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History of the Great Chicago Fire Essay

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Formal Outline

Fire is one of the most destructive and distressing aspects in the modern times due to massive losses that it can cause to both individuals and property. Fire incidents may be categorized as either natural or man-made. For instance, the most anguishing fire outbreak was the Great Chicago fire that razed the wooden city in 1871. This fire outbreak destroyed property and killed hundreds of people.

Reports indicate that the fire began in the night of October 8 when a cow owned by Catherine and Patrick O’Leary kicked a lantern that was burning in the barn. Being a windy night and coupled with some human agency, the fire quickly spread to the neighborhood destroying everything on its way.

Survey reports after the fire indicated vividly that the damage caused by the raging fire damaged dozens of property within a width of one kilometer and a length of approximately six kilometers. It is against this backdrop that the ability to effectively prepare, prevent and manage key fire risks forms one of the most fundamental practices in society bearing in mind that poor level of preparedness has quite often been cited as the main cause to massive loss of life and property in such incidents.

In addition, preparedness guarantees the needed security and prevention measures which is needed to promote higher levels of productivity. Due to the fire outbreak in Chicago, measures have been put in place to prevent another occurrence of the same.


Fire forms one of the most destructive and distressing aspects in the modern times due to its related losses to an individual, organization, and the country as a whole. In the year 2008 alone, the United States fire department noted that it had responded to about 1,451,500 fires in the country that resulted to 3,320 fatalities and over US $ 5,478,000,000 worth of property in terms of losses (Ethington, 2002).

At this point, it is imperative to mention that the most anguishing fire outbreak was the Great Chicago fire that razed the wooden city in 1871 alongside destroying property and killing hundreds of people. Li, Zlatanova and Fabbri (2007) posit that fire codes and inspections for protection are very critical in this era of highly dynamic consumerism patterns. The only way to guarantee sustainable growth and development within a country is based on the holistic capacity to address all the incumbent risks factors.

It is from this consideration that fire safety becomes very critical in disaster management as a way of reducing its extended affects. Therefore, this paper seeks to explore the great Chicago fire, its cause and whether it was a code or inspection failure. In addition, the paper examines fire prevention that would have been set in place to avoid massive fire outbreak of that nature and magnitude.

The great Chicago fire: Origin and spread of fire

The fire that razed Chicago in the summer of 1871 was a conflagration that spread about nine square kilometers destroying property and killing hundreds of people (Ethington, 2002). Reports indicate that the fire begun in the night of October 8 when a cow owned by Catherine and Patrick O’Leary kicked a lantern that was burning in the barn.

Being a windy night and coupled with some human agency, the fire quickly spread to the neighborhood destroying everything on its wake. However, other reports on the origin of the fire point out that the cow story was not the cause of the fire. These reports from the Chicago Republican pointed out that although the fire came from the barn it was unclear whether it was by human agency or fire from the chimney.

Ethington (2002) posits in his article The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory that the spread of fire was enhanced by the nature of buildings that were erected those days in the city. Most of them were made of wood designs and were closely packed. Besides, there had been a drought in the land and most things were dried. With the southwest strong winds, flying embers of fire were blown into the city and the neighboring surroundings.

It is important to note that in the city, fire inspectors and fighters just as the citizens were not overly concerned when the fire began and made errors of not reacting immediately. Eventually, the fire became gigantic and overwhelmed fire fighters who after long and unfruitful struggles, got exhausted. The fire then spread to apartments, houses and mansions devastating everything on its path leaving over 100,000 homeless and over 300 dead (Ethington, 2002).

The Chicago fire department did not receive fire alarm until after the fire had began spreading. When the alarm came form a guard at a pharmacy, the firefighters were sent to fight fire on a wrong location giving room for fire to spread further. The fire spread to all corners of the city engulfing tall church buildings, theatres, the opera house, Chicago City Hall, department stores and hotels. When the winds and wood diminished, the fire ceased having wiped out 34 blocks from O’Leary property to the northern side Fullerton Avenue.


