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Civilization would not exist without fire, but this essential tool can often become destructive and deadly. For centuries, people have fought to protect their lives and property from fire. In biblical times, people would group themselves into brigades to form fire-fighting lines. American colonists used the bucket brigade to pass water from person to person in combating fires. Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia formed the first permanent fire-fighting company in 1736. New York established its own fire company in 1737, and the practice spread through the other colonies. At the same time, volunteer fire brigades supplemented these professional firefighters. 

The growth of U.S. cities during the 19th century led to an increased need for professional firefighters and better equipment. Many cities suffered devastating fires. Crowded conditions, poor building techniques and materials, the lack of a sufficient water supply, and the absence of coordinated, citywide fire services meant that even a small fire could have terrible consequences. In 1871, for example, fire swept through Chicago, destroying virtually the entire city. The poor equipment available to them also hampered firefighters. Many museums house some of the old fire-fighting equipment that was invented during this time, such as hand-pulled vehicles with water tanks that were pumped to direct a stream of water through a hose onto a fire. In those days, the tanks were still filled by bucket brigades. This equipment was an improvement, but still grossly inadequate for fighting larger fires. Many of these vehicles were themselves destroyed by fire; since the hand-pumped force of the water was weak, and the hoses were short and stiff, the vehicles had to be positioned close to the fires. Another difficulty in fighting fires was that many firefighters, especially the volunteers, were poorly trained, if at all.

As automobiles, trucks, and industrial machinery were invented and improved, new and better fire-fighting equipment was also created. By the turn of the century, almost every large city in the United States had organized professional, paid fire departments, with steam-powered fire engines and a system of fire hydrants to provide an adequate supply of water wherever a fire occurred. The development of the telegraph enabled cities to establish telegraph alarm systems, allowing fire departments to respond more quickly in the early stages of a fire. Other scientific advancements have also made contributions, such as the invention of the fire extinguisher. Firefighters began to receive training in many fire-fighting techniques. A system of building codes was established, which governed the construction of buildings to prevent fires and to prevent a fire in one building from spreading to other buildings nearby. Eventually, these codes included requirements for smoke alarms, sprinkler systems, fire drills, and other measures to reduce the incidence of fires and the loss of life associated with them.

Today, there were an estimated 29,819 organized fire departments across the United States in 2017, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). Nevertheless, thousands of people are injured or killed each year due to fire. The NFPA reports that fires in the U.S. caused 3,655 civilian deaths, 15,200 civilian injuries, and $25.6 billion in property damage in 2018. In this same year, 64 firefighters died in duty-related incidents. More than 440 firefighters died in the line of duty in 2001, with 343 firefighters dying during rescue efforts at the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11, 2001. This occurrence, the worst single incident loss of firefighter lives in history, clearly illustrates firefighters' commitment to service as they risk their own lives to protect the lives of others.