The History Behind Fire Prevention Week

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Artist rendering of the Great Chicago Fire in 1871

Artist rendering of the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 (Source: Wikipedia)

This week, fire departments across the US and Canada will remind us to go through a checklist to ensure our homes are safe from potential disaster. This includes campaigns promoting the use of smoke detectors, alarms and extinguishers. No, it’s not a ploy by big business, but rather to remember the Great Chicago Fire and how simple steps can save our lives.

The Great Chicago Fire was a three-day destruction that occurred from October 8th to October 10th in 1871. As legend goes, the fire started in a small barn after a cow kicked over a lantern. There’s speculation the fire was actually sparked by other small fires, or by boys who were smoking cigarettes, but the official report says the exact cause was undetermined.

The barn, owned by Catherine and Patrick O’Leary was quickly consumed, and the fire became uncontrollable. Many of us remember the popular song:

Late one night, when we were all in bed,

Old Mother Leary left a lantern in the shed;

And when the cow kicked it over, she winked her eye and said,

“There’ll be a hot time in the old town, tonight.”

The tragic fire killed hundreds of people and destroyed nearly 3.3 square miles of buildings and nature, and was one of the largest US disasters during the 19th century.

In 1911, on the 40th anniversary of the fire, the Fire Marshals Association of North America (part of the National Fire Protection Association – aka NFPA) sponsored the first National Fire Prevention Day. In 1919 the NFPA met with the Dominion Fire Prevention Association in Canada. The two organizations then urged US and Canadian governments to acknowledge and support the prevention day. The campaign expanded to a week-long event in 1922.

US President Calvin Coolidge proclaimed the first National Fire Prevention Week to occur October 4-10, 1925. President Coolidge noted that in 1924 about 15,000 lives were lost to fire in the US alone. His proclamation said:

This waste results from the conditions which justify a sense of shame and horror; for the greater part of it could and ought to be prevented… It is highly desirable that every effort be made to reform the conditions which have made possible so vast a destruction of the national wealth.

Sparky the Fire Dog

Sparky the Fire Dog has been educating kids since 1951.

Ever since, National Fire Prevention Week has been observed in both the US and Canada during the Sunday to Saturday week in which October 9th falls.

Among the focus of the week is to ensure fire prevention steps are taken in the home, including:

  • Installing, testing and changing batteries in smoke detectors.
  • Installing and checking the status of portable fire extinguishers.
  • Learning about fire safety in the kitchen.
  • Implementing and practicing fire drills.
  • Ensuring safe paths to exit the home in the event of a fire.

You probably remember performing fire drills in grade school. You also might remember Sparky the Fire Dog. He’s the official mascot of the NFPA, and continues to appear at events across the country. Since 1951, this cute, cuddly Dalmatian has used modern methods to teach us how to be safe and escape trouble. He has his own website, by the way… Sparky.org.

Many also see Fire Prevention Week as a prime time to honor local firefighters, whether paid or unpaid. On Sunday (October 6, 2013), US flags flew at half-staff to honor fallen firefighters. And throughout the week many localities will host fundraisers and events to salute these true heroes.

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Last updated: Oct 08, 2013
Filed under: Retro Memories, Retro Museum Tagged with: disasters, firefighters, proclamations