Survey reports after the fire indicate that the damage caused by the raging conflagration property within a width of one kilometer and a length of approximately six kilometers. Most of the property that were destroyed were estimated to be about 17,500 buildings, 2000 lamp posts, a 190 kilometers stretch of sidewalk and a 117 kilometers of road all estimated to a loss of $ 222 million (Ethington, 2002).

At that time, the population in Chicago was about 300000 people of which 3% were left homeless (Ethington, 2002). Other important facilities which were destroyed included libraries and schools with over three million books lost. When the fire had died and the number of bodies had been counted to over 300, the city began setting up fire standards to prevent similar occurrences.

Analysis of the fire- Code or inspection failure

The ability to effectively prepare, prevent and manage key fire risks forms one of the most important concepts in the society that guarantees the needed security and prevention measures to promote higher levels of productivity. From the Chicago event, the risks from fire outbreaks that people face in their various homes and cities have been the core causes of suffering and loss of property as well as life.

As a result, these uncertainties are considered to be key threats that not only reduce their ability to be productive, but with key potential of causing major dependency in the society. It is from this consideration that fire prevention processes and codes should be well established to curb fire risks in the society. A risk that may lead to a disaster such as that experienced in Chicago would indeed be highly unwelcome to many.

The question that many analysts seek answer to is what was the major cause of fire and why were fighters unable to control the fire. Was failure on the aspect of inspection or was it on codes? While different analysts have at times tended to differ on what the failure was, the results presented by various investigations have proved that failure was on fire inspection.

In the case of Chicago fire, the risk that resulted to the massive damages and loss of people’s lives culminated from the poor fire emergency procedures. The claim is indeed very true as the systems to alert fire fighters and offer right directions were not effective. As such, inspection failure should be blamed for risks that individuals in Chicago faced.

Impact on codes and process

As indicated earlier, the fire in Chicago initiated many major developments of preventing and fighting fire outbreaks. One such initiative was the emergency communication warning system. According to Li, Zlatanova and Fabbri (2007), the effectiveness of fire protection systems in a country should be based on the holistic consideration of the entire fire protection capacity to effectively coordinate their detection and initial fire suppression as well as emergency operations to reduce loss of life and property.

One central factor that cuts across the whole process of fire protection, preparedness, and operations is the emergency warning communication system. They record that once fire has been detected, failure to offer the necessary emergency communication may lead to massive losses to life and property.

Roles and implications

Emergency warning and communication system employs audio, visual, or both in alerting the people about the existence of fire in a particular area. Whereas different disaster management units for different organizations assimilate either audio or visual mechanisms to alert the people on the presence of fire in a region, Damon (2007) points out that a combination of both is important for higher efficacy levels. Analysts indicate that had emergency warning and communication system been effective in Chicago, it would have had the following major roles in fire fighting; To begin with, it would have formed a critical icon in alerting citizens in Chicago inside a factory or a building about the existence of fire in their premises.

At the notification, those alerted would have immediately tried to suppress fire in its point of origin using the available fire fighting equipments like waters pipes and fire extinguishers in their premises. However, citizens’ skills in using the different fire fighting systems and equipments in a nation are critical.

By informing individuals in Chicago on the presence of fire in buildings or premises, they could have been able to move away from the scene and therefore escape danger. Ferguson and Christopher (2007) indicate that one of the most important concepts employed by fire fighting protection is preventing loss of life for both the employees and public.

Slap (2001) explains that to the public, emergency warning and communication system informs them on the existence of fire and therefore requires them to clear from the site of incidence and allow fire specialists to operate with minimal struggle in rescuing life and property. Particularly, road users are expected to cooperate in offering the best access to the site of emergency for the fire fighters vehicles either ferrying extinguishing water, chemicals, or ambulances transporting casualties.

Types of emergency warning and communication systems

In his review of disaster management systems, Pinkowski (2008) indicates that modernistic methods are critical in perfecting fire control considerations. In the public domain, outdoor warning sirens, citizen alert systems, and radio broadcasting system may be employed.

