Firefighters and Their Poles

I think at some point, every kid wants to be a firefighter. Part of the allure is getting to slide down a pole to reach the fire engines.

That idea goes back to the 19th Century and the informal competition among fire companies to arrive first at a fire. This was doubly true for African Americans; Black companies always felt the need to prove their worth.

One such group was Chicago’s Company 21 in the 1870s. When one call came in, they impulsively slid down the wooden pole normally used to bale hay for their horses. At that time, firefighters were either scrambling down spiral staircases (necessary to keep the horses from trying to climb upstairs) or sliding down tube chutes like those found on today’s playgrounds.

Of course, the pole was faster, and one specifically for quick egress was installed at Company 21 in 1878. This initially was a source of ridicule, until others realized this all-Black company was usually the first to arrive at a fire. In 1880, the Boston Fire Department installed a brass pole, the type still used today.

Unfortunately, today the Occupational Safety and Health Administration considers poles “inherently dangerous” (killjoys!) and some departments no longer use them. But many consider the poles essential. “It’s a major part of firefighting,” says Sean Colby, a lieutenant on Engine 10 in Boston. “I enjoy using it and believe it’s an iconic tradition we shouldn’t let go.”

Taken from “How a Black Fireman Brought a Pole Into the Firehouse” by Alex Potter in the Prologue section of Smithsonian magazine, July-August 2020, page 25 (

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