Efforts to prevent and combat fires date back to the earliest days of Baltimore. The first attempt to provide fire protection came in 1747 through the colonial legislature in a law specifying fines for unsafe chimneys and houses not having ladders that reached to the tops of their roofs. The origins of an organized fire department developed with the creation of the earliest volunteer fire companies - the Mechanical (1763), Union (1782), Friendship (1785), and Deptford (1792). For more info in the history of the Mechanical company, see Ed Papenfuse's blog post: Baltimore's First Responders
Until the middle of the nineteenth century volunteer fire companies provided the chief form of fire protection. Supporting these companies were occasional state and city laws, such as a 1787 act in the Maryland Legislature requiring every householder to maintain two leather buckets near the front entrance and authorizing the Baltimore Town Commissioners to dig wells and erect pumps and a 1799 municipal ordinance prohibiting the erection of frame dwellings, and occasional municipal appropriations to the companies for equipment and supplies. By 1834 there were fifteen volunteer companies and by 1858 twenty-two.
Although these volunteer companies were the only method of fire protection, they hardly constituted a very effective system. These companies were as much political and social organizations and often engaged in fights with rival companies and, on several occasions, were the ringleaders of municipal riots. Moreover, few of the companies were adequately equipped or trained. In 1834 representatives of each of the companies formed the Baltimore United Fire Department to regulate fire protection but most of the major problems persisted. In 1858 the municipal government established a professional fire department which has remained in existence to the present, governed by a board of commissioners.
More detailed information about the history of this municipal agency can be gleaned from Clarence H. Forrest, Official History of the Fire Department of the City of Baltimore Together With Biographies and Portraits of Eminent Citizens of Baltimore (Baltimore: Williams and Wilkens Press, 1898) ; J. Albert Cassedy, The Firemen's Record (Baltimore: Published by the author, 1911) ; William A. Murray, The Rigs of the Unheralded Heroes: One Hundred Years of Baltimore's Fire Engines. 1872-1971 (N.p. Published by the authors, 1971); George W. McCreary, The Ancient and Honorable Mechanical Company of Baltimore (Baltimore: Kohn and Pollock, 1901); Charles L. Wagandt, "Fighting Fires the Baltimore Way - A British View of 1862," Maryland Historical Magazine 61 (September 1966): 257-61; and Ray Hamilton, "The Baltimore Fire Department Pension System: A Legislative History," unpublished paper, 1979, Baltimore City Department of Legislative Reference. Note that the original manuscript report of British Consul Ferdinand Bernal to Lord John Russell in May of 1861, from Baltimore, is to be found on Editonline.us, an on-line editing service developed by Dr. Edward C. Papenfuse.
For Fire Department Roster Cards, see BRG7-12