This Day in History: Benjamin Franklin dies

On this day in 1790, America lost one of its most revered and remarkable Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin.

For many, historical characters often seem distant and statuesque, as if their personality was somehow lost in translation over the years. Yet, Benjamin Franklin still holds a presence in many American’s minds as an intellectual grandfather of sorts. Everyone is happy to see the man’s face in a shade of green on a $100 bill, but his influence on the daily lives of Americans is far more far-ranging as one might suspect. 

The spirit of service is a recurring theme in Franklin’s life. Remnants of the man’s brilliant innovations can be seen all over the city of Philadelphia, including the University of Pennsylvania and its hospital.  Perhaps the most necessary inventions still used today is the general organization of a volunteer fire corp.

According to the National Fire Protection Agency report from 2011, there are currently 1,103,300 firefighters in the United States, 768,150 (70 percent) are volunteers. Keeping  his humility intact, Franklin used a pseudonym to propose the idea of a volunteer fire brigade in his newspaper.

At the time of his first article, there was no official fire brigade. Instead, men would rush to the scene of the fire and assist in any way they could to save the inhabitants and their possessions from the flames. He lauded these men in his letter saying,

But how pleasing must it be to a thinking Man to observe, that not a Fire happens in this Town, but soon after it is seen and cry’d out, the Place is crowded by active Men of different Ages, Professions and Titles; who, as of one Mind and Rank, apply themselves with all Vigilance and Resolution, according to their Abilities, to the hard Work of conquering the increasing Fire. (The Pennsylvania Gazette)

The letter also recommended that those who could not or would not participate in the brigade, contribute money for the department’s equipment.

This system of funding is still used in thousands of volunteer departments nationwide.  By 1736, the Philadelphia Fire Union was officially incorporated and Franklin made sure that rules and protocols were set in place to provide each member with a specific duty in the case of a fire. Soon enough, people surrounding Philadelphia formed their own departments and followed the standards set up by the famous inventor.

In another letter attributed to Franklin, the author details the duties of each firefighter. Franklin made sure to highlight the responsibilities of the fire ground commander when he wrote, “they direct the opening and stripping of Roofs by the Ax-Men, the pulling down burning Timbers by the Hook-men, and the playing of the Engines.”

Interestingly enough, Franklin addresses a concern of the fire department that is still around today. Modern building construction facilitates a quick assembly and an even faster destruction. Firefighters today must use extra caution when working on roofs to help control the fire.

Franklin addressed this very issue when he wrote “I could wish, that either Tiles would come in use for a Covering to Buildings; or else that those who build, would make their Roofs more safe to walk upon.” 

Citizens have benefitted from his invention for hundreds of years. Scores of fire departments owe him credit for their creation.  Most importantly, Firefighters have lived out his maxim since they first came to be, “Fear not death for the sooner we die, the longer we shall be immortal.”  Franklin’s flame continues to burn bright in cities all across America.