Fire Services History for Kids

Firie Speak
Say what ?

Fire Horses

What replaced
the Fire Horse ?

Aliens have
landed ?

The story of
the fire pole..

Legend of Fire

How high is it ?

What about that
shiny Helmet !

Lengthy Ladders

Fire Fighter Tools

What is it ?

Fire Vehicles
of days gone by

Firie Web Links

Last Update: Tuesday 6th September 2011

Firie Speak

When you meet a firefighter, you soon realise they speak
   a language of their own.

   Here is a list of some fightfighter "speak" you might hear
   when talking fire brigade history with a "Firie".


A firefighter


Metropolitan Fire Brigade (Melbourne area)


Country Fire Brigade (Victorian Country area)


State Emergency Services


Equipment or vehicle used to fight fires, ie. breathing apparatus, trucks, pumps, etc.

Turn out

Respond to a fire call with all fire fighting gear turned on, fully loaded and ready to race to the fire

What gear are you catching ?

Which appliance have you been assigned to drive or ride on when the fire alarm sounds?

Who's got the front ?

Who is on duty in the watchroom. Someone had to be on duty in the watchroom 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

"Put the bells on"

When the duty watchperson received notice of a fire, he or she would put the "bells on". When activated, the bells and all the firestation lights would come on for 38 seconds so firies could find their way from their beds, down the pole and onto their assigned appliance to dash to the fire site.

"Did you press the button

on your way through"

The watchroom supervisory unit (like a big clock with an alarm) would sound an alarm every few minutes unless someone was on duty to switch it back to zero by the watchperson. This alarm was designed to make sure that the watchperson was at the watch desk and was awake and watching from the tower for fires and answering calls for assistance. Whenever someone was walking past the watch unit the watchperson would yell to them to flick the switch so that the alarm would not go off and the watchperson would not have to jump up and re-arm the switch themselves.

"Whose turn to test the alarms"

The Melbourne area had approx. 2500 fire alarms which had to be tested up to 5 days a week. Each fire station in Melbourne was responsible for testing a number of the alarms, usually 60 to 80 per station. Firefighters would often find themselves out all day testing alarms throughout the city.

Last Update: Tuesday 6th September 2011

Fire Horses
Fire horses were well looked after and loved by the firefighters.

The horses lived in stables and yards at the fire stations so they were always ready to answer the call of the alarm bells.

The moment the alarm bells rang, the stable doors would open automatically and the well trained fire horses would move straight into position ready for their harness to be lowered over their heads securing their fire fighting appliance (cart).

The fire station doors would open and off the horses would gallop toward the fire under the direction of their driver, the "teamster". People who lived near the fire station, knew to stay off the road when they heard the fire alarm sound, to avoid being trampled by the galloping horses.

Horses had to wait patiently whilst the fire fighting team fought the fire.

One famous horse, Titan, would wander over to the crowd for pats and treats while waiting for his fire fighters to finish his work. Titan was known for "kissing" the ladies.

Another horse, stationed at the Brighton Fire Station approx. 1908, decided he did not like waiting around to see the fires put out. As soon as his fire fighters dismounted at the fire....he would turn around and head straight back to the fire station on his own..! He received an early retirement...!

Horses were eventually replaced by steam and petrol driven fire appliances like the "Hotchkiss Hose Carriage" first purchased in 1913.

Last Update: Tuesday 6th September 2011

Hotchkiss Hose Carriage

The vehicle chosen to replace horse-drawn vehicles was the "Hotchkiss Hose Carriage".

The first "high tech" Hotchkiss was purchased in 1913. Thirty five of these vehicles were placed in commission between 1913-1925.

Offering 30-40 "horsepower" the Hotchkiss came from France and cost 820 Pounds each.

The Hotchkiss was equipped with a 200 gallons per minute Rotary Pump which was designed, manufactured and fitted by the Metropolitan Fire Brigade Workshop. Also fitted were a 30 foot extension ladder, 1000 feet of 2-1/2 inch canvas hose and hand chemical fire extinguishers.

After the arrival of motorised fire engines, fire stations began to change.

Horses, stables, paddocks and blacksmith workshops were changed into motor bays, engine workshops and garages.

Doorways which only had been large enough for horse drawn vehicles, had to be enlarged so the new, larger motorised engines could be parked "inside" the fire station.

Imagine what a fire fighter from 1890 would think of today's well-equipped "fire trucks"...!!

