A journey through 150 years of firefighting
FIREFIGHTING DURING RUSSIAN EMPIRE
In the end of 19th century the cities of regions Kurzeme and Vidzeme rapidly developed large industry and increased trade turnover in ports. Riga had become the biggest industrial city in the Baltic region.
Expansion of cities and resettling of rural residents to the cities was followed by increasing numbers of devastating fires. The first small city fire brigade was formed in 1845 in Dinaburg (Daugavpils). At that time in Riga four police fire brigades operated. However, they were powerless in fighting great fires of the summer of 1864 in Moscow (nowadays Latgale) suburb. They were technically underequipped and professionally unready.
Traders, industrials and social activists of Riga understood that Riga’s ineffective firefighting systems must be substituted by organized, trained and professional fire brigades. In 1865 Riga City Voluntary Fire Fighters Association was formed and started active work. Afterwards voluntary fire fighters associations started to form in Jelgava, Piltene, Cesis, Valmiera, Limbazi, Jekabpils, Tukums, Liepaja and other cities. Before the World War I more than 90 voluntary fire fighters associations operated in Latvia.
Firefighting had entered a new phase.
On 19 November 1864 founding meeting of Riga City Voluntary Fire Fighters Association took place and Ivan Himiller (1835-1876) was elected as chairman of the Association. On 15 February 1865 statutes of the Association were approved and Riga City Voluntary Fire Fighters Association began its work – gathered donations, procured most necessary equipment, organized trainings and established four divisions.
On 17 May Riga City Voluntary Fire Fighters Association brigade for the first time coordinately responded to the fire accident, which occurred in the house of chimneysweeper on Aleksandra street (nowadays Brivibas street) in Riga. This event is being considered as beginnings of firefighting in Latvia.
In subsequent years, the Association has got recognition of citizens that was followed by generous donations and gifts. It facilitated creation and development of base for technical equipment, procurement of manual and steam pumps or “syringes”, mechanical ladders and hoses. At that time active members of Voluntary Fire Fighters Association were divided in nozzle-carriers, pump-operators, breakers and order keepers.
In 1865 Jelgava city also formed Jelgava City Voluntary Fire Fighters Association and baker Adolfs Eduards Prals was elected as the first chairman. During this period in Liepaja city voluntary and paid fire brigades were formed.
In 1875 with the increasing number of fires Riga had finished installations of fire telegraph that was meant for fire notification in 53 locations.
Public confidence in Voluntary Fire Fighters Associations rose due to its successful work. The number of associations increased, nevertheless the number of fire accidents increased as well. Associations paid great attention to the training process, however at those times each one of them was taught to operate his own equipment. The most valued were the climbers and nozzle-carriers.
In order to improve fire safety in the city, in 1882 Riga City Council formed the so called “Running Column”. Members of this formation were paid as professional fire fighters by the City Council. The “Running Column” consisted of 16 well trained men and was based on Maskavas street.
In 1882 institutions of Riga municipality adopted “Public Fire Safety Program”, which provided significant further development of the industry, including building of fire stations and establishment of professional Riga City Fire brigades.
Great progress in fire notification was facilitated by opening of the first telephone stations in Riga in July 1882.
From 1886 till 1902 in Riga city four fire stations were built – 3 Maskavas street, 9 Matisa street, 17 Akmeņu street and 24 Ludzas street, which were built according to the project of Riga main architect Reinhold Smeling (1840-1917). Buildings were significant because of their specific red brick architectural style. These buildings, except 24 Ludzas street, also nowadays are used as fire stations.
Following the development of industry and trade between 19th and 20th century in Riga, Liepaja, Jelgava and Daugavpils the number of citizens continued to increase. In the cities comfortable residential and labourer neighbourhoods were created, as well as industrial and administrative centres. City municipalities developed subsidized services, including fire services. In order to ensure fire safety in industrial facilities and residential neighbourhoods establishment of new Voluntary Fire Fighters Associations with response teams continued throughout the territory of Latvia.
