Firemen's pole

A firemen's pole or sliding pole or firepole is a wooden pole or a metal tube or pipe installed between floors in fire stations, allowing personnel to quickly descend to the ground floor in the event of a dispatch.

The device was invented in the 1870s by Chicago, Illinois resident David Kenyon, although it is often incorrectly credited to the Boston Fire Department.


Firefighters usually remain above the ground floor of fire stations until they receive a call for help, after which they have to move down as quickly as possible. Until 1878, spiral staircases or sliding chutes were common, but not particularly fast. The firemen's pole allows firefighters to move down much more quickly than before, although it is not suitable for climbing up. The pole is attached to the ground floor, goes through a hole in the ceiling, and is attached as well to the ceiling of the floor above. In order to use a pole, a firefighter must put his/her arms around the pole, step into the hole, and use his/her legs to control the speed of the descent, somewhat similar to the technique used for abseiling.

History of the invention

David Kenyon of Chicago's Engine Company No. 21 worked in a three-story fire station; the ground floor containing the firefighting equipment, the floor above being the floor for recreation and sleeping, and the top floor being the hayloft which was used to store the winter supply of hay. During transport, the hay was secured to a wagon using a wooden binding pole, which was stored in the hayloft when not in use. Firefighter George Reid slid down the pole to respond to a call for help once, which inspired Captain David Kenyon to create a permanent pole.

In 1878 he convinced the Chief of Department to make the necessary hole in the building and install the pole, after agreeing to pay for any necessary maintenance. The Company crafted a pole out of a Georgia pine beam by shaving and sanding it into a 3" diameter pole which they gave several coats of varnish and a coat of paraffin.

After being the target of many jokes, people realised Company 21 was usually the first company to arrive when called, especially at night, and the Chief of Department ordered the poles to be installed in all Chicago fire stations. In 1880 the first brass pole was installed in the Boston Fire Department, and the poles become standard equipment all over the United States.

Fire houses were equipped with the brass pole and spiral staircases so the horses would not try to climb the stairs into the living quarters. Spiral staircases were difficult to descend and relatively slow when moving many men down to the wagons. The slide pole was a much more efficient way to move them quickly downstairs. Tradition, which the fire service thrives upon, is why there are still some in existence.

Safety issues

There are a few safety issues: losing grip on a pole can mean falling down from a large height; the firefighter may hit an object such as a door extending from the truck; poor speed control can result in injured or even broken legs upon impact with the ground; and burns can occur due to friction against the pole.

The National Fire Protection Association has called for the removal of all poles from fire stations, due to hazards, and in many cases fire stations now have only one floor, so no pole is even needed. Poles are now relatively scarce in the United States.

In New Zealand it is the policy of the New Zealand Fire Service that poles, where installed, should not be used, and that no newly constructed stations are to have them. As a result most new fire stations are designed and built on a single level. In some older stations, particularly historic ones built on three levels, firefighters on the top floor will still use the pole because of the significant delay associated with taking the stairs due to the station's layout.

Other uses

The firemen's pole is also a popular object in other areas, such as strip clubs. Children's playgrounds can have small poles. Popular films, including Ghostbusters and Bridget Jones's Diary feature them, as well as the Batman 1960s TV series, where they appear in Batman's Wayne Manor as access to the Batcave.

They are also major gameplay elements in some video games, including Montezuma's Revenge and the second Commander Keen trilogy.

The same mechanism is also used by the military to quickly descend from helicopters, known as fast-roping, not to be confused with rappelling.

In Korean sitcom of High Kick!, Lee Min Yong's room, which is a modified storeroom, is connected with the rest of the house by the fireman's pole.

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