In the 1984 film Ghostbusters, Peter, Ray, and Egon are in need of a headquarters for their ghostbusting service. Unable to find something that meets their needs, they end up looking at a decrepit, abandoned firehouse — one which Egon quickly dismisses, as seen in this clip. The building, he points out, is falling apart, and the neighborhood isn’t much better. Ray, however, is like a kid at a playground: he discovered the firefighters’ pole. Innocently, he asks if it still works, and then gives it a try. With a huge smile on his face after making a successful descent, Ray says “wow, this place is great!” and invites the others to try the pole. The Ghostbusters end up taking the place and the rest is history.
The scene works, in large part, because poles are a traditional feature in firehouses. Firefighters, while on duty, live and sleep upstairs; the downstairs is where they keep the firetrucks. But there are lots of ways to get downstairs quickly, including, as the word “downstairs” itself suggests, by using stairs. Why do firehouses use poles?
It all starts with horses.
(The title should have given that away.)
If you want to put out a fire, you need to get water and firefighters to the scene. That’s been true basically for as long as there have been firefighters, which is to say, for centuries. As technology improved, so did the methods of transportation used to transport firefighters. Today, we have firetrucks, but go back a bit more than a century ago and those were unheard of — the motor vehicle either didn’t exist yet or was too new. Instead, most fire departments used horse-drawn fire engines. The horses would live downstairs with the fire engine, ready to pull the contraption when needed; the firefighters would live a level above.
But there was a problem with this solution. Most fire stations, at the time, simply had a flight of stairs connecting the transport bay from the living quarters above — we hadn’t yet seen the era of fire poles. And when it comes to food, stairs aren’t going to stop a horse. As Priceonomics notes, “when the firemen cooked meals on the second floor, curious horses would ascend the stairs into the living quarters,” hoping to partake in the team meal.
This wasn’t a trivial problem. Yes, firefighters probably didn’t want to share their food with the horses, but if that were the only issue, the solution would have been to simply make more food. The big problem is that while horses can rather easily go up a flight of stairs, their legs aren’t designed to easily go down them. Fire departments needed a way to keep horses downstairs, and the solution was a simple one: they changed the stairs. Priceonomics continues: “firehouses began installing narrow spiral staircases that the animals couldn’t access.”
Unfortunately, this caused a new problem. While horses won’t go up spiral staircases, people can’t go down them as quickly as they could normal ones. For firefighters, that was a problem — you want to get everyone downstairs quickly. A new solution was needed. And strangely, horses helped figure out a way forward there, too.
As Smithsonian explains, in the late 1870s, “David Kenyon of Company 21, an all-African-American firehouse in Chicago [. . .] reached the ground by sliding down a wooden pole normally used to bale hay for horses.” Kenyon realized that this could be made into a permanent feature — it was such a fast way down, there was no bunching. In 1878, Company 21 installed a fire pole permanently, and as a result, began arriving on scene faster than their cross-town counterparts. This was a point of pride for the Company, as Smithsonian continues: “there was a competitiveness between firehouses to arrive first at a blaze—and a particular need for newly formed all-black firehouses to prove themselves.” And that competitive spirit took over, with other fire stations quickly installing their firepoles to keep up.
Within a generation, fire poles became a fixture of firehouse lore, and — not that it really matters for the story — gave us a pretty good scene from Ghostbusters, too.
From the Archives: The Ladder Shop: Another firefighter story. And the bonus fact, amazingly (at least to me) is about how horses caused another firefighting tradition.