(33) Choson’s Firefighting Methods Varied

By Yang Sung-jin

The number of fires at home due to carelessness has reportedly jumped sharply this fall season as compared to last year. What troubles firefighters most is the increasing number of cases involving fires sparked by a leaking gas burner that was left unchecked. Although such negligence can cause untold damage and destruction, there is not much firefighters can do about it, except to urge more caution.

However, the prevailing methods of fire prevention were not always the preferred methods. In fact, during the Choson Dynasty (1392-1910), kings and officials apparently had different ideas about warding off accidental fires. On Nov. 10, 1417, King Taejong issued a decree warning that anyone who causes fires will be punished, a highly strict regulation named “Kumhwa-ryong” (meaning `fire-banning decree’ in Korean). This decree drew precedent from ancient China.

According to the regulation, those who sparked a fire in the sacred Chongmyo (National Shrine) and palaces would be subjected to capital punishment, and any person who caused a fire in a government-owned mausoleum would face 80 strikes with a cudgel and two years in prison.

And, the penalty was not limited to government-related facilities. A person discovered to have burned a forest had to endure 100 hits with a cudgel and expulsion to a remote area.

In addition, any act involving the setting or use of a fire near a public storehouse was outlawed in an attempt to preserve the most important item of the time — food.

Another intriguing rule set up by King Taejong was that storehouse janitors, royal guards and wardens were ordered to remain at a site even if a fire broke out. Any violator of this rule received 100 hits with a cudgel.

Ring A Bell

Of course, regulation itself was not sufficient. Government workers on night duty patrolled the surrounding area. If a strong wind was likely to spark a fire, they would ring small hand-held bells as a warning to the neighborhood.

For announcing a fire at the royal palace, the bell that was used was so large, it literally shook the people living in the capital city of Seoul.

Meanwhile, a protocol for reporting fires was also established. Kings were briefed on fires if more than three tile-roofed houses were burned down or more than five thatched houses were left in ashes. Yet even the slightest fires were reported to the kings if any human lives were lost.

During the Choson period, a group of officials and government-owned servants kept a vigil from a high tower in order to spot fires as quickly as possible, a practice still used today.

Unlike present-day firefighters clad in eye-catching red uniforms, each Choson firefighter was armed simply with a government-sanctioned certificate proving their identity and qualifications. There were two kinds of certificate: one was reserved for government officials who were designated to lead other officials to the scene of a fire, and the other was for leaders selected among the common people.

The Choson people utilized a variety of tools to contain fires, many of which remain fascinating today.

High on the list were water jars, called Tumu'' orTumo,” which were positioned at a number of spots in royal palaces in a bid to quickly neutralize any fires. At least, that is the conventional theory. Some historians contend those jars were symbolic and void of any practical use.

However, in 1407, the Seoul administration proposed to King Taejong a host of pro-active measures aimed at preventing fires. One of those measures entailed setting up two water jars in each government-controlled compound, indicating that the jars may have helped to tame fires involving wooden structures.

A more systematic and reliable preventative device was a fire-retardant wall called “panghwajang,”many of which separated important government buildings from nearby residential houses. In 1420, King Sejong ordered the construction of fire walls along with other measures designed to minimize the danger of accidental fires.

Clever Contraption

King Sejong, a well-rounded king versed in almost every field from linguistics to science, shared his insight with officials concerning firefighting methods. On Jan. 14, 1431, the king proposed the use of iron rings for fighting fires.

“Since Kunchongjon [in Kyongbok Palace] is a high structure, firefighters will find it difficult to climb onto it if a fire breaks out. If we put iron rings on the roof, they will be able to get up there quickly. In addition, a long metallic hoop set up on the roof will help firefighters to cling to the roof safely while extinguishing the fires,” the king said.

Court officials agreed with the king’s suggestion and rings were immediately manufactured and attached to palace structures. Those iron rings are still preserved at Kyongbok Palace and Chongmyo.

Another unlikely firefighting tool was the hatchet. According to a document dated Dec. 20, 1467, the government ordered hatchets, iron hooks, ropes and ladders for a group of officials on standby for fire accidents.

These hatchets served a peculiar purpose: the speedy demolition and destruction of houses set afire. Destroying interconnected rooms was the most effective way to quell fires, which would otherwise devour entire neighborhoods.

The most sophisticated firefighting tool of the Choson Kingdom was the “suchongki,” a prototypical fire hose and deluge gun used on today’s fire engines.

On May 25, 1723, a government-funded observatory proposed to manufacture a new firefighting device drawn from a “western” version. The Choson suchongki was modeled after one that official Hu Won brought back with him from a diplomatic mission in China.

King Kyongjong ordered the army to manufacture suchongkis. However, the army exhausted its annual budget and appealed to the king to wait for a good harvest year. The king granted their request.

Suchongki, a device which pumped and sprayed water upward, was initially used to douse flames at palaces and was later adopted to fight fires at commoners’ houses.

Detailed descriptions of suchongki are recorded in a book written by Park Chi-won, who witnessed the Chinese extinguish a fire with the tool. Chong Yak-yong, a respectable scholar in the late Choson period, also argued in his book “Mokmin Simso” that a large city should have at least 10 suchongkis for fire accidents, hinting at the widespread use of the device.

Much has changed over the centuries when it comes to firefighting technology. Unchanged, however, is the bravery of firefighters who risk their lives each and every day in order to protect people and property from fire accidents.