When the "red rooster" flares up - A short history of the Hungarian fire service

Throughout history, people have feared fire as much as they have used it to their advantage. The dreaded fire, the "red rooster", could strike at any time and consume whole settlements. An organised force of dedicated people was needed to subdue the flames in case of trouble. There were firefighters in ancient Rome and its provinces, and there have always been firefighters in later times, who chose to take on the task of putting out fires, with all the danger and responsibility that entailed.

Fire prevention in antiquity

aquincumi_viziorgona_630366.jpgThe use of fire is almost as old as humankind, even homo erectus used flames, and it was therefore necessary to develop techniques to use fire in a safe environment. This, among other things, was a major factor in the progress of becoming human. In the Roman Empire, including Pannonia, there were already fire-fighting units, for example the ruins of a fire station building (Collegium Centonariorum) in Aquincum have been excavated by archaeologists. The water organ remains found here are the first fire brigade relic in Hungary.

From the inscription on the bronze plaque, we learn that Gaius Julius Viatorinus decurio, formerly aedilis praefectus collegii centonariorum (commander of the fire brigade), donated the instrument to the fire brigade in 228. Formally, therefore, this was the date from which the fire brigade began to use the hydraula, or water organ, which was apparently made during the reign of Emperor Alexander Severus, who was himself an organist. - Tűzvédelem (Fire Prevention), 1995

szent_florian_739340.jpgSaint Florian, who became the patron saint of firefighters, was originally an officer in the Roman army and later became a Christian martyr. Initially, he was hoped to help against floods, as his martyrdom was related to this: he was thrown into the river Enns with a millstone around his neck. Long after his death, a 15th-century legend says that he prevented a house from burning down with his prayer, and from then on, he became a saint to protect against fires and the patron saint of fire-related professions. Many of the beliefs about Florian derive from pagan fire worship. Many of his statues in public places and his figures on the façades and in the niches of house walls have a protective role against devouring flames; his cult has relieved people's exposure to accidents caused by fire, their vulnerability and their fear of conflagrations.

From watchmen to professional firefighters

In medieval towns, guilds were responsible for extinguishing potential fires. From the 16th century onwards, the night watchmen preserved the tranquillity of towns and villages. Their duties included alerting inhabitants to fires, and also reported the passing of time every hour, usually in song: "It's nine o'clock, go to sleep. Watch out for fire and water, so as not to cause any damage." However, the craftsmen in the guilds were often difficult to mobilise, so local schoolchildren were given the task of firefighting, thus creating the student fire brigades.


Most of the houses in the town of Debrecen (...) were thatched, the fences were made of hedges and stakes, and the main building material was wood, so it is not surprising that the town was ravaged by fire for centuries. (...) The fire of 1719 destroyed some 400 houses in the town. The student fire brigade of the boarding school did its share of the work, not only in extinguishing the fire, but also in keeping watch, because, by finding the fire-fighting tools hidden by the arsonists, they saved the town from further destruction.Tűzrendészeti Közlöny (Fire Safety Bulletin), 1938

onkentes_tuzoloegyesulet_508919.jpgIn the mid-19th century, manufacturing plants that emerged with industrialisation maintained their own fire brigades, such as the Ganz factory. The first voluntary fire brigade was formed in Arad after a merchant's house caught fire and the explosion of gunpowder stored there threatened the whole town. In the end, the disaster did not happen, but it raised awareness of the need for an organised fire brigade.

The local firefighters’ association, which has been in existence since 1834 for this noble purpose, now has 87 working members, most of whom are craftsmen. However, the number of members is not established, and every well-behaved individual has the right to join the association either as a worker or as a member of the auxiliary. - The regulations of the firefighters’ association in the free royal city of Arad, 1857

Ödön Széchenyi, father of Hungarian fire service

szechenyi_odon_477511.jpgThe guild system was out of date and fire protection had to be rethought. Several municipalities - Buda, Sopron, Pest, Székesfehérvár - set up their own fire brigades soon afterwards. The Pest Volunteer Firemen's Association was founded in 1863 with the support of Count Ödön Széchenyi, the younger son of István Széchenyi. The volunteers were trained and, after their daytime work, they were on duty at night. However, this was not sustainable in the long term, so at Széchenyi's suggestion and under his command, a professional paid fire brigade was established alongside the volunteers in 1870, which became renowned for its preparedness, organisation and courage. In the same year, the Hungarian National Firefighters' Association was founded with the Count as its chairman; the idea of the association was credited to Frigyes Rösch, the fire brigade commander of Sopron. Széchenyi travelled to Turkey in 1874 after the Sultan asked him to organise the fire brigade of Constantinople, of which he became the leader eventually. He lived in Turkey until his death; even in his old age, he was active as a fireman and received many honours, including the title of pasha.

