In most workplace environments, having an enormous hole in the middle of the floor would be considered a safety problem. For firefighters, it’s tradition.
The fire pole has become synonymous with the profession, and one that’s easily understood. In a rush to go fight a rapidly spreading blaze, time is of the essence, and shaving seconds off the time it takes to descend a flight of stairs could make a major difference.
Still, the pole seems to be on its way out.
The pole was originally the brainchild of a Chicago firefighter named David Kenyon, who in 1878 noticed that a co-worker in the building’s loft had used a hay transport binding pole when the fire alarm rang, sliding down in a flash from the third floor to the first instead of having to navigate a spiral staircase.
Firehouses of this era typically had horses on the first floor, sleeping quarters on the second, and hay on the third. Spiral staircases connected the first and second floors, so that the horses wouldn’t wander upstairs. While the stairs kept the horses at bay, they also slowed down responding firefighters.
Inspired by his co-worker, Kenyon installed a wooden pole 3 inches in diameter connecting the first and second floors of the firehouse and used a coat of varnish to reduce friction. By 1880, the Boston Fire Department had a pole made of brass. From that point on, fire stations across the country were skipping the stairs altogether and using the pole to make a fast exit.
It was a marvel of ingenuity and design, but it came with a problem: In leaping onto a pole and accelerating, firefighters were sometimes injuring themselves before they even got to the scene. Sprained ankles, concussions, and falls were not uncommon. Some firefighters simply wandered over the hole and fell into it, accidentally plummeting 20 or 30 feet.
At their most dangerous, poles were responsible for deaths. Though there’s no official tally, Priceonomics.com reported that 18 firemen died from fire pole accidents between 1890 and 1930.
There’s also been a legal burden. In 2003, Seattle firefighter Mark Jones sued the city after falling through the pole hole. Jones, citing negligence, was awarded $12.75 million in damages, leading Seattle to ban the use of poles altogether.
Recently, firehouses have looked toward alternatives. The best solution is, of course, to simply operate out of a single-story building. For fire stations committed to a two-story building, a slide might be safer. (And arguably more fun.) Guard rails have been installed in some locations. Increasingly, newer fire stations are being designed with stairs in mind, a matter of safety that has the curious effect of slowing response time—a problem Kenyon thought he had solved back in 1878.
While the fire pole may continue to be phased out, it will probably be a long time before it leaves anyone’s imagination.