Last Update: Tuesday 6th September 2011

Aliens have landed ?
Photo copyright Melbourne Metropolitan Fire Brigade


Firefighters invent new breathing apparatus ?


Fire Brigade Engineers developed several "new" types of breathing apparatus and smoke jackets, shown above, to assist rescue in conditions including thick and toxic smoke.

Breathing apparatus like these helped saved lives, and led to the development of the modern breathing mask worn by fire fighters today.

Last Update: Tuesday 6th September 2011

Story of the Fire Pole !

Full time fire fighters lived permanently at the fire stations, relaxing and sleeping upstairs during the night and when not on duty.

When the fire alarm sounded, the fire fighters needed to quickly get up, get dressed and get downstairs onto the fire appliance to rush to the fire.

Stairs were slow and dangerous for sleepy, rushing fire fighters.

The first "fire pole", a wooden pole, was installed at the Melbourne Fire Brigade headquarters (now the Fire Services Museum), 1893.

Fire fighters had to be careful sliding down the wooden poles as the poles caused "friction burns" to any bare skin which touched the pole whilst sliding. Fire fighters had to learn to hold on mainly with their arms and legs which were covered by their uniform.

Brass poles eventually replaced the wooden poles some years later and still remain popular with fire fighters and visitors to fire stations...

Last Update: Tuesday 6th September 2011

Look....The Legend of Fire
After you have visited the Fire Services Museum Victoria, take a moment to walk around the corner to Albert Street and view the enormous mural of the Legend of Fire on the current Metropolitan Fire Brigade Head Station building. The mural stands three stories high and is made up of thousands of tiny glass tiles set in mortar.

The theme for the mural is the Greek Legend of Fire.

The legend begins with young Phaeton, son of Helios the Sun God, driving his father's fiery "sun" chariot across the sky, but he loses control of the stampeding horses only to plunge closer and closer towards the earth. At the last moment he gains control again and veers the fiery chariot away from the earth, but he has come too close to the earth and the fire from the chariot starts enormous fires killing nearly all the people and vegetation.

The mighty Zeus, the strongest and most powerful god of them all, hearing of the disater became very angry with Phaeton and struck him with a thunderbolt......ouch.

Many years later the earth was re populated by the gods, Epimetheus and Prometheus, but the people were very cold and they huddled in caves all the time. Prometheus wanted to give his people something that would make them powerful. He decided that the best gift he could give them was Fire.

Prometheus travelled deep into the heavens and found Zeus, keeper of the fire. Prometheus stole fire from the sun. Quickly he sped back to earth to give the fire to his people. Zeus was furious with Prometheus for stealing the fire. Zeus punished Prometheus. Zeus also sent a woman called Pandora to punish the earth people. He gave Pandora a magic box and told her not to open it. Pandora came to the earth. She was very curious about the box and could not resist opening it. The box contained all the miseries of sickness, greed, envy, jealousy and all the destructive elements of Fire. All these miseries poured out onto the earth. Pandora slammed the lid closed but only one thing was left in the box. Hope.

And so the legend goes, since that time, miseries and fire have spread over the earth tormenting the people.

Thank heavens for fire fighters...!!

The mural on the MFB Building in Albert Street depicts this Legend of Fire. Take a look next time you visit the Fire Services Museum.

Photo copyright Melbourne Metropolitan Fire Brigade

Last Update: Tuesday 6th September 2011

How high is it ?

Located outside the Fire Services Museum, which was the Metropolitan Fire Brigade headquarters and main station, the Fire Watch Tower stands 52 metres tall. This Tower was used for spotting fires and for training activities such as how to put up ladders quickly, how to accurately control fire hoses and to how to safely jump from burning buildings.

Fire fighters would take turns to stand in the watch tower and look out for suspicious puffs of smoke rising throughout the city.

As most people did not have telephones to report fires, spotting the smoke from the tower or hearing a street fire alarm, would often be the first indication that a fire was in progress and that the Fire Brigade would soon be called out.

"Tower duty was worked in one-hour shifts with no chairs or ledge to sit on to make sure the firefighter on duty was awake. The firefighter in the tower had to walk around continuously, pushing buttons at regular intervals to prove that he was awake and watching all the time." taken from "Life Under the Bells"

Len Greaney, former Curator of the Museum, seen here with some Museum visitors, tells a good story about his memories of "the Tower" during his training days. Make sure you ask our team all about it when you visit the Museum !

