On Fighting (Software) Fires

The history of fire companies1 dates back millennia, but their current form is relatively new, just a few hundred years old. The evolution of these companies happens in parallel in different nations, but I’d like to tell the story of how London’s fire brigades became the public service we know today.

Some of the earliest documented “fire departments” were bucket brigades during the Roman Empire2. These were lines of villagers passing buckets back and forth between a water source and a fire. The bucket brigade surely predates Ancient Rome, but this is the first known organized fire department. In addition to actively fighting fires, the company also took preventative measures and enforced fire codes. This is a major step forward in public safety, but we won’t make much more progress for 1500+ years.

Let’s jump ahead to 1666, the year of the Great Fire of London3. This was one of the most catastrophic fires in history. As with many fires from this period, it started small and spread quickly due to the way buildings and the city itself were designed. At this point in time, we have roughly the same setup as the Ancient Romans did. There was no dedicated fire brigade, but the local militia and volunteers had rudimentary firefighting equipment. One of the most effective methods of stopping a large fire from spreading is demolition of nearby buildings, but that proved difficult due to timing and narrow city streets. Residents storing black powder in their houses didn’t help things, either. By the time the fire had run its course, it destroyed dozens of churches, most of the city’s governmental buildings, and the homes of over 80% of city’s inhabitants. Something needed to change.

As the city rebuilt, insurance companies4 sprang up. Property owners needed to insure their assets against future fires. The first companies were so successful and profitable that many more were created over the next several decades. Much like the Romans, these companies realized that fire prevention was often easier (and more importantly, cheaper) than paying out claims. The existing system of volunteers and conveniently placed escape ladders scattered around the city wasn’t an effective way to protect insured properties, so the insurance companies created fire brigades5 that look like the ones we know today.

Insurance company fire brigades served policyholders and their neighbors. (This made sense; if a building is insured, a fire in the building next door represents a significant risk, so it should be extinguished.) When a fire broke out, several fire companies would report to the scene, but only those whose insured properties were in immediate danger would fight the fires. Eventually, in 1833, the insurance companies pooled resources to create the London Fire Engine Establishment. This eliminated the redundancies of multiple fire brigades serving the same areas of the city and improved the efficacy of firefighting in general. Finally, following the Tooley Street Fire in 1861 (a particularly expensive incident due to the destruction of commercial warehouses), the insurance companies decided that it was no longer profitable to fund the fire brigade. They petitioned the British government to create London’s first municipal fire department. In 1865, the Metropolitan Fire Brigade Act was passed, creating what would later become known as the London Fire Brigade.

And that’s how we went from untrained bucket brigades to public fire departments6, something that we can’t imagine living without today. Why am I writing about this, and why should you care? Mostly because it’s an interesting piece of history. But it’s also a great analogy and framing device for a problem we have today.

The Internet is on fire. We depend more on connected services every day, and the outages and failures seem to get worse all the time. Among countless other examples: Botnets and software misconfigurations are contributing to increasingly powerful DDoS attacks. Ransomeware has extended beyond personal computers and now targets hospitals, banks, and power grids. Entirely preventable data breaches go unpunished and result in little change. It’s clear that we need a new kind of emergency response team.

The formation of 18F is an interesting step in the right direction, and groups like the Internet Archive do great work to prevent some classes of future problems, but I think that this is just the beginning of the need for teams that protect the public from the Internet’s coming Great Fires. I don’t know if our Internet fire brigades exist yet or what they’ll look like once they do, but I know we need them. Ideally, these groups will be mission-driven rather than profit-driven and will exist to serve the public rather than specific corporations. I’m hoping that we can learn from real fire companies and skip the decades of private, for-profit teams and jump straight to a public service. If anyone reading this knows of work being done along these lines, I’d love to hear about it.

Thanks to @captbaritone, @dirn, and @webology for proofreading and providing feedback on this post.

  1. I’m a technologist, not a historian, and I’ve taken some liberties and omitted some details in order to get my point across. If you happen to know a lot about the history of fire fighting and notice any particularly misleading inaccuracies, please point them out. 

  2. There’s quite a bit of interesting history here, but that’s not the focus of this post. The history here is a bit dark and involves things like slavery and extortion, but you can start your Wikipedia rabbit hole here if you’d like. 

  3. The Great Fire of London (Wikipedia) 

  4. Property Insurance (Wikipedia) 

  5. Early fire brigades 

  6. If you’re looking for a capitalist explanation for this evolution: it’s cheaper to prevent fires than to pay out insurance, cheaper to pool resources to serve a common area than to maintain several independent fire brigades, and especially cheaper to shift the whole of the cost onto the taxpayers than to pay for it out of profits.