Tragedy of the Paris Department Store

maszohazi_gyakorlat_694877.jpgAt the turn of the century, the International Association of Fire Fighters was founded, of which Hungary was one of the founders. The association held periodic symposia where member countries shared firefighting experiences and practical methods. The 3rd Fire Protection Congress was held in Budapest in 1904, with an exhibition of fire extinguishing equipment, an exposition and a fire drill.

parizsi_aruhaz_egese_8844.jpgDuring this period, there was a particularly serious fire in Budapest; in 1903, the Paris Department Store burnt down. Half of the firefighters in Budapest, nearly a hundred of them extinguished the flames and rescued people, but the department store was destroyed. The tragedy, which claimed the lives of 13 people, and the rapid spread of the fire were mainly due to the fact that the buildings had been constructed without fire safety considerations, for example by removing firewalls, and the store staff were not prepared for a possible fire and had no emergency alarm system. The disaster also highlighted shortcomings in the fire brigade's equipment, and afterwards, more modern and larger numbers of hoses were provided for extinguishing the fire.

"The fire raged throughout the night, and the next day, 25 August, extinguishing and clean-up work continued. The completely exhausted guards were replaced by other guards. Several firefighters were transported by ambulances, but the work was not interrupted during 59 hours. The heat was so intense that the leaves of the trees in the park on the other side of Kerepesi Road were scorched." - Magyar Tűzoltó (Hungarian Fireman), 1968

During the world wars, many firefighters had to join the army; some of them never returned home or were unable to do their previous job. After the fighting was over, both the fire service and the fire police had to be reorganised. By the end of the decade, socialist-style reorganisation and then full centralisation were well under way.

The disaster in Csertő Street

tuzoltoverseny2_680328.jpgOne of the biggest fires of the Kádár era broke out in a block of flats in Csertő Street in 1972. Shortly after midnight, an electrical fire in the corridor on the seventh floor was the most dangerous for the residents of floors 6-10. The fire spread rapidly due to the proximity of combustible materials (linoleum, a continuous row of pressed wooden cupboards) and ventilation ducts. People panicked, some did not wait for help and tried to escape through the windows, falling into the abyss. The firefighters, while also extinguishing the fire with water-jets, had difficulty in reaching the trapped residents for the above reasons. The rescue involved 118 firefighters, who brought the flames under control by 1.30 a.m.

"The firefighting team arrived at 0:25 am. Its leader, Lieutenant Ferenc Duray, after reconnoitring and bringing down a girl and a man who had already fainted, ordered the fire-fighting team to start rescuing people in breathing apparatus on the upper floors before the fire-fighting jets already being fitted reach there. Sergeant Lajos Süveges, the commander of the truck team, Sergeant Sándor Bencsík, Master Sergeants János Iker and Lajos Frank, Corporal János Fábry, Lance-Corporal Lajos Hegedűs and then Master Sergeant János Farkas, the operator of the 8th generator, rescued forty people in this way. When called upon, they held a piece of cloth or a handkerchief in front of their faces. Some of the elderly women had to be carried down in their arms, others wanted to escape barefoot, and had to have their shoes found first. In order to carry out the rescue as quickly as possible, the residents were escorted down only to the fifth floor. Here they were handed over to the police officers who had been called to the scene of the damage." - Tűzvédelem (Fire Prevention), 1972

After 1989, firefighting was transferred from the state to the municipalities, and then back again: from 2000, the fire service was merged with civil protection to form the Disaster Management Service, or the National Directorate General for Disaster Management.

Fire in the Budapest Sports Hall

The most memorable fire at the turn of the millennium was the burning of the Budapest Sports Hall in 1999. A Christmas fair was being held in the building when, at dawn, a burnt-out candle left there set fire to the pavilions and then to the entire hall. The fire was discovered late, only after it had spread, and despite the hard work of firefighters, the BS with its collapsed roof structure could not be saved.

budapest_sportcsarnok_728603.jpg"The units that arrived in the first wave were faced with a real inferno. The whole of the arena and a large part of the stands, as well as the rooms on level 3 were in flames. During the initial recon, it was established that there was nobody inside. After 5:30 a.m., they started extinguishing the fire by water jets. By this time, reports were already coming in that the arena and the stands were completely engulfed in flames. At 5:54 am, 15 water jets were in operation. (...) By 7:34 a.m., the fire was completely delimited in the basement and upper levels. At this time 32 water jets were working. At 8:04 a.m., after three hours of hard work, the fire was blackened and the continuous flames were extinguished. The blackening (smouldering fire) was followed by a long and arduous subsequent work. The fire was extinguished by 33 fire-engines and more than 100 firefighters." - Védelem (Protection), 2003


Translated by Zita Aknai


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