Last Update: Tuesday 6th September 2011

What about that Helmet ?

The Fire Helmet was introduced into the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB) by it's first Chief Officer, Chief Officer J. D. Stein.

On a trip to Paris, France, Stein saw that the French firefighters had stylish, shiny, protective helmets as part of their regular uniform.

Stein found a manufacturer to craft the helmets, Merryweather & Sons of England. The MFB purchased helmets for all their firefighters.

After World War II it became difficult to import goods from England so an Australian company, Rider & Bell, started to manufacture the helmets.

The Fire Services Museum Victoria has English and Australian made helmets on display.

Last Update: Tuesday 6th September 2011

Lengthy Ladders
A vital piece of equipment in fighting major fires was the fire ladder.

In 1891, the MFB had only two extension ladders. One of which was an old imported fire ladder which took 15 minutes to put up.

As buildings in the city were built taller, ladders needed to be longer to elevate fire fighters and water hoses up to the height of the fire.

Many of the early ladders were very difficult to manage. The first ladders were pulled to the fire by the firefighters, then they were designed to be pulled by fire horses, later by steam engines and finally were motorised and petrol driven.

All early ladders had to be extended by hand...phew.

Fire fighters were pleased when in 1909 the MFB imported the Morris Magirus extension fire fighting ladder which was extended by "carbonic acid gas under pressure". In 1922 the MFB engineers constructed an 88 feet "petrol electric" ladder.

Ladder technology continued to streamline and by 1939 the Brigade were the proud owners of the "modern", reliable and functional Leyland Metz all steel 126ft ladder.

Information sourced from "Life Under the Bells".

Last Update: Tuesday 6th September 2011

Firefighter Tools

Every firefighter was issued a turnout tunic, helmet, breeches, leggings, boots and equipment which included a "Belt Axe and Key".

The Turnout Tunic was introduced into the MFB by it's first Chief Officer, Chief Officer Stein.

The Belt Axe which hung from the belt, was used to help the firefighter reach the fire, i.e. to smash open doors, break windows, etc. The key was used to unlock fire hydrants. Firefighters were also issued safety lanterns to light the area around a fire.

Last Update: Tuesday 6th September 2011

What is it ?

The Watchman's Clock

The watchman's clock was installed with a clock and an alarm.

The watchman on duty was responsible for marking a point on the clock at fixed intervals to prove that he was awake and watching for fires all the duty time.

If he did not mark the clock, a special alarm would ring in the fire station to alert others that there was a problem.

A firefighter's wages would be docked or he would be fined if he did not mark the clock properly. This strict rule ensured that the firefighter stayed awake and watchful throughout his duty shift.

The watchman's clock also included an alarm which the duty firefighter could activate to alert the Brigade of a fire.

Last Update: Tuesday 6th September 2011

Fire Appliance Timeline
The Fire Services Museum Victoria purchases and restores historically important fire appliances including vehicles, breathing apparatus, pumps, etc. Over the years many vehicles have been acquired, restored and displayed by the Museum; some are included in this timeline. Engine and pumping capacities are given as per originally supplied.

The Museum also has a wonderful collection of old photos of fire brigades and appliances used in fighting fires over the years throughout Victoria. A sample of the collection is displayed here in date order. We thank you for respecting our copyright.


"Lady Don" Merryweather Horse Drawn Manual Pumper

Horse drawn appliance made in England by J. C. Merryweather, Royal Engineers of Long Acre, London. This vehicle was placed in service at Talbot, Victoria. The townsfolk of Talbot named the pumper in honour of "Lady Don" who donated this pumper in appreciation of a successful theatrical tour by the company with whom she was travelling. The pumper can be worked by a crew of up to 36 (18 per side) and can, at full capacity, pump 200 gallons per minute (900 L/m). The cranking action of the side arms or "brakes" draws water into the double action piston chambers. From there it is forced out through either, or both delivery hoses.

The Lady Don Manual Pumper is currently on display in the Fire Services Museum Victoria, East Melbourne.

Now on display

All Photos - Fire Services Museum & MFB Collections

Hand drawn 40 feet "Curricle" Escape Ladder

Technology dates from 1880 when first introduced in various extensions 40, 50 and 60 feet. Originally hand drawn, then early 1900's horse drawn and by 1908 placed on the back of a motorised fire engine although remaining detachable.


Shand Mason Steamer

First purchased in 1891, the English made steamer was stationed mainly at Eastern Hill.