1905 – 1918
In the beginning of 1907 Riga City Council finished the reorganisation of the firefighting system that resulted in the establishment of Riga City Firefighting Team and was composed of “Running Column” and police firefighting teams. Karlis Summers became the first brand major (chief) of Riga City Firefighting Team. Firefighting team had 5 divisions and each division guarded its own territory.
In 1910 Riga City Council procured first firefighting automobile (steam driven), but Peter’s Voluntary Fire Fighters Associations ordered a firefighting automobile “Russo-Balt” from Riga Wagon factory. Firefighting automobile “Russo-Balt” is the first automobile made in Latvia that survived till nowadays and can be seen in Riga Motor museum. In the following years the range of available equipment extended and in the possession of firefighters came 16 meter long balancing ladders, 24 meter long “Magirus” ladders, manual extinguishing apparatus, sprayers and smoke protectors.
Development of firefighting was interrupted by the First World War. In 1915 the Russian army took out from Latvia the industrial, firefighting and other equipment.
Despite the lack of equipment during war, fire fighters continued to extinguish fires and sometimes also performed police and sanitary duties.
FIREFIGHTING DURING INDEPENDENCE TIMES
World War I was a heavy examination for all of people. Many were forced to flee and around 400 manufacturing companies were evacuated, properties were destroyed. As a result firefighting organizations lost a great deal of their members, technique and equipment.
On 18 November 1918 in Riga in the hall of nowadays Latvian National Theatre the independence was declared.
In after years Latvia experienced a high industrial and commercial development, the number of citizens augmented, new industrial, administrative and cultural buildings were established, the borders of cities were expanded, but thereby came also a great number of fires. At the same time firefighting was also developing in Riga, Liepaja and Daugavpils, the municipalities hired firefighting teams and they were continuing to develop all over the territory of Latvia. Gradually usage of horses for moving the equipment was switched to mechanical transport, the necessity arose to organize the work of firefighters by the same principles and to establish a coherent regulation. The voluntary firefighting associations were not only extinguishing fires, but they were popular public organizations; they were actively organizing celebrations and collecting donations for charity purposes.
After a short time Latvian firefighters achieved the level of many Western European countries by the means of technical capabilities and professional skills. Before World War II had started there were about 200 voluntary firefighters associations and many city teams.
After the WWI had ended the idea of making a firefighter unifying organization appeared because it was decided that the questions of organization, financial and economic character had to be coordinated on state level. In May 1921 with 76 firefighting organizations attending from all over Latvia and from city brigades the first Latvian firefighter congress was established, which led to the decision of founding the Latvian Firefighter Union.
Latvian Firefighter Union has a remarkable meaning in the firefighting development because it gave contribution in issuing many firefighting reglamentary documents, instructions for teaching commanders, descriptions of a new uniform, the setting a membership fee, the rewarding system and monthly magazine “The Firefighter”. As a result many voluntary firefighters and municipality brigades started to work by uniform principles.
In 1922 the parliament adopted a law about laborer insurance in case of accidents, wherewith the firefighters were insured against possible accidents at work.
In 1924 the Latvian Firefighter Union organized the first Latvian fire prevention exhibition, which showed the accomplishments in the field of fire prevention, new tendencies in firefighting equipment, construction and fire safe buildings.
During the time period from 1929 till 1932 the European countries were struck by the world economic crisis. In Latvia this crisis was deepened and tremendous damage was made by many big fires – in Leitners bicycle factory, Hasan sawmill, timber and firewood warehouses, warehouse of the factory of matches “Vulkāns”. On 11 April 1930 during the fire in “Provodnjiks” factory building flax warehouse two of Riga city firefighters lost their lives. The series of fires were concluded by fires in Ludza and Alūksne.
In September 1926 in Riga the Baltic States Firefighters Union was found in which there was unanimous consensus that independent states need to find common ways of improving fire safety in the Baltic’s.
In 1929 Latvia joined International Association of Fire and Rescue Service (CTIF). In 1930 the law of fire prevention was approved, which determined that the general management of fire prevention matters is delegated to the Construction administration under the Ministry of Interior, within it also the fire prevention council and fire prevention inspector, and that “for fire prevention, firefighting and assistance during fires there are public, municipal, private and voluntary firefighting organizations”. This law determined the legal status of firefighters and the opportunities to receive material support from the state. In 1932 the amendments of law gave way to receive support for voluntary firefighters in case of injury or death during a fire.
