(Photo: Special to the News Journal)
Recent News Journal stories reported that the community is suffering a sizable number of residential and business fires, a happening that usually occurs when weather cools and heating becomes necessary.
In a broad sense, city and county residents are fortunate; there is constant professional work afoot to prevent fires, and the presence of equipment and trained personnel have given the area a strong fire insurance rating. However, a fire — even when acted upon promptly and effectively — does result in damage. Fire officials urge all who are able to act to minimize the number of fire emergencies.
One school leader encourages all parents to provide lessons that will help the younger generation understand what to do where fire and fire hazards are concerns. For some years, Escambia County’s fourth graders have been afforded an opportunity to examine a written story of how residents here have dealt historically with fires, and even being a fireman.
In colonial times, Pensacola was like many early communities. Leaders developed a "system" of fighting fires using buckets, with water obtained from filled barrels which were kept along village streets. Householders often had their own similar equipment. In 1808, Spanish Gov. Juan Folve and his council used royal funds to acquire a fire engine, purchased from England. Crews of proper age were trained in the machine’s use, and this was the community’s firefighting weapon into the 1880s. Through those years — at least to 1870 — the number of blazes faced here was relatively small, and·there are but few accounts of serious losses.
A Pensacola fire wagon is pulled by horses in this historical photo.
(Photo: Courtesy UWF Historic Trust)
That changed with the coming of population growth as the lumbering era began. Then more houses and business structures were erected, often placed close together, most built with wood siding and with roofing that was combustible. Then the old Spanish fire engine was retired and new units were obtained, each one purchased by members of one of the volunteer fire companies being organized. One by one, the community had the Germaine Fire Co., the Hope Hook and Ladder Co., the Florida Volunteer Fire Co. and more. Each was self supported, raised its own funds, pursued its own training. Often wives became an auxiliary and conducted fundraising events.
Into the 1880s, this "system" was in use, but its effectiveness diminished. The city’s size was one factor, and the fact that water for use by the "engines" still was limited to its presence in barrels, which the city provided along major streets. Fighting fire often was futile. Post-1886, the city maintained a signal bell atop of City Hall on South Palafox Street, and its signal (with something of a location code) was the summons to firefighters.
A fireman in uniform in the early days of the Pensacola’s fire department.
Into this decade, fires in summer months often brought serious losses. Newspapers of 1883 jokingly referred to "the blaze of the week" in their reporting. And by 1884, major casualty insurance companies began to refuse insurance to downtown structures. It was then that business leaders led by Benjamin Pitt funded a private company, designed to supply water to fire hydrants. The city engaged a fire marshal to supervise overall training for the still-volunteer companies and to lead action when a fire occurred. These changes were helpful, but hardly fully successful.
Into the 20th century, the city assumed responsibility for fire protection and for acquiring equipment as it was improved. Now there were fire stations where equipment would be maintained, and where firemen would be housed as they were on duty (in later times the men were on duty for 24 hours, then were off station for 48.)
The New Continental Hotel in Pensacola burning in 1891.
(Photo: Courtesy UWF Historic Trust)
Into the early 1900s, motorized fire equipment succeeded that was drawn by horses; other equipment was upgraded regularly. In current times, specialists maintain regular schedules, examining and advising businesses on how to improve their protection, also working with schools and children so that fire drills will be helpful. Homes and businesses today may be safeguarded with fire safety advice, and with smoke detectors and home fire extinguishers. From 1950 forward, Pensacola (and the county, too) have had broadening firefighting systems, and have made the area’s record a good one.
However, overheated furnaces, the presence of obvious hazard materials and careless habits still produce emergency 911 fire calls. All might remember that from the first colonial housing in 1607, there have been fires. Preventing them, or fighting them, is a story that probably will never be fully finalized; but each of us can play a part, and be grateful that reliable firefighters are standing by.
John Appleyard is a columnist for the News Journal.
Want to learn more?
John Appleyard’s 15-minute films about Pensacola are viewable, without charge, from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday in The Cottage, 213 E. Zaragossa St.