These techniques among others should be able to reach the maximum number of people near the fire occurrence area. After the Chicago fire in Chicago, voice broadcasting as well as other communication technologies was employed to alert people to keep away from the site of fire (Pinkowski, 2008). Provision of emergency warning and communication to the public were designed to provide guidelines and directions to the public as opposed to leaving them shocked of the incidence.

Besides, they were to provide the public with alternative routes to use in order to reduce traffic towards the area of fire occurrence in addition to giving information on the dangers of getting closer to the site and the need to provide effective environment for fire fighters operations.

Impact on codes and process from Chicago fire on modern fire prevention

Fire Detection and Suppression Systems

Over the years, since the great Chicago fire, the ability to address fire problems is based on a nation’s or society ability to effectively detect it at the earliest incidence possible. According to Li, Zlatanova and Fabbri (2007), it is essential that organizations prepare themselves effectively for emergency cases by establishing the best fire detection systems. Fire detection and suppression over the years have seen great advancement towards more intelligent systems with higher levels of efficiency in detecting and suppressing fire at the earliest stages possible.

Fire experts have accredited the last decade reduction in fire outbreak cases and indeed losses to the increased ability to detect and suppress fire at early stages. Though application of modernistic methods as Li, Zlatanova and Fabbri (2007) indicate have been highly limiting due to its inherent costs especially for small business units and individuals, their efficiency have been cited to be very high compared to the traditional methods. Some of the methods employed in the modern systems include.

Aspirating smoke detectors

This is a modernistic system that is based on smoke concentration to determine presence of fire. Damon (2007) indicates that this method employs a nephelometer which is fixed on an enclosed chamber within which smoke particles are sucked and detection recorded in terms of light scattering levels. Unlike the traditional methods where human sight was employed to detect presence of fire, aspirating smoke detector can be able to detect smoke even before the particles are visible to the naked eye. This method is highly effective when it is employed in a stable environment with a relatively constant air composition. It is critical that fire suppression system is established to prevent fire progression, extinguish it, and provide emergency service on time.

Vision based real-time early flame and smoke detectors

Following increasing concerns based on devastation on economic and ecologic outcomes of fire whenever they occur, more elaborate systems that can cover larger areas and provide more accurate information is essential. Vision based real-time early frame and smoke detector are surveillance systems that provides automated coordination that rely on spatial temporal characteristics of smoke and frames to determine the intensity of fire.

To bring out the actual intensity of fire during the outbreaks, this method compares smoke and colour histograms models which employ Continuous Adaptive Means Shift (CAMSHIFT) to determine the spatial temporal probability of frames in real time. This method as Keating (2004) indicates, require specialized skills in smoke and frame characteristics through algorithmic models for efficiency.

In addition, it requires application of specialized equipments and full time response units that can attend to the fire warning. Like the aspirant smoke detectors, this method calls for strong coordination between a local society and members of an organization or the fire department to promote efficacy of reduce the affects of fires.

Heat detectors

According to Li, Zlatanova and Fabbri (2007), fire detection can also be affected by assessing the rate of heat changes. The design of thermo detectors is based on the principle that in case of a fire outbreak, temperatures generally rise above the ambient levels which can be detected to either sign a warning or set on an automated suppression system. Notably, thermo detectors operate more effectively when located in indoor settings as opposed to the outdoor areas.

One major advantage of modern thermo-detectors is that they are able to record changes of temperatures in a progressive system that can be used to further ascertain presence of fire in a building. Unlike the vision based real time frame and smoke detectors, thermo detectors lack the ability to effectively establish the actual area that the fire may be originating from.

To add to that, there is need for constant maintenance to ensure high efficiency levels in detecting changes of temperatures and fires. To promote greater levels of efficiency using this method, specialists indicate that it should be employed alongside other methods of detection, suppression, and fire extinction.

Water-mist system

Water mist system is a suppressive application that is employed to protect high risk equipment like machines in factories and companies. They are also employed in areas that have high probabilities of igniting fires like machine rooms, kitchens, and stores for inflammable chemicals. Water mist system operates in an automated system where detectors that sense onset of fire are fixed to set water sprays towards then fire in action. Pinkowski (2008) indicates that this method has high levels of accuracy as it is targeted at the regions which have the highest possibilities of causing fire in a building or an industry.

