A railroad fire department? These may be some of the least known of the railroads’ own patrols of emergency response teams. The need for these fire fighters became evident in the earliest days of railroading however.
Early wood-burning locomotives were notorious fire-starters. The iconic “balloon” and other smoke stack styles of the 19th Century were all designed to help contain burning embers. Left to the winds, these hot ashes could ignite a dry field or forest anywhere along the right-of-way.
Coal burning locomotives lessened the fire risk, but didn’t eliminate it. Sprawling facilities like the Pennsylvania’s Juniata Shops in Altoona had their own fire station. Even today, some steam-powered excursion trains have a patrol car with a fire hose follow the train to put out any hot spots during dry spells.
When steam locomotives were more common, the fire-prevention equipment was larger. Tank cars and retired locomotive tenders were prime candidates for conversion into fire-fighting tankers. Water cannons, hoses and other tools were added. Crews would ride to the scene in a caboose or passenger car.
Although the trains no longer pose a major fire risk themselves, many railroads still maintain fire cars to help protect their property from wildfires started by other means.
Trains of tank cars can douse flames – or in dry times preventative fire retardants – along the right of way. Particularly dangerous operations like rail-grinding trains usually have their own water cars with hoses on the rear. The Swiss have even developed dedicated trains to deal with fire risks in the many tunnels along their lines.
Like the railroad police, prevention is as important a role for railroad fire services as putting out the burning fires. Several railroads have used cars to educate the public on fire safety along the right of way.
Additionally, railroads have provided tank cars to local training facilities so that fire fighters will be more familiar with equipment in derailments or fires at industries they serve. Traveling cars from chemical companies and others also roam the country to provide hands-on training. The Massachusetts Volunteer Fire Company maintains one of the largest and most visible fleets of these cars.
Whether you model a fire train in action, or just have one of the training cars passing through on a regular freight train, paying homage to the fire fighters of the rails can make a nice addition to your model railroad.