On the alert

S&H founded its first fire department 120 years ago

Siemens & Halske (S&H) set up a fire department at its Westend cable plant in early July 1901. Thirty-two volunteers received specialist training to prepare them for their new role. In 1921, the facility’s fire department was officially recognized as a professional fire department. For decades, its jurisdiction extended not only to Siemensstadt, but also to several nearby areas in the Spandau district of Berlin. If there was a fire in Hakenfelde or Haselhorst, for instance, the Siemens fire department was called out.

From chaos to order – Berlin founds a professional fire department

When Werner von Siemens and Johann Georg Halske opened their workshop in 1847, firefighting in the city of Berlin was in a sorry state. For example, if you noticed a fire at night, you simply shouted or informed the nearest night watchman, who then sounded the fire alarm. Other watchmen took up the cry, and the collective noise was supposed to set on motion the firefighting crews, most of whom were part-time and badly paid. First, the crews had to gather their uniforms, sprinklers and hoses. Then, they had to wait for horses to transport their equipment. As a result, a great deal of valuable time was lost. What’s more, it was often hard to figure out where the burning building was. And when the firefighting crews finally arrived at the scene, they had to deal with conflicting instructions from the officials who had gotten there first. Consequently, the crews did – as noted in a contemporary report – whatever they wanted to do or, even, nothing at all.


The reform of firefighting in the city of Berlin had long been urgently demanded but was not consistently implemented until Ludwig Carl Scabell was appointed Royal Fire Director. The day of his appointment – February 1, 1851 – is generally considered to be the date on which the Berlin Fire Department, Germany’s first professional fire department, was founded. Ludwig Carl Scabell divided the city into several fire districts and established more than 20 well-staffed and properly equipped fire stations. On the one hand, he recruited full-time firefighters and sprinkler operators from a group of specially trained 18- to 40-year-old construction workers. On the other, he preferred applicants who had completed military service since – according to his own statement – “any corps that depends on interlocking operations being punctually executed on command [...] must definitely be organized in a military manner [...].” That this approach was generally well conceived and effective, Berlin’s witty denizens acknowledged with the line: “Fire’s power doth no longer scare – since Scabell has been taking care.”

The new fire protection system also operated excellently because S&H technology was used: in June 1851, the Royal Fire Chief ordered the Telegraph Construction Company to fit the Berlin fire department with a modern fire alarm system. In 1852 and 1853, the fire department was equipped with a pointer telegraph network with alarm clocks, which were connected to all the city’s fire stations and several police offices, so that fire alarms could be sent to a total of 36 locations. Since the stations could also share information with each other, there was no speculation about the location of a fire, and firefighting units with the appropriate number of firefighters could set off as quickly as possible. 


In the event of an emergency, the S&H workshops in Markgrafenstrasse, which had been continuously expanded over the years, also benefitted from the innovations introduced by Ludwig Carl Scabell since Berlin’s main fire department was in the immediate vicinity. The location at Askanischer Platz was similarly favorable: the fire department was just a few houses down from S&H’s administration building. In Charlottenburg, where S&H moved its cable production in 1884, there had been a voluntary fire department since 1866 and later a professional fire department. 



Siemens and Halske undertakes to carry out the installation of a telegraph in the city of Berlin for firefighting and policing purposes, as intended by the Royal Police Headquarters, so efficiently and effectively that there will not be any objections made upon completion.
Excerpt from Section 1 of the contract between the Royal Fire Chief and S&H, June 20, 1851. 

In view of this precarious situation, a decision was made in the spring of 1901 to establish a volunteer fire department at the plant. Thirty-two men were selected to take part in training at the Charlottenburg professional fire department. On July 1, 1901, the time had come: the new fire department was presented to the cable plant’s management.


The plant’s fire department was divided into four platoons, each comprising a chief fireman, three so-called sappers – these are the gentlemen in the picture with the pickaxes – and four firefighters. To keep in shape, fire drills were conducted every Saturday after the plant closed. This measure paid off: in the first year of its existence, the plant’s fire department successfully extinguished a large fire in the cleaning agent sorting room caused by spontaneous combustion, two medium-sized fires in the hard rubber mill and the sulfur boiling plant, and four small fires. As was common practice, fires were categorized by size and/or intensity in order to determine the equipment and personnel required for fighting them.


Set up in 1901, the plant’s fire department was the first organization of its kind in Spandau, Charlottenburg and Berlin. However, the history of fire departments at Siemens facilities goes back even further: Siemens-Schuckertwerke (SSW) in Vienna and Siemens-Schuckertwerke in Nuremberg set up fire departments in September 1899. In the following years, S&H and SSW also set up fire departments at other manufacturing locations in and outside Germany.

Helping people help themselves – Westend cable plant sets up a fire department

For the company’s management, preventive fire protection measures had been a matter of course from the very beginning at the Berlin plant on Markgrafenstrasse, the company’s administration building at Askanischer Platz and its Charlottenburg plant at Salzufer. These measures included not only equipping the buildings with handheld fire extinguishers, hoses and jet pipes, but also teaching the employees how to use the firefighting equipment.