At instances when the water system may be unable to suppress fire from its onset, it is still considered to be effective as it reduces the acceleration rates which can give people time to move away from the site of fire; a consideration that may reduce fatalities, destruction and also provide the fire fighters with time to launch their fighting mechanism well on time before major losses are incurred. Therefore, it is very crucial that emergency response units are always on the alert to supplement the operations of a water-mist system as a mechanism of promoting efficiency.

Lift Control and usage in fire situations

Over the years, lifts have been employed as some of the most effective mechanisms for climbing new heights of tall buildings with speed. However, the untold story of their operations is technologically complicated and can lead to malfunctioning during fires outbreaks. Control and use of lifts during fire outbreak is a critical component that dictates the efficacy that fire fighting units can achieve at any particular moment. In case of fire outbreaks, people should avoid using lifts and instead follow the emergency exits as a major precautionary measure.

After reports warning of fire outbreak through emergency warning systems, the lift controller should guide the lift to his point of control and immobilize it there after confirming that all the occupants are out. Though disagreements have constantly recurred over the best model to use lifts in cases of outbreaks, most of the emergency rescue experts give the following reasons. To begin with, operations of the lift may be affected by the fire and trap the occupants in it.

This may be very dangerous especially in cases where the fire is spreading with speed. Besides, use of lifts may pass through sections with frames and Smalley (2005) indicates that allowing use of lift during fire outbreaks would lead to overloading and possible malfunctioning during the emergency period. To guarantee efficacy in the rescue units, use of emergency foot stairs is considered the best option.

Though use of lifts is not recommended during events of emergencies, Austin and Roger (2007) indicate that special cases may require their monitored use to perfect fire protection mechanisms. To begin with very tall buildings are inconvenient for the occupants to take stairs to the ground floor. Use of lifts in this case assists them to easily move down and escape from the burning site.

Secondly, when the occupants of the buildings at the time of fire outbreak were characterized of people with disability, their ability to move down the stairs may be greatly compromised. Failure to offer the disabled people with an alternative route down stairs as Keating (2004) indicates is like condemning them to fire since they are helpless. For other cases like hospitals, use of lifts is accepted to assist in moving the patients from the danger scene. It is critical that use of lift during emergency period is effectively monitored to avoid confusions.

Fire fighters and air traffic controllers should also have access to the lifts as their tasks require speed and coordination to address the fire from the source and communicate to the public respectively. To promote efficiency in fire protection, modern building codes require that special lifts are established to improve efficiency in their fire fighting mechanisms and evacuation procedures.

Building evacuation systems

Evacuation systems entail removal of the people from the danger sites to regions of safety or hospital for treatments. Fire protection building evacuation systems seeks to ensure that all the people in a building are guided or taken to safety as fire is extinguished. Building evacuation systems requires strong planning, organization of the system, and careful supervision.

Organization of the building evacuation system requires a clear plan that defines the roles and responsibilities of different members of the evacuation team. Austin and Roger (2007) indicate that the participating members’ duties are complemented with respective equipments that are necessary for use in case of the need for evacuation (Lewinnek, 2003). Besides, effective evacuation policies and plans could be established to enhance better management and coordination with other departments.

Diagrams and evacuation routes should be effectively provided in a building. The policy should also provide for imminent danger definitions and determine how the central control should operate during evacuation.

Then evacuation should also include an effective detection reporting system on the situation which culminates to the decision of conducting evacuation in the building. At this point, Austin and Roger (2007) indicate that the evacuation team should operate in direct conjunction with all the other departments to make them understand their tasks and the expected conduct during fire outbreaks.

According to Austin and Roger (2007), the evacuation team should have a clear outline of their expected movements and operation during their operations. This is perhaps the most critical part of the system as it gives the necessary information of the equipments for suppressing fire especially to keep the exit routes free for all the people. Depending with the nature of a building, evacuation system may require that the group effectively possess special equipments like parachutes for evacuating people in tall buildings.