The development in the sphere of civil protection in Latvia started from 1934 with the law on passive air protection and 1936 approved passive air protection plan.
In 1939 the Ministry of Interior established Passive air protection administration with three divisions: operative, technical and fire prevention. Fire prevention division coordinated the prevention matters, introduction of gas shelters, and the work of state, municipality and private firefighter organizations and followed the execution of fire prevention law and rules.
At the turn of the year 1940 Riga city firefighters had 60 automobiles and they had reached the level of Western Europe. The development was stopped by the World War II and the occupation of the Republic of Latvia.
The Second World War, the occupation of Latvia, repressions and emigration of thousands of people stopped the economical development in Latvia, including the development of firefighting. At first the regulations of firefighting existing in the USSR were introduced, then new changes that were introduced by German occupation, which was afterwards followed by uniform development in the field of firefighting in all Soviet Union.
In the after-war period firefighting became one of priorities of the state: factories, collective farms and other institutions organized voluntary firefighters unions, special garages for firefighting automobiles were built, a lot of fire-preventive work was being done and fire sports competitions were frequently organized. Political classes became part of everyday life of firefighters. Technical base of firefighting was formed mainly by equipment that was produced in the Soviet Union.
Along with growth of the number of inhabitants and the development of industry came more and more fire brigades and voluntary firefighter’s teams. Great attention was paid to fire safety, control and education.
Training of firefighters was very important; they could learn their profession not only in Latvia but anywhere in the USSR.
After the renewal of the independence of Latvia many requirements in firefighting, fire prevention and organization of work were adopted from Soviet times and are used also nowadays.
In 1940 after Soviet occupation of Latvia changes in the firefighting system took place. Regulations existing in the USSR replaced those of independent Latvia. After reorganization voluntary firefighterswere prohibited to wear their uniforms and insignia, they had to deliver their flags. During German occupation the structure of Latvian firefighting associations was renewed.
In the autumn of 1940 the fourth city militarized firefighting team (Hanzas street, Riga) organized training that became the Preparatory school for junior commanding staff of the militarized firefighting service. The education process was stopped by war and the school was renewed in 1945.
On February 1941 “Fire Safety Regulations of Latvian SSR” confirmed the basis of fire safety and fire prevention development.
Firefighting Division under the Latvian SSR Peoples’ Commissariat of Interior was established that controlled the city militarized fire brigades. In 1945 it was renamed Fire Department and included state fire safety control, operational, technical support divisions and normative-technical group.
During the Second World War in Latvia firefighters extinguished vast fires; they also had the task to guard significant economical objects. On 29 June 1941 during the artillery shooting in Riga the tower of St. Peters’ Church caught fire, and the fire spread to the House of Blackheads, the Town Hall and buildings beside them. Firefighting was hampered by lack of water because of the damaged Riga waterline.
At the end of the war fire equipment was taken away by both armies and after the war had ended firefighters got back only part of it.
At the end of 1945 the first after-war Voluntary firefighters association conference took place. At this conference joint Latvian SSR Voluntary Firefighters Association guided by Central Council was founded.
In 1946 the Council of Ministers of the USSR issued the regulation “On militarized fire service of the Ministry of Interior of the USSR”, stating that militarized fire service was to be organized in administrative centers and largest industrial objects. The staff of militarized fire service was subjugated to army regulations; they wore army pattern uniforms and insignia.
On 18 September 1947 militarized fire departments from Riga and Liepaja participated in the first competition in fire sports that took place in Riga.
In 1953 Militarized Fire Service Junior Commanding Staff School was reorganized as Fire Board Militarized Fire Service Training Unit.
Renewal of state economical level came with the need for fire prevention in industrial enterprises, offices, schools and raising awareness among inhabitants.
Again in 1956 reorganization of fire service took place: fire brigades were renamed independent militarized fire units and their chiefs were responsible not only for firefighting but together with inspectors also for fire safety of corresponding region. The staff had to regularly attend political classes.
