Firefighting in Iran: A Historical Perspective and Current Trends

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Written in collaboration with Hadi Hejazi, Former Vice CEO and Head of Training Branch Vice CEO and head of Training Branch at Tehran Fire Department

Historical narratives detail how the Persian Empire, under the rule of King Khashayarshah, initiated a military unit for firefighting during its attack on ancient Greece. If these accounts hold true, it would be the first organised fire department in recorded history.

Today, Iran, as the world’s 17th largest country, garners global attention primarily for nuclear diplomacy. Yet, the nation’s rich history spans several millennia and includes the evolution of knowledge, courageous acts, and exquisite craftsmanship.

Historical Fires in Iran

As one delves into the profound history of Iran, a recurring narrative emerges of fire shaping the civilisation’s trajectory, from the prehistoric city of Shahr-e Sukhteh to the grandeur of Persepolis and, more recently, the Plasco Building fire. Each incident, while tragic in its immediate aftermath, has contributed to Iran’s rich cultural tapestry and provides an important lens through which we can understand the resilience and evolution of its people.

Located in what is now the Sistan and Baluchistan Province in southeastern Iran, Shahr-e Sukhteh, or “The Burnt City,” was an ancient urban centre that thrived from 3200 to 2100 BC. It was one of the world’s largest cities at the time, showcasing a complex irrigation system, sophisticated architecture, and a wealth of cultural artifacts.

Tragically, repeated fire incidents resulted in the city’s repeated destruction and rebuilding. Today, the city’s remnants, including what are believed to be the world’s oldest animated picture and possibly an artificial eyeball, are considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The resilience of Shahr-e Sukhteh’s inhabitants, who rebuilt their city multiple times, paints a vivid picture of human tenacity in the face of adversity.

On the other hand, the fire in Persepolis, the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire, represents an instance where fire was wielded as a weapon of war. Allegedly set ablaze by Alexander the Great’s army in 330 BC, the fire left an indelible mark on the annals of Persian history. Although the account of this event is disputed among historians, the ruins show unequivocal signs of fire damage.

This destructive event led to the loss of innumerable works of art, architecture, and cultural artifacts, representing a significant cultural tragedy. Yet, despite the substantial damage, the remnants of Persepolis stand as a testament to the grandeur of the Achaemenid Empire and were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.

Fast forward to the 21st century, the Plasco Building fire in 2017 serves as a grim reminder of the threats modern structures face from fire. Once one of Iran’s oldest high-rise buildings, the 17-story Plasco Building in Tehran succumbed to a massive fire, causing it to collapse and tragically resulting in the death of 16 firefighters and six civilians. This incident, considered one of Iran’s worst fire disasters, has prompted a reassessment of safety measures in contemporary Iranian architecture.

The narrative of fire in Iran’s history, as seen in Shahr-e Sukhteh, Persepolis, and the Plasco Building, is a story of creation, destruction, and rebirth. Fire, in its destructive capacity, has undeniably played a transformative role in shaping Iran’s architectural, cultural, and historical landscape. The resilience displayed in rebuilding and learning from these incidents, however, demonstrates a spirit of endurance that has allowed Iranian society to continually evolve and adapt in the face of adversity. This dialectic between destruction and resilience forms an essential part of Iran’s unique cultural and historical identity.

The Emergence of the Fire Department in Iran

The inception of organised firefighting services in Iran can be traced back to the mid-19th century, initiated under Russian influence. The development of this life-saving public service, like the narrative of the country itself, weaves a compelling tale of adaptation and progress.

Approximately 165 years ago, the first fire station in Iran was established in the city of Tabriz, spurred by Russian officers. The station was initially equipped with basic firefighting equipment—two-way manual pumps made of bronze and copper—designed to extinguish fires rather than respond to other types of emergencies. This marked the genesis of the fire service in Iran, where firefighting strategies largely depended on manual labor and simple technological interventions.

In 1917, the Tabriz fire station saw a significant upgrade under the city’s mayor, who erected the Yanghin tower to aid fire detection across the city. This tower, now a standing monument, continues to be a part of Fire Station Number 1 in the Tabriz Fire Department, symbolising the evolution of Iran’s fire safety services.

The capital city of Tehran, however, lagged slightly in establishing its firefighting service. It wasn’t until 1924 that Tehran saw the establishment of its first fire station, located in a modest garage in the city’s central part. A significant fire in 1928 at the industrial cinema on Lalezar street, however, served as a wakeup call. This fire, which razed the city’s most modern cinema, resulted in an urgent need for a robust fire service. Consequently, the Iranian parliament enacted legislation obliging the municipality to equip and develop the fire department, catalysing the development of the Tehran Fire Department (TFD).

As of today, the TFD is the most extensive fire department in Iran, boasting 134 fire stations and more than 5300 firefighters. The evolution of the TFD from a single station in a garage to a vast network of stations manned by thousands of professionals reflects Iran’s commitment to public safety.

The story of Iran’s fire department is one of continuous growth and progress, spurred by changing needs and evolving technology. It is a testament to the country’s resilience and commitment to protecting its people and preserving its heritage from the destructive force of fire. This evolution continues today, as Iran faces new challenges in fire safety management in the context of modern structures, industries, and an ever-growing urban population.

Training Practices within the Tehran Fire Department

The role of a firefighter is demanding and fraught with potential dangers, making effective training an essential part of a fire department’s functioning. In this respect, the Tehran Fire Department (TFD), Iran’s largest firefighting service, sets a compelling example with its rigorous and comprehensive training programs.

An integral part of the TFD’s operations, training is structured to ensure that all firefighters are well-equipped to handle any emergency. This involves semi-annual fitness examinations, where firefighters must demonstrate their physical readiness and improved professional skills. “Training time” is allocated during each work shift, emphasising the ongoing nature of firefighter training and the continuous improvement of skills.

The vast size of the TFD has necessitated a well-organised training management system, dividing the department into eight regions. Each region manages its training programs, with the organisation’s vice president of training and education overseeing the entire operation, ensuring a uniform and high standard of training across the department.

The TFD’s mandatory training program is comprehensive, preparing firefighters for a wide array of situations. Newly hired personnel and junior firefighters undergo rigorous instruction in numerous areas, including personal protective equipment usage, fire behavior and related techniques, fire pump operations, ladder operations, rope rescue, technical rescue operations, and basic principles of fire prevention, among others. The training also involves learning how to handle high-risk scenarios such as confined space operations, dealing with hazardous materials, and responding to road traffic collisions.

The TFD’s training isn’t confined only to its personnel. Recognising the importance of fostering a culture of safety and emergency readiness within the wider community, the department has obtained the license to establish an applied science university. This institution offers fields of study related to safety, fire engineering, incident prevention, and environment engineering. It welcomes not only firefighters but any interested citizen, thereby extending its influence on public safety education beyond the department.

Training within the TFD is a multi-faceted approach, aiming not only to keep its firefighters safe but also to ensure the highest standard of emergency response for the people of Tehran. By prioritising continuous learning and incorporating it into the very structure of the department, the TFD demonstrates its commitment to public safety and the vital role of well-trained personnel in achieving it. The department’s approach to training reflects an understanding that effective firefighting is not just about combating fire; it is about proactively fostering an environment of safety and preparedness.

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