1878: A Chicago firefighter hears the alarm ringing and slides down a pole that just happened to be nearby. It's the birth of the firehouse sliding pole.
It's not easy to get a whole lot of people down a flight of stairs fast, so some firehouses had added sliding chutes, like those you see in children's playgrounds.
Firefighters at Engine Company 21 were unloading hay for the horses that pulled their fire engines. When the bell rang, firefighter George Reid was up in the hayloft on the third floor. The long binding pole that was used to secure the hay to the wagon had been stashed vertically up the loading area to the hayloft. Rather than run all the way down two flights of stairs, Reid decided to slide down the pole. Swift thinking, George.
His captain, David Kenyon, liked the idea and arranged with the chief to cut a hole in the second floor and install a pole to get his firefighters quickly from their living quarters to the fire engines. The crew at Engine 21 rounded off a beam of Georgia pine to a 3-inch diameter, sanded it and varnished it. Then they waxed it with paraffin.
The thing worked. Engine 21, which was staffed entirely by black firefighters, soon got a reputation for being the first responder among first responders. The fire chief, who'd threatened to make Kenyon pay for repairing the hole in the floor if the idea was a bust, wound up ordering poles installed for every firehouse in Chicago.
Boston improved the idea in 1880. Fire pole 2.0 was made of shiny, slippery brass.
Nowadays, the poles are sometimes considered safety hazards, and new firehouses are often built without them. Single-story firehouses are preferred.