There are just two types of workplaces that typically have poles -- but since this is a family Web site, we're going to focus on the more heroic of the two: fire stations. The image of firefighters sliding down a pole to their trucks and gear as alarms scream in the background is nothing short of iconic. But is it really necessary? Does sliding down a pole really save time?
According to the National Fire Protection Association, the first firehouse pole was installed in New York in April of 1878. The poles made intuitive sense, especially in urban areas. Building space was tight, so the firefighting wagons and horses lived on the first floor while the firefighters lived on the second floor. Sliding down a pole is indeed faster than using the stairs, with one fire chief outside of Pittsburgh saying they save about 25 seconds in response time over using the stairs [source: Hamill].
Even though fire poles do save time, they're becoming less and less common in modern firehouses. Not only are they expensive (one firehouse in Seattle had two fire poles installed to the tune of $150,000 per pole), but they can also be dangerous to the firefighters. Trying to slide down a pole as quickly as possible can sometimes result in an injury. In fact, according to the NFPA, in 2011, 64.2 percent of all firefighter injuries that occur while responding to or returning from an incident involve a strain, sprain or muscular pain [source: Karter and Molis]. Though the NFPA report doesn't break those injuries down into pole and non-pole categories, it's not hard to imagine how many firefighters could get hurt sliding down a slick 20-foot pole. And beyond the injuries that could happen while actually using the pole to respond to a call, an open hole in the second floor of a building means that there's always a risk someone will fall down it. Plus, with an opening leading directly from where fire trucks are kept to where firefighters live, unhealthy fumes can easily creep into sleeping and eating areas.
While most firehouses that currently have poles are keeping them, they're also enclosing them at the top and putting pads at the bottom, to reduce the risk of injury. Newer firehouses (at least those that have the space) are being built all on one story. And where firefighters can't have poles, but still need a quick way to get downstairs, they're turning to another playground staple: slides.
Author's Note: Do fire poles really save time?
I grew up in the suburbs, where most fire stations were one story. But even then, the image of firefighters sliding down a pole had a hold on me. And, while digging into the research for this article, I learned that image lends itself to a fair amount of controversy. Traditionalists want to see firefighters sliding down a pole, and firefighters simply want to save time. On the other side, people who advocate for safer workplaces and some municipalities see fire poles as expensive and hazardous.
- Castro, Hector. "What's a Fire Station Without a Fire Pole? $150,000 Cheaper." The Seattle Post-Intelligencer. April 24, 2008. (Nov. 27, 2012) http://www.seattlepi.com/local/article/What-s-a-fire-station-without-a-fire-pole-1271491.php
- Hamill, Sean D. "Fire Poles Survive Thanks to Land Values, Tradition, Efficiency." The Associated Press. Sept. 20, 2005. (Nov. 27, 2012) http://www.firerescue1.com/fire-products/tools/articles/10578-Fire-poles-survive-thanks-to-land-values-tradition-efficiency/
- Karter, Michael J. and Joseph L. Molis. "U.S. Firefighter Injuries -- 2011." National Fire Protection Association. October 2012. (Nov. 27, 2012) http://www.nfpa.org/assets/files//PDF/OS.FFInjuries.pdf
- National Fire Protection Association. "Key Dates in Fire History." National Fire Protection Association. (Nov. 27, 2012) http://www.nfpa.org/itemDetail.asp?categoryID=1352&itemID=30955
- Newcomb, Tim. "Sorry, Kids. Fire Stations are Ditching Fire Poles." TIME Magazine. Dec. 23, 2010. (Nov. 27, 2012) http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2039352,00.html