Random Sparks
• • • • • • • • • •
ARTICLES -  Firefighter Heroism Quotes      Through the Smoke       Fire Water!
Through the Smoke!
An article written for the Fire Museum Network's web site by David Lewis, March 1, 1999
If this article is to be reproduced please credit the Fire Museum Network AND the original source.

Where there is smoke there's fire. Conversely, where there is fire there's smoke. We all know fire is not the primary killer - it is the deadly smoke.

Firefighters are given two basic approached to overcoming smoke - filtering the smoke out of the air, or bringing fresh air with them into the fire.

Legend has it that mustaches on firefighters of the mid 1800s were more than just a common hair style - they were a personal protective device! Firemen were reported to wet their mustaches, curl up their lower lip, and breath air through the impromptu filter system. Unfortunately there is no recorded evidence of exactly how well this practice worked.

Ad from The National Fireman's Journal 1878

Several devices were patented in the 1860s and 1870s. Lacour's "Improved Respiring Apparatus" consisted of an air tight bag made of two thicknesses of canvass, lined with India rubber. Carried on the back, this bag was filled with pure air inflated with a pair of bellows. Another device filled not an bag won on the fireman's back - but rather inflated special pockets in a fire-proof jacket, (making the firefighter look like he is a giant marshmallow man). Nealy's "Smoke Excluding Mask", looking like a close relative of Darth Vader's mask, filtered smoky air through moist sponges and a water bag worn around the firefighter's chest.

Illustration of Nealy's "Smoke Excluding Mask" from
The National Fireman's Journal December 8, 1877

The 1890s saw the development of one of the most successful and common "smoke masks" -- the Vajen-Bader. I will let the following articles finish telling the story....


Reprinted from the Fireman's Herald March 25, 1897

With the aid of a Vajen-Bader patent smoke protector Fireman " Billy" West, of truck 1, saved the life of Mrs. H. Roberts, who was overcome by smoke on the afternoon of March 11 in a burning house at 7I3-717 Central street, Kansas City, Mo.

The fire, which started at 4:30 o'clock from a cigar stump thrown into a light shaft by a careless boarder, bad spread to the second and third stories of the building before the Fire Department were called. Soon after the firemen began pouring water on the building, Mrs. Roberts opened the window of her room on the second story on Central Street. She was choking with smoke and prepared to jump to the sidewalk below. Fireman West cried to her to wait until he could carry her out. Then he pulled a Vajen-Bader helmet over his head and ran up the stairway to the second floor. The smoke was so dense that be could only feel his way along the halls. When he neared the door of Mrs. Roberts's room he stumbled over her body, which lay across the hall. She had started for the stairway, had succumbed under the effects of the smoke and had fallen senseless to the floor. Fireman West carried her down the stairway into the Street, where, in the fresh air, she soon recovered from the effects of the smoke. The second and third stories of the house were gutted by the fire. Upon reaching the street with Mrs. Roberts, Fireman West was greeted with cheers by the immense crowd that had assembled to witness the fire.

Reprinted from the Fireman's Herald September 9, 1897

We present herewith a picture of Mr. Willis C. Vajen, of Indianapolis, Ind. the successful inventor of the Vajen smoke protector. As we have mentioned before, no test of a fire appliance attracted as much attention at the Chiefs' convention in New Haven as the test of the Vajen-Bader smoke helmet. There are very few departments of prominence in this country where the helmet is not in use, and the fire departments of Dublin, Guttenberg, Sweden; Valpariso, Chili; Saporo, Japan; and Wellington, New Zealand, are using them with entire satisfaction.

The helmet is made of a chamois leather specially prepared so that fire and water are equally without injurious effect upon it, and is heavily padded about the lower part with fleece, through which the exhaled air works out gradually, acting as a pressure stop against the entrance of outside air. The air for respiration is furnished from a compact compression tank attached to the back of the helmet, and is fed at atmospheric pressure. The temperature secured by the escape of the air from its confined to normal pressure is always at least twenty degrees lower than the temperature of the surrounding atmosphere. The eye pieces are of mica, giving clear sight, and diaphragms of the same at the ear holes transmit sound perfectly and at the same time serve for side lights when occasion presents, as the head is perfectly free to turn about inside the helmet.

Mr. Willis C. Vajen, the inventor, has taken ten years to perfect the device, and has now been making it for sale something over a year. His success in the production is properly a source of much gratification. Mr. Vajen is evidently possessed of a good deal of natural ingenuity. In explaining the discovery that it was possible to make a mica diaphragm transmit vocal sounds to the ear recently, he happened to mention the fact that in 1876 he first used mica in a, sort of crude transmitter to what has since been called a telephone between his front and back office in his hardware store at Indianapolis. That was before the date of the introduction of the diaphragm transmitter now regularly applied to use in the telephone, phonograph and similar instruments.