It was expected that all relevant fire protection precautions would also be considered and implemented at the Westend cable plant, which began operations in 1899 and formed the nucleus of the future Siemensstadt. But the location in the Spandau district of Berlin had a serious problem: while production processes at the plant made fire an ever-present danger, the facility was located as Berliners say “Jottwehdeh” or “much too far away” from the fire departments of the independent municipalities of Berlin, Charlottenburg and Spandau.

Dangerous incident – Fire in the roof framework at the Charlottenburg plant

The immense importance of being close to municipal fire departments is illustrated by a major fire in the roof framework at the Charlottenburg plant in March 1902. A guard noticed the fire at around 9:45 on a Sunday morning. When Arnold von Siemens, who was immediately informed of the incident by telephone, arrived at the scene, fire departments from Charlottenburg and Berlin were already engaged. However, they were unable to prevent part of the roof from collapsing. According to the Berlin daily press, which reported on the event, the firefighting operation lasted for an hour and a half, using – among other things – several steam fire engines and pressure sprinklers as well as eleven hoses. Despite damages totaling about 100,000 marks, work resumed at the plant on Monday morning as usual.

Thanks to the fireproof construction of the ceiling and the screed floor [...], the fire didn’t escalate down into the joinery. The water, on the other hand, came in streams and it was the purest shower-bath.
Arnold von Siemens, March 24, 1902

Keeping with tradition – A fire department is also established at the Wernerwerk facility 

The Wernerwerk facility began operations at the beginning of 1905. Since, like the Westend cable plant, it was located too far away from municipal fire departments, a voluntary fire department was set up at the Wernerwerk as well. However, a new approach was taken to the qualification of the employee firefighters: a specialist from the Charlottenburg fire department was hired to serve as the fire chief and supervise training. 


While the firefighters at the Wernerwerk cable plant were on standby on Sundays and public holidays from the very beginning, this approach was not adopted at the Wernerwerk until 1907 – and then only after a fire had broken out at the facility on a weekend. In January 1908, the Wernerwerk established a 24/7 on-call fire department comprising twelve firefighters, each of whom worked twelve-hour shifts. Starting in 1910, the Wernerwerk fire department’s equipment included an ambulance and a self-propelled fire engine that used a carbon-dioxide-driven pump to force water through the firehoses.


After 1905, further plants and buildings for administration and research were built on the former Nonnenwiesen – an area north of the Spree River between Charlottenburg and Spandau. These facilities didn’t have their own fire departments. However, providing the employees with fire protection training and teaching them to operate fire alarms and the installed fire extinguishers was also standard practice at the Nonnenwiesen location.





New construction project in Siemensstadt – The building of a main fire station

At the end of 1911, production at the West cable plant was gradually relocated to the Gartenfeld district of Spandau, where production began in February 1912. Electric motor production was transferred to the West cable plant, which, like the new cable plant, didn’t have its own fire department.


As a result, the area – which would officially be renamed Siemensstadt in 1914 – had only the 18 men of the Wernerwerk fire department to protect it at the beginning of 1912. But the number of factories with fire-susceptible production processes and warehouses with often highly flammable and combustible materials and liquids was large, and the distances between the individual production facilities were sometimes considerable. For this reason, company management decided to build a main fire station in a comparatively central location, specifically between Siemensstrasse (Wernerwerkdamm), Rohrdamm and Brunnenstrasse (Quellweg). The new building, which also housed the fire chief’s residence and the company’s telegraph office, was occupied as early as the end of 1912. As a result, the fire department was present at two locations on the huge site: at the main station (Station I) and at the Wernerwerk (Station II), which also had a fleet of fire engines.

The main station – which was designed by Siemens architect Karl Janisch, whose architectural design had affinities with the administrative building that was being built at the same time on Nonnendamm – clearly distinguished itself from municipal fire stations by its prestigious character. The purpose of the building, behind whose gates lay presumably a vehicle depot, was not clear to the uninitiated.

Under the leadership of Hans Hertlein – Janisch’s successor – and then of Siemens-Bauunion, the main fire station was extended several times in the late 1920s.

After the war, staffing at the fire department was increased, so that by the end of the year there were 64 employees altogether (Station I/Main station: 30 employees, Station II/Wernerwerk: 18 employees, Station III/ Gartenfeld cable plant: 16 employees). All these firefighting operations were assigned for disciplinary purposes to SSW in October 1920; organizationally, they were assigned to the plant’s security service. The departments, whose members were allowed by the city to wear the same uniform as the municipal firefighters, were – at that time – responsible for four Spandau districts. In addition to preventive fire protection and firefighting, their duties included an ambulance service, for which two ambulances were now available. Ten years later, a fourth fire department, Station IV, was set up for the Siemens factories in the north of Spandau. 

Logical reinforcement – A fire department for the Gartenfeld cable plant

During the First World War, the 18-man Wernerwerk fire department continued to exist, but its composition changed constantly due to call-ups for military service. At that time, however, fire protection in production facilities was overseen by the governmental authorities. In August 1915, they arranged for the Spandau garrison fire department to be partially relocated to the main fire station in Siemensstadt. However, Siemens’ fire chief was responsible for both fire departments. In October 1917, the authorities ordered that a fire department be established at the Gartenfeld cable plant as well. The staff of this department also came from the ranks of the Spandau garrison fire department. When the war ended, the garrison fire department in the main station was disbanded. However, the Gartenfeld cable plants’ (Station III) fire department crew, who had extinguished over 40 fires within a year, joined the company.

