Contributed by Bill Narin, Global Business Development, IEEE-ISTO

The Year Was 1904. Crossword puzzles, canned beer, and sliced bread hadn’t been invented. The American flag had 45 stars and the average American worker made 22 cents an hour. The San Francisco Earthquake was still two years in the future. The Great Chicago Fire was three plus decades in the rear view mirror — the first well known use of which, by the way, would occur in seven more years when driver Ray Harroun used one in the inaugural Indianapolis 500.

Baltimore residents awoke on February 7, 1904, to clear skies and mild temperatures. Around 10:00 AM a cold front began to move in bringing with it increasingly gusty winds. Then, at 10:45 AM the fire alarm sounded. Over the next 30 hours the Great Baltimore Fire raged, fanned by sustained winds between 10 and 20 knots, with gusts to 36 knots. The fire consumed 1500 hundred buildings and 2500 businesses spread over 70 city blocks. Amazingly, only one life was lost — firefighter James McGlennen. 

Within a few hours of the initial alarm, dedicated firefighters and their equipment began to arrive by rail from places as far away as Washington DC, Philadelphia, and New York. Soon there were 1,231 firefighters, 57 engines, 9 trucks, 2 hose companies, one fireboat, and one police boat all ready to battle the blaze. 

Tragically, many of the firefighters who had mobilized and traveled great distances were forced to stand idly by and watch as the blaze ravaged the city. Their efforts and equipment proved useless because the couplings on their firehoses were incompatible with Baltimore’s fire hydrants.

Reluctant Adoption of a National Standard

In 1904 in the US there were roughly 600 variations in hose coupling and fire hydrant outlets. Differences in diameters and threads protected incumbents against competition. At the same time, this could make it difficult or impossible for communities to assist each other, threatening increased property damage and loss of life.

The National Fire Protection Association and the National Board of Fire Underwriters advocated for change. In 1905 a standard was proposed and adopted by a number of major industry groups. Despite the benefits and the stakes involved, adoption has been slow. Today, more than 100 years later, only 18 of the 48 of the largest have national standard fire hydrants. The Great Baltimore Fire is a tragic example that demonstrates the critical importance of standards for products that need to interoperate for the safety, protection, and benefit of citizens and product users.

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Source: NIST7158, “Major U.S. Cities Using National Standard Fire Hydrants, One Century After the Great Baltimore Fire,” M. Seck and D. Evans, National Institute of Standards and Technology, Fire Research Division, Gaithersburg, MD (August 2004)