The Oldest Fire Stations Still in Existence

In 6 AD Emperor Augustus established the first Fire Brigade in History in the city of Rome, with around 7,000 firefighters, operating at night with road surveillance tasks for fire prevention and public safety.

The fire rescue service has been organized in most cities around the world since the 1800s. In a limited number of cities there is evidence of earlier organisations, in some cases dating back to the Middle Ages. Currently the oldest findings of places where these services were carried out are found in Rome and its immediate vicinity, with two stations dating back to the 1st and 2nd centuries AD.

Simplified plan of the remains of barracks of the Seventh “Vigilum” Group Station in Rome, second century AD. Map: FireRiskHeritage

The Cohortes Vigilum were a special body responsible for surveillance, especially fire prevention, established in 6 AD. by Emperor Augustus with approximately 7,000 firefighters, divided into different operational areas (Regiones) operating at night with road surveillance tasks for fire prevention and public safety. Seven barracks, each for one of the seven cohorts are known. The service was deployed by barracks, known as castra, and by the excubitoria, or smaller barracks.

In addition to military equipment, their equipment consisted of simple tools such as lamps, for night patrol services, buckets, brooms, siphones (a sort of fire hydrant with leather pipes, for fighting fire), axes, crampons, hoes, saws, poles, ladders and ropes, as well as some “centones” (wet blankets used to smother flames).

The Fire Station closest to the center of Rome is one of the excubitoria and is known as “Excubitorium VII Cohort” (Barracks of the seventh Group of the Firefighters). It depended by the “Septima Cohort Vigilum” in the Region XIV (Transtiberim).
The remains of the building are located 8 meters below street level (due to the rise in street level over the centuries) and a large hall, a hexagonal fountain basin, a rectangular exedra and some rooms are visible. One of the most notable finds is a graffiti with the phrase “lassum sum successorem date“, that is, “I’m tired, lift me up”.

Excubitorium of the VII Coorte – Photo showing the facade of the chapel (Sacello). The fire station was made up of several buildings communicating through an external space, now covered (in the upper part of the image the twentieth-century concrete roof recently built to protect the remaining buildings). Picture: FireRiskHeritage.

The oldest remains of a fire station, however, are found in the seaside area of Ostia, within the Archaeological Park of Ostia Antica, a few kilometers west of Rome. Here, Roma City administration built imposing barracks where around 320 firefighters worked to protect the then strategic port of Ostia, the gateway to river navigation to Rome. The barracks was built at the end of the 1st century AD. The barracks hosted a stable cohort of firefighters-policemen. The structure visible today dates back to the transformation of the Hadrianic era (first half of the 2nd century AD), which affected the entire neighborhood. The complex was at least two floors high, had a porticoed courtyard around which all the services necessary for a modern fire station were located.

Map of the Ostia Fire Station (I Century AD). Credit: Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage

The complex, at least two floors high, was characterized by a porticoed courtyard (A in the map above), onto which the firemen’s rooms and the wash-house fountains opened (B). On the rear side there was a chapel for the imperial cult (C), built in monumental form at the beginning of the 3rd century AD. The corner room, a latrine (D), was embellished with a shrine dedicated to Fortun

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