Number of voluntary firefighter’s societies grew, and on 1958 they had more than 57000 members.
At 1960 Fire Board and militarized fire units gradually turned into engineering-technical service, with engineers involved. On 1962 Fire testing station was established for investigating large fires, giving conclusions, doing scientific research work, testing various materials and substances for fire hazard.
The largest fires of this time: fire at the train station “Skirotava” after the collision of two trains (1961), fire on steamer “Janis Rainis” (1961), fire in repair manufactory of Riga Tram and trolleybus board (1963), fire in State Philharmonic Hall (1963) and fire in Mezaparks open-air platform.
In January 1964 All-Union Fire Sports Federation was founded within USSR Sports Societies and Organizations Union. After a month the Latvian Fire Sports Federation was founded. In September Latvian SSR Fire Sports Championship took place at “Dinamo” stadium. The following year Latvian national team took part in USSR championship in fire sports for the first time.
In 1965 Association the 100th Anniversary of the foundation of Riga Voluntary Firefighters Association was celebrated together with the opening of first exhibition on history of firefighting.
In May 1966 the Council of Ministers of the USSR decision “On improvement of organization of firefighting” determined two types of firefighting services: first – professional, that includes militarized and non-militarized firefighting under the Ministry of the Interior and the second – voluntary.
In September 1966 in accordance with the Decision of Latvian SSR Council of Ministers professional fire service under the Ministry for Maintaining Public Order was established which controlled the firefighting services of administrative centers, towns, villages and industrial enterprises. Fire prevention work was done by professional, militarized and voluntary firefighters prevention groups.
In 1974 the Training Unit was moved to Kengaraga Street 3 in Riga where a new station was built with garages for 10 vehicles and all the necessary equipment for training.
In the 1970s the Firefighting Board formed Civil defence and mobilization department, and its task was the management and coordination of civil defence in the territory of Latvia.
In 1972 for the first time All-Union Competition in Fire Sports took place in Riga.
After the Training Unit was moved to Kengaraga Street reorganization and reconstruction took place in the building on Hanzas Street. In 1978 Communications Center was set up in this building. During international competition in Riga fire-technical exhibition was opened in another part of the building on Hanzas Street, but in 1980 it became Latvian Firefighting Museum.
In 1980 Training Unit was transformed into Ministry of Interior Training Center, but in 1989 it was renamed Fire and Rescue Service Department Training Center.
At the turn of 1970s-1980s firefighters had to extinguish several large fires. In 1976 firefighters saved more than 40 people from a fire in cultural center “Ziemelblazma”. In 1983 the work for extinguishing fire of Central Market vegetable pavilion lasted for several days. On 6 March 1985 firefighters extinguished a severe fire that broke out in Ventspils port on tanker ‘Ludvigs Svoboda”’ threatening town of Ventspils and its inhabitants.
Largest industrial enterprises and collective farms had their own voluntary firefighters brigades. Voluntary firefighters association had become a vast enterprise comprising many fields. In cooperation with state insurance companies they did fire prevention work among the inhabitants. Very popular, especially among youths were fire sports competitions. In 1986 in Soviet Latvia there were 2822 voluntary firefighters associations with more than 200 thousand members and 762 youth voluntary firefighters units.
In the end of 1980s the largest fire broke out in factory “VEF” in 1989 that ravaged two blocks of the factory at an area of 8700 square meters.
At the end of the 1980s National Awakening started in Latvia. Ideas of state independence spread and became more and more popular. Society of Latvia as well as firefighting awaits great changes.
In 1990 the independence of Latvia was renewed. Rules and regulations of the USSR were no more valid and new normative documents regulating fire service – fire safety, fire fighting had to be worked out.
Fire service gradually became fire and rescue service performing first aid, rescue works on water, of traffic accidents and chemical accidents as well as aid to inhabitants in everyday accidents. From 1997 coordination of civil protection was also included in the functions of fire and rescue service.
Gradually new vehicles and equipment were purchased. Cooperation with fire services of neighboring countries, Scandinavian countries and countries in Western Europe developed. Development of professional skills and technical provision was promoted also by various projects of European Union foundations.