Photo - B. McCumisky Private Collection

The "Melba" Pumper

The fire appliance on the left of the image is the Melba Pump. It is known as the Melba, because the chassis was originally the Pierce Arrow car owned by Dame Nellie Melba, the famous opera singer. The MFB acquired the car in 1919 and converted it into a pumper. The Fire Station pictured was the former No. 48, and it was located in Curzon Street, North Melbourne. This image was one of a series shot to depict all the MFB fire stations in 1926.
The middle appliance is a 1928 Morris Commercial Inspection Car.
The appliance on the right of the image is a 1914 Hotchkiss Hose Carriage and rotary pump.


Hotchkiss Hose Carriage

The vehicle chosen to replace horse-drawn vehicles was the "Hotchkiss Hose Carriage". Weighing 35 cwt and offering 30-40 "horsepower" the Hotchkiss came from France and cost 820 Pounds each.
The Hotchkiss was equipped with a 200 gallons per minute Rotary Pump which was designed, manufactured and fitted by the Metropolitan Fire Brigade Workshop. Also fitted with a 30 foot extension ladder, 1000 feet of 2-1/2 inch canvas hose and hand chemical fire extinguishers.
Thirty five of these vehicles were placed in commision between 1913-1925.


"Dennis" Pumper

1000 gallons per minute pump, 80 "horsepower", four cylinders.


"Dennis" Pumper

More Details: click here


Leyland Metz

126 ft. German Metz Turntable Ladder rear mounted on an English Leyland 50 hp chassis. First placed in commission in January 1939 and used at all of the largest of Melbourne's fires through to the early 1970's. Considered to be the Rolls Royce of turntable ladders.


Dennis "Big Four" Fire Engine

Dennis Pumper with 650 gpm centrifugal pump. Able to produce foam as well as pump water. Stationed predominately at Eastern Hill and carried a crew of six men.


"3" Pump Fargo Pumper

Equipped with a rear mounted 600 gallons per minute (3,0000 L/m) centrifugal pump driven by a power take off, fitted at MFB Workshops, 1942. The distinctive feature of this vehicle is the large "rose bowl" type collector head fitted to the pump. This allows up to six hose line to be used to feed the pump. This vehicle remained in service until 1972.


Austin Tanker - "Lulu"

These tankers were the first vehicles designed and built for the newly formed C.F.A. in the late 1940's. The original tank fitted a capacity of 300 gallons (1300L.). First used in service by the Colbinabbin Rural Fire Brigade in Northern Victoria in the early 1950's. Some late model Austins were still in service as recently as 1990.


"Austin Series II" Front Mounted Pumper

These vehicles were built throughout the 1950's and 60's for the Country Fire Authority in Victoria by several body builders and later by the Authority workshops at Ballarat. The pump is a front mounted "Thompson" 350 G.P.M. (1,570L/m) fitted to an Austin chassis. The side compartments carry approximately 1,200 ft. (350m) of hose, fittings, adaptors and tools. Later models were fitted with larger pumps and water tanks. This vehicle has served with Ararat, Newstead and Trentham Brigades.


International 'C' Series 200 G.P.M. 'Rotary' Hose Carriage

More Details: [click here]

The International Hose Carriage/Pumper series was in commission from 1959 to 1970 with engines ranging in horsepower from 32.6 - 34 HP (24.3 - 25.4 Kw).


"M" Series Bedford Tanker

More Details: [click here]

All Photos - Fire Services Museum & MFB Collections

Last Update: Tuesday 6th September 2011

Vintage Appliance Timeline

39 Gisborne Street, East Melbourne, 3002, Australia
(Cnr. Gisborne Street and Victoria Parade), East Melbourne
1926 Dennis Pumper
Reg. No. 1690

Dennis Brothers introduced a 30 cwt (1.5 Tonne) truck chassis in 1925. These were very popular as delivery vans, and included many novel features for their time. This led to their adoption in a wide variety of other roles. In 1926 a lengthened version of the 30 cwt chassis was offered as a light Fire Appliance. These relatively inexpensive machines proved extremely popular, especially as the looming depression caused local authorities to begin severely restricting their budgets.

Novel features included four wheel brakes, and pneumatic tyres (both fitted at a time when official regulations still prevented their general use in England, and in part were instrumental in changing perceptions on the efficiency of these items), one piece cast cylinder blocks cast all in one piece with the crankcase, and a clutch housing and gearbox all bolted together in a single unit, and the mounting of all these items direct onto the chassis, instead of separate sub - frames.