Well-deserved reward – Factory fire departments become professional fire departments

In 1921, the authorities recognized the fire departments in Siemensstadt and at the Gartenfeld cable plant as a full-time professional fire department. This move put the facilities’ fire departments on an equal footing with the city’s municipal fire departments – also in terms of pay. However, their members remained Siemens employees. The professional fire department was divided into two platoons comprising a fire director, a fire chief, two sergeants, eight senior firefighters and 58 firemen. Shifts were 24 hours long, followed by a day off. At that time, the department’s well-equipped fleet included – among other things – three motorized fire engines, a staff car, a work and equipment vehicle, two ambulances and a 26-meter self-propelled mechanical ladder. 

The men of the professional fire department, which was then responsible for five districts in Spandau, were organized in such a way that they needed only 30 seconds to suit up and set off. This was the case, for example, on November 12, 1922, when an alarm was received from the Gartenfeld cable plant. At the scene, however, the firefighters discovered that this was no medium-scale fire, as had been reported, but a major, devastating conflagration that they could not fight alone. The fire-fighting operation, which involved fire departments from Spandau, Charlottenburg, Berlin and Wilmersdorf and utilized a total of 21 hoses, lasted many hours. During the operation, one of the men from the professional fire department was killed and another seriously injured.

In a way that has never been explained, fire broke out [...] in one of these halls and continued with enormous speed, as the warehouse fixtures fueled the fire. The heat bent the thin iron structures and contributed to the rapid collapse of large areas of the halls.
Hans Hertlein, 1959

Impressive figures – The professional fire department takes stock

By 1926, the professional fire department could look back on 25 years of service since its founding as the fire department of the Westend cable plant. Since 1901, the department had extinguished 51 large, 183 medium-sized and 580 small fires. The department had provided ambulance services as well: in fiscal 1925 alone, these were called out 1,442 times and traveled a total of 26,393 kilometers. The department also operated fire-prevention patrols: it had to regularly check a total of 1,357 hydrants, 5,467 handheld fire extinguishers and 1,522 hoses in the Siemensstadt and Charlottenburg facilities. As a side note, the total length of the hoses in those facilities and at the professional fire department in 1926 was an impressive 34.4 kilometers.

In the decades that followed, the fire department repeatedly took stock of its activities. For example, in the 80 years between 1901 and 1981, records showed that the department was involved in more than 25,000 operations and fought more than 6,700 fires, 257 of which were major conflagrations. Since 1976, it had averaged 620 missions per year, of which about 45 had been firefighting missions. Since acquiring its first ambulance in 1910, the fire department had also transported more than 85,000 people.


In 1981, the fire department, which – since its reconstruction after 1945 – had maintained one station in Siemensstadt and another at the Gartenfeld cable plant, had just under 50 employees. But contrary to its hopes, the department never got the chance to celebrate its 100th anniversary. Its dissolution in the mid-1990s was primarily due to internal considerations – those of both the company and the Berlin Fire Department. As an alternative for emergencies, the Berlin Fire Department opened its Haselhorst station, financed by Siemens, in 1996. It was not unusual for firefighting units to be transferred to municipal authorities. Other Siemens locations that originally had their own fire departments also took this step.

Not immune to adversity – The kitchen in the Siemens villa burns

Back to the company founder. It’s ironic that a fire should break out, of all places, in the Siemens family villa and its owner should have to rely on the support of the municipal fire department. On the evening of January 24, 1890, the house in Charlottenburg where Werner von Siemens lived with his second wife Antonie and their children Hertha and Carl Friedrich was quieter than usual. No relatives or acquaintances were visiting. Hertha used the free time to write to her half-sister Anna, a daughter from Werner’s first marriage. Summing up the events of the last few days, she remarked, “I’ve got only good things to report.” But no sooner had this sentence been put to paper than it proved wrong: fire broke out in the villa’s kitchen when gas, which had escaped from a leaking pipe, ignited. 

Together with the household staff, Werner and Carl Friedrich tried to put out the flames. When the fire department arrived, it seemed the fire was already under control, but then it flared up again and threatened to spread to further. As a result, it was necessary to tear down the curtains in the dining room above the kitchen, empty the cupboards and finally knock a hole in the floorboards in order to fight the fire from above – efforts that finally succeeded. 

The house was swarming with people, firemen, policemen, chimney sweepers, secret police, all the residents of the house, plus firemen with their torches in the street [...].
Hertha von Siemens, January 25, 1890

The damage caused was manageable, as Hertha informed her half-sister the next day. There was a hole in the dining room floor through which the kitchen was visible, and use of the kitchen itself was restricted until a new ceiling could be installed. “But you hardly feel such a little misfortune,” Hertha summarized, “when a big one has been averted.”


Dr. Claudia Salchow