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What is a Fire Pump?

By Alan Rankin
Updated May 17, 2024
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A fire pump is a specialized water pump used in firefighting. While most water pumps are designed to distribute water at a set or variable pressure, a fire pump is part of a high-pressure system. The intense pressure maintained by a fire pump can deliver water quickly over a wide area or in a high-pressure stream on a concentrated area. Either method will aid fire containment. Fire pumps are part of building sprinkler systems and are also used on firefighting vehicles. They can distribute foam or other fire retardants as well as water.

Organized firefighting dates to ancient Rome, but for centuries amounted to bucket brigades that transported water by hand from available sources. In the 16th and 17th centuries, firefighters had to break into the municipal water supply, which was little improvement. The first fire pump was invented in the late 1600s, soon followed by the fire hose. Paris was the first city to have a fire brigade, established by the French king in 1716. French firefighters were called pompiers, or pumpers, and are still known by this name in modern times.

The fire pump aids firefighting by providing a pressurized flow of water, which firefighters can direct to strategic areas with fire hoses. Fire engines contain a portable fire pump for this purpose. Water from fire hydrants is diverted to the engine’s fire pump and then to the fire hoses. The pressurized stream of water extinguishes burning materials while cooling the surrounding area, preventing the fire from spreading. A pressurized stream is thus far more effective than water alone for putting out a fire.

Fire pumps are also essential parts of building fire sprinkler systems. When the sprinkler system is activated by a heat or smoke detector, sprinklers set into the walls or ceilings distribute water throughout the building. Again, high pressure is required to ensure the entire building or area is saturated. A smaller pump, called a jockey pump, is attached to the fire pump to maintain this high pressure while the sprinkler system is operating.

Varieties of fire pumps are available for specialized firefighting situations. For example, fireboats pump liquid directly from the surrounding body of water rather than tapping into municipal systems to fight fires on ships or shorelines. Other fire pumps allow for the addition of compressed air foam, a highly effective fire retardant. Added to water, compressed air foam is often used on oil or chemical fires or other blazes that would resist traditional water treatment methods.

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Discussion Comments
By bythewell — On Jun 25, 2011

It really is amazing the amount of fire fighting equipment a fire fighter has to take with them into the job. I had to research it for a novel once and I don't know how they managed to walk a few steps, let alone run around.

You don't just have the fire pump hoses which are much heavier than you might think (and being able to carry one up some stairs is one of the physical tests before you can become a fire fighter).

You also have the oxygen tanks on your back, and the alarm system attached to those, as well as the heavy layers of fire retardant clothes and jacket and boots and the belt holding more gear, and a helmet and probably an axe as well.

Plus I'm probably forgetting something. If you want to be a firefighter you really have to be fit, and very passionate about your job.

By KoiwiGal — On Jun 24, 2011

Firefighters are essential now of course, but back a few hundred years ago they were absolutely crucial.

Quite a few of the major cities we take for granted today were destroyed by fire at some point, and some more than once.

We learned about Ancient Rome in particular during my classics classes in high school.

They used to build huge rickety buildings that were treated like apartments, with shops in the bottom and then families crammed together in the floors above.

There were no building codes, and people would light fires in the building to do their cooking. So, they would catch fire all the time.

And of course, they were all built right on top of each other, so if one went, the whole neighborhood was next. And London and Paris and so forth weren't much better a couple thousand years on.

Their fire equipment just wasn't up to their severe fire risk.

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