercial district along the river. The Shag Rag was no match for the conflagration because it only produced a trickle of water. In the twelve years the city owned it no one had maintained it. Ben Franklin urged the city to get better organized to fight fires. Shortly thereafter the city bought four hundred fire buckets, twenty ladders and hooks and two additional engines.
In 1733, Ben Franklin often wrote about the dangers of fire and the need for organized fire protection in his newspaper The Pennsylvania Gazette. Ben Franklin was familiar with Boston’s Mutual Fire Societies which were also known as "Fire Clubs." But the "Fire Clubs" existed for the protection of its members, not the community at large. Collins wrote that Ben Franklin "wanted organizations that would battle all fires, regardless of whose property was burning."
After an extensive fire in Philadelphia in 1736, Franklin created a fire brigade called The Union Fire Company with 30 volunteers. The first full-fledged volunteer firefighter in America was Isaac Paschal. The idea of volunteer fire brigades gained popularity. Not wanting more than 30-40 men per company, additional companies were formed in Philadelphia. Some of them were: The Fellowship, Hand-in-Hand and Heart-in-Hand, and Friendship Companies. Each of the companies paid for their own equipment and located it throughout town at strategic places. Most early fire companies in Philadelphia and other cities had professionals, wealthier merchants and trades people serving in the volunteer fire department. These citizens were able to afford to purchase equipment and pay fines for missing meetings and fires.
Before 1850 no city in the United States had fully paid full-time firefighters. Volunteer firefighters played and continue to play an invaluable role in protecting lives and property.