With the basic 36 B.h.p. motors a variety of different size pumps could be fitted to meet the customer's requirements. Large numbers of these vehicles were exported to the "Dominions".

The main body style followed the traditional "Braidwood" layout. Although some examples came as specialised appliances e.g. Salvage, or Emergency Tenders. As often happens with Fire Appliances, the chassis is superseded for a variety of reasons, but the pumps are still sound, and are remounted onto the replacement vehicle. It was probably for this reason that this vehicle is no longer fitted with a pump, although the mounting points show definite signs of having a pump fitting in place at some time.

This Appliance is originally from New South Wales, and H.F.E.A.A. published records indicate that it may have been from a large group (28 vehicles in all) titled "DENNIS 250 sv." and fitted with a 250 G.P.M. pumps. These vehicles were progressively commissioned between 1927 and 1930. It is believed to have served at Thyrrell.

A number of similar vehicles, from batches imported from England, also operated in Melbourne, and Country Victoria.

For the technically, or statistically minded, the following details are on the builders plate, still mounted on the front fire wall:

Chassis No: 7596
Engine: 410170.24
Gearbox: 12837
Back axle: 23124
Weight: 3 T 13 Cwt
(3.8 Tne.)
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Fire Services History Victoria
39 Gisborne Street, East Melbourne, 3002, Australia
(Cnr. Gisborne Street and Victoria Parade), East Melbourne
1970 International 'C' Series 200 G.P.M. 'Rotary' Hose Carriage
The International Hose Carriage/Pumper series was in commission from 1959 to 1970 with engines ranging in horsepower from 32.6 - 34 HP (24.3 - 25.4 Kw). When new they had a top speed of around 70 M.P.H (110 K.P.H.).

During this period (1960 - 1970) all Metropolitan Fire Stations were equipped with these vehicles.

Design and development of the vehicles was carried out in the mid 1950's by M.F.B. Workshops and Engineering staff. Most of the body work was built by the Grummet Co. at Thomastown. These vehicles were the first "complete" fire appliances as they carried pumps and on-board water supply and "first aid" firefighting hose reels.

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Vintage Appliance Timeline
39 Gisborne Street, East Melbourne, 3002, Australia
(Cnr. Gisborne Street and Victoria Parade), East Melbourne
1975 "M" Series Bedford Fire Tanker
Forests Commission of Victoria
(Department of Conservation and Environment)
Original Reg. No: MZF 347
Chassis No: CJ465323
Engine No: F6293025

This vehicle was commissioned into service with the Forests Commission of Victoria (now the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources) on the 2nd of October, 1975. It is still a fully commissioned "reserve" tanker with the Fire Management Branch of the Department (although it wears the "old" Forests Commission logos), but has been housed in the Museum since December 1994.

The original purchase price of the vehicle was $8884.00, and was built up at the Forests Commission Fire Protection Workshops, Kyle Road, North Altona, workshops, it was issued to the Kallista depot on the 10th of October, 1975.

All of its working life, except when on task forces attending major fires, was in the Kallista - Gembrook areas of the Dandenong Ranges.

As originally fitted out (direct quote from workshops log sheet) it was:
Fitted with 16 H.P. "Briggs & Stratton No. 8" pump, (Honda Pump of equivalent capacity now installed) fitted with control linkages, hand primed pump, and "super trap" muffler. 5 synthetic hoses with quick release couplings (Nos.: 118 - 122). Driver side front tray made removable. "Stortz" couplings fitted to suction line, blank caps fitted, 2 x 15 Ft. (4 M.) suction hoses supplied with "Stortz" couplings. Battery charger re - coupled behind driver side seat. Mudguard front of rear wheels removed & replaced with mud flaps. Tie rod guard fitted to front axle. Voltmeter fitted to dash. Quick release couplings fitted to delivery sides of front tray. Quick release couplings fitted to 2 directors.

The workshop records for the ensuing years show various repairs, modifications, and updates of equipment. Much of the wear and tear occasioned by working "Off Road" in four wheel drive on forest tracks shows up on these sheets. When not attending fires, large and small, the vehicle participated in "fuel reduction burns", and water cartage for construction works (walking paths, picnic areas etc.) by forest staff.

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Last Update: Wednesday 22nd September 2021