Do Fire Stations Still Have Fire Poles?

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Fire poles in stations have been around since the 1800s, but are they still used in today’s modern fire stations? Why would a modern fire station have a requirement for firefighters to literally slide down a pole before they get on a truck and respond out the door?

Fire poles are still in use around the world. Both older stations and more modernly built stations can be equipped with a fire pole. With the ever-increasing need to have firefighters get into the firetruck as quickly as possible, a fire pole can be a great choice to reduce response times.

So what is it like to have a fire pole in a station? We take a look at why they exist and we even got some footage of smouldering Australian firefighters demonstrating how to use them!

So, what exactly is a fire pole?

A fire pole is an internal pole within a fire station that allows rapid access to the engine bay or operational area, allowing firefighters to get from upper floors to the fire truck as quickly as possible.

A modern fire pole in NSW Australia.

In multi-level fire stations, the living quarters are on the upper floors. This means when a call comes through, firefighters need to make their way to the lower floors where the fire appliances are. The quicker this can be done, the quicker they can respond to the emergency.

Where did fire poles originate?

The history of the fire pole dates back to the 1800s when a firefighter in Chicago was stocking the upper floor of a fire station with hay bales for the horses. Yep, fire appliances were once horse-drawn carts! While he was stocking the hay, an emergency call came in. Being on the third floor, he used the wooden pole that came with the hay to slide down into the engine bay and respond to the call.

Firemen at the ready, near the horse-drawn cart on the left.

Seeing the benefit, he convinced the chief to make it a permanent fixture within the station and soon the department began to see reduced turnout times as a result, so they were rolled out across the city. 

Over time, they have been constructed of many things, but the most common being timber or brass.

How do you use a firepole exactly?

Reach out, hold on, hope for the best! Every firefighter is different, but the goal is the same – get to the bottom without hurting yourself. In most cases, reaching out with your hands, then hooking a leg, followed by the other one is the best way to go. It’s just like being on a set of play equipment – except there’s no chipbark mulch waiting at the bottom to get stuck in your knees if you fall over.

We knew it was going to be risky, but we reached out to a fire station that we knew had a pole and asked for a couple of videos of firefighters demonstrating its use.

We’ll give you a minute to cool down after those smouldering stares…. we should have known better.

Are fire poles dangerous?

Let’s face it, sliding down a pole with no restraint from a height of more than a storey is going to have risks! There have been cases of firemen actually being killed from incorrectly using the pole, slipping or falling down the “pole hole”.

There are a number of risks factors when using the pole.

  • A hard landing. Modern fire stations usually have some form of shock-absorbing material at the base of the pole to take some of the impact of the firefighter landing on the floor. There’s also no harness or fall arresting mechanism, so losing your grip or footing may result in a more rapid descent than first planned. The padding at the bottom is there to absorb shock from a controlled fall – not for a freefall.

  • Falling. There is a real risk of falling and being seriously injured. There have been reported cases overseas of firefighters who have gotten up in the middle of the night and accidentally fallen down the hole. Even just approaching the pole needs to be done with care as a trip could lead to falling from a height.

  • Splinters and scratches. Depending on the make of the pole, there are inherent risks based on the material. Wooden poles if not maintained can result in splinters to the hands or legs. Brass poles can be nicked by things, like belt buckles, creating burs. These burs can produce nasty results on hands or legs!

  • Fumes. Due to appliances running in the engine bay, there’s potential for exhaust fumes to make their way up into the upper floors of the station. Exhaust management systems can assist with this, so can enclosing the area around the pole and allow access via a door instead.
The base of the firepole including a padded landing area
Incoming!

Do all firefighters have to use a fire pole?

No, they don’t. It’s entirely dependant on what station they belong to. Not all stations have one so not every firefighter is trained in their use. Some firefighters can go their entire career without ever seeing or using one.

Check out this great video of former Fire & Rescue NSW Commissioner Greg Mullins using the fire pole at 001 City of Sydney. He was there serving out his last week in the job as Commissioner.

You can view the video here

Is it all worth it?

It comes down to risk VS reward. There are many risk factors that need to be considered when operating a fire pole in a station. But, what better way to get a crew of firefighters down to the truck in the quickest time possible?

In many stations, the fire pole was phased out and firefighters were then forced to use internal stairs to get down to the lower levels of their station. That may not sound like a risk, but have you ever tried rapidly getting down a flight of stairs? What about quickly running down a set of stairs at 3 am having just flown out of bed at a moments notice? What about trying to do that with 3, 5, or 7 other firefighters? It only takes one person to lose their footing…

Fun fact – if firefighters are stationed where there is an operational fire pole in use, they can sometimes be issued a different form of duty belt. These belts don’t have a metallic buckle, or any buckle at all and rely on velcro. This is to reduce the chance of burs or splinters being created when firefighters use the pole. 

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