However, it would be incomplete to talk about an evacuation system without emphasizing on their communication. One critical element that determines the ability of an evacuation unit is its capacity to communicate among them effectively. As indicated earlier, evacuation is done to facilitate faster removal of people from their areas of high danger to safer points; therefore coordination is very critical to reduce panic and confusion.

Finally, en evacuation system should have an effective inspection and command system that provides the central command for the operations. This becomes very critical especially on tall buildings where coordination has to be effected at different heights. In addition, inspection and evaluation is essential as it offers the evacuation process undertaken with an assessment to determine how effective it was and provide recommendations for improvement in later emergencies (Ferguson & Christopher, 2007).

Emergency planning

An emergency planning involves establishing clear mechanisms of addressing emergencies in case of fire outbreaks in a building. Smalley (2005) explains that buildings management should understand that fires are emergencies and could arise any time unexpectedly. Notably, Smalley further indicates that present architectural designers incorporate the need for emergency fire address in their designs.

An emergency planning therefore requires a clear organization based on setting down different priorities for addressing fire problems when they arise. A coordinating team is them established and offered with the necessary training on the dynamics of fire and how to quench it in the most effective way to safe life and property.

A clear detection system, warning systems, and reporting mechanisms are also established to determine when an emergency has occurred and action that should begin. At this point, a central coordination unit becomes very critical to harmonize and immediately assess the extent of the fire to determine the best action in addressing it.

Particularly, highly decisive and intelligent leaders who are able to make fast decisions and generate chain-of commands without inferring panic are essential for coordination. This central unit should also have a clear interlink with the external fire suppression units to call for help when needed.

A two way communication system is also critical in determining how well the operators coordinate with the central command to report and execute various requirements (Slap, 2001). Besides, communication should also be effectively planned to warn other staff and public of the fire and guide the next moves. Finally, it should establish the roles expected of other members of staff during emergencies. It should include periodic capacity building and upgrading of the equipments and tools for use during various emergencies.


From the above discussion, it is clear that fire protection forms one of the most important aspects in the modern disaster management systems. It brings out the need to establish the necessary detectors and suppressors at the earliest possible moment to enhance the capacity to reduce its affects. It also came out clearly that effective fire protections involves careful preparations for any emergency with adequate skills and response mechanisms which assists in reducing the overall damage from a fire system.

However, it is essential that greater cooperation is established between all the organizations departments to enhance faster response and therefore reduce loss of life and property. A two way communication system is equally vital in determining how well fire fighters and other members involved in the rescue process can liaise with the central command in disseminating reports needed in the process.

In addition, effective communication should also be put in place to warn other staff and members of the public of any fire outbreak. Finally, there is critical need to establish various fire rescue roles among those participating in the rescues process so that duplication of roles and responsibilities is eliminated at all costs. As a matter of fact, part of the preparation should include periodic capacity building as well as training and upgrading of the equipment, tools and human resource to be used during such unexpected emergencies.


Austin, T. & Roger, G. (2007). Living on the edge: economic, institutional and management perspectives on wildfire hazard in the urban interface. London, Emerald Group Publishing.

Damon, P. (2007). Introduction to international disaster management London, Butterworth-Heinemann.

Ethington, P. J. (2002). The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory: The Journal of American History, 89(1), 328-329.

Ferguson, H. & Christopher, A. (2007). Fundamentals of fire protection for the safety professional. New York, Sage.

Keating, A. D. (2004). The Great Chicago Fire and the myth of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow. Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, 97(2), 159-160.

Lewinnek, E. (2003). Domestic and respectable: suburbanization and social control after the Great Chicago Fire. Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies, (3), 20-38.

Li, J., Zlatanova, S. & Fabbri, A. (2007). Geomatics solutions for disaster management. Lisbon, Springer.

Pinkowski, J. (2008). Disaster Management Handbook. London, CRC Press.

Slap A. L. (2001). The strong arm of the military power of the United States: The Chicago fire, the Constitution, and reconstruction. Civil War History, 47(2), 146- 163.

Smalley, J. C. (2005). Protecting life and property from wildfire. Boston, Jones & Bartlett Publishers.

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