In the course of time the name of the fire service has changed, functions and tasks widened, but mission of firefighter has remained the same – to help people in emergency situations. And therefore the profession has gained recognition and trust from the society.
In the early 1990s the reforming of firefighting system began. On 1 November 1990 (Order Nr. 294 of the Ministry of Interior of the Republic of Latvia, 31 October 1990) State Fire and Rescue Service Department under the Ministry of the Interior was founded.
In 1991 new firefighter uniforms and insignia were made and the following ranks of service were introduced: privates rank – private; junior commanding staff ranks – corporal, sergeant, first sergeant, junior officer; middle level commanders ranks – lieutenant, first lieutenant, captain; senior commanders ranks – major, lieutenant colonel, colonel; supreme commanders rank – general.
In 1992 the law “On fire safety” came into force determining three types of fire safety institutions in Latvia – State Fire and Rescue Service Department of the Ministry of Interior, fire safety services of offices, companies and organizations and voluntary firefighter’s formations.
On 8 October 1991 in the firefighters training center eleven month course for junior and middle level commanders and 40 day training for firefighters was opened to prepare new officers. In 1994 it was reorganized into the Fire Technical School.
In 1994 Latvian Federation of fire sports was renewed.
In November 1996 emergency telephone number 112 was introduced in Latvia.
According to the amendments of the law “On firefighting” in 1997 State Fire and Rescue Service Department was renamed State Fire and Rescue Service and now had the task of coordinating the field of civil protection.
On 17 May 2001 the new flag of State Fire and Rescue Service was consecrated, the ceremony took place in Riga Tornakalns Lutheran church; the logo of the Service was supplemented by a blue triangle – the international symbol of civil protection.
On 1 April 2002 Fire Technical School was reorganized into Fire Safety and Civil Protection College.
At this time skills of firefighters were tested in several serious fires and accidents. On November 1998 in Vecumnieki eleven train tanks with diesel flared up after a railway accident. On March 2000 in Livberze several train tanks with diesel went off the rails and caught fire after a collision with an automobile. In 2005 firefighters had a complex and challenging rescue emergency after a collision of two trains in Riga.
On 1 June 2009 the reorganization of State Fire and Rescue Service territorial units started and as a result 5 regional structural units were formed instead of 33 territorial brigades and fire stations and posts of the corresponding region are subordinated to them. On 1 February 2011 emergency number 112 communications centers were reorganized and formed 5 regional communications centers. On April 2013 they were renamed “call centers” and subordinated to Operative Management Board.
As a result of economical crisis on 1 January 2009 Staicele and Rundale posts were closed, but on 2012 Stende post was closed and a new post in Roja was opened.
In 2008 and 2009 Fire and Rescue Service purchased 71 specialized vehicles. In 2013 Cabinet of Ministers adopted a gradual purchasing of 93 specialized vehicles up to 2018.
In December 2014 the first modern fire station complex after the renewal of independent Latvia was opened in Cesis. In the summer of 2015 the fire station building in Valka will be finished. The building, reconstruction and renovation of several fire stations are planned till 2017.
2013 was one of the most difficult and tragic years in the history of firefighting. In March firefighters in cooperation with Marine Rescue Coordination Centre and State Board Guard coordinated the rescue of 232 people who were trapped on a drifting slab of ice in the Gulf of Riga. In April rescuing was needed in flooded Ogre, Plavinas and Daugavpils. In June two days and nights firefighters were battling the fire of Riga Castle. The largest rescue in the history of Latvia was on November in Riga when the roof of supermarket collapsed. Rescue works lasted for 94 hours involving 557 firefighters from the all over the country. In this disaster 54 people lost their lives, three of them were firefighters.
Today State Fire and Rescue Service is a developed, professional and many-sided institution that responds to fires and other emergencies and prevents fires from causing harm or damage to people and property. Every day the dispatchers receive approximately 4500 calls and firefighters from 93 fire stations are ready to help. In 2014 firefighters extinguished 12175 fires and led 6182 rescues saving 595 people. Fire safety inspectors annually check more than 8000 buildings.