fighting fire

Having spent so many years on Twitter doing "Differences of the Day",  I have a lot of (forgive me the jargon) content that could be moved over here, to the blog. Today, I'm moving over the information from tweets that I did during my "fire week" in March 2018: five days of AmE–BrE differences relating to fire-fighting. This choice has been inspired by Frank Abate, an American lexicographer who regularly sends me the BrEisms he's come across in reading the news.  So, this post is mostly copy-pasted-edited from tweets—the smaller text is info I've added since the tweets.

Ways of referring to people who fight fires as a job:

  • AmE and BrE both use fireman and firewoman (though News on the Web corpus has both of these at higher rates in UK now)
  • orig. AmE fire fighter (or firefighter) is used about twice as much in US
  • BrE fire crew and fire (safety) officer (which is a higher rank) are not much used in US.
Those who investigate fires are BrE fire investigators or AmE fire marshals.
But in BrE fire marshal is a synonym of (also BrE) fire warden, who is a person in a big building who has a little training and is responsible for helping with evacuation in the event of a fire. I've asked American friends what this is called in the US. A British friend in NYC showed me her workplace has fire wardens, but people in other parts of the country were less certain. Floor captain seems to be used in at least some places.

These people make up the BrE fire brigade or fire service or the AmE fire department or (less commonly) fire company. Outside cities, American ones may be volunteer-run.

There are sometimes volunteer fire departments in the UK, but in the US they're common enough to have their own initialism: VFD (Volunteer Fire Department).  See Wikipedia for more. 

(Fire) appliance is much more common in news/officialese in BrE than AmE (and get a look at NZ!). This goes back to mid-1800s, and refers to a fire engine (used in both countries). AmE has fire truck, but that's a more informal term than engine/appliance.

Per million frequencies: US 0, UK .07, NZ .24
Fire appliance in the News on the Web corpus. 

That reminded me of a sign on the fire station near my house in Brighton:

Red sign: CAUTION: Fire Appliances Emerging. Someone has put a green smiley-face sticker on it.

BrE and AmE both use fire station for these places. AmE also has fire house and fire hall. For me, at least, fire hall indicates that it has space for public meetings, etc., reflecting the central role of (often volunteer) fire stations in small-town life. Here's a picture of Fireman's Hall in Alfred, NY (from Wikipedia).

two-story red brick building with a clock tower on top

Finally, fire hydrant was originally an Americanism, but is now used in the UK too. They look rather different, though.

UK hydrants are marked by yellow signs with an H, which tell firefighters that there's access to a pipe nearby. I wish I could remember what I watched on television last week that had an American hydrant in an allegedly UK setting. It's one of those things that will really stand out to those who know. Two points to any commenter who can name the show or film!

UK hydrant sign (pic from here)

US fire hydrant (pic from Wikipedia)

And here's a handy-dandy guide to reading a UK hydrant sign from the Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue Service.

If you liked this, you might be interested in these earlier posts about:


  1. Replies
    1. I do love it when bits of my life collide in this way. In the midst of training as a (volunteer) fire fighter for my little village in Santa Fe County, and a new SbaCL post shows up on ... guess what!

      Thanks. The station crew will probably love this too.

  2. I would say that "fire engine" is a hyponym of "fire truck", there also being ladder trucks and tanker trucks. (The "engine" is the pump truck; historically a steam engine drawn by horses rather than the modern diesel truck.)

    1. And, even earlier, a hand pump as in this famous image

    2. A distinction made by the fire fighters I've spoken to (in Portland, OR) is that they use "truck" specifically to refer to ones with ladders and "engine" for the ones without.

  3. In the US, Fire Marshals also have a preventive function in addition to the investigative function. It's not uncommon to see signs such as "No Smoking by order of the Fire Marshal" or "Maximum Capacity xxx Persons by order..." or "Door to remain unlocked during business hours by order..."

  4. I worked for the US Dept. of Labor in Washington, DC, for many years, and each floor of the building had a fire warden--someone sufficiently trained to shepherd evacuation during drills and emergencies.

    1. It sounds like these became common in certain cities after 9/11

  5. I’m curious about whether use of “fire hall” might be more of a NE thing. I’ve had a Southern childhood and a Midwestern adulthood, and it doesn’t ring a bell for me at all.

    1. The "fire hall" I'm familiar with in the midwest was really a union hall; not a replacement for a fire station, but a separate building where members of the firefighter's union could meet and conduct union business. They also had a room you could rent out for wedding receptions or other events. I've never lived anywhere with a volunteer fire dept though, so maybe it's more common in small towns with a volunteer system.

    2. Tara in a small town Maryland: Our local volunteer fire department has a fire hall, which has multiple bays for the fire engines and other equipment, as well as a large public meeting space. The fire marshal is a county office, involved in enforcement, as well as, I presume, investigation.

  6. There's a fire-related term you've not commented on (maybe because there's no difference). "Fire extinguishers" (of various types) and "fire blankets" (used to smother fat/oil fires, usually found in kitchens), in BrE. Are they named the same in AmE?

  7. 'Fireman' was the word in Australia when I was growing up (1960s), but it shifted to 'firefighter' in the following decades. However, another term is now often used in many contexts, including newspaper headlines: 'firey' (also 'firie'). This first appears in the Fourth Edition (2005) of the Australian 'Macquarie Dictionary'. It is not in the Third Edition (1997). Of course, it may have been in use for many years, but I think that I only became aware of the word in 1990s or early 2000s.

  8. In my corner of the world (North Carolina, in southeast US), we talk about fire apparatus as the trucks firefighters ride. There are several kinds: an engine has a pump and related equipment, a ladder has an aerial (either a platform or a stick), heavy rescue, tankers, etc. A fire company is comprised of the truck and the firefighters who are assigned to it. The fire marshal is the head of the fire prevention bureau, and the employees the fire marshal supervises are fire inspectors, who are responsible for inspecting non-residential properties for compliance with the fire code. We quit using firemen once women were hired to do the job, in 1980.

    1. I'm in New England and firefighters use apparatus here as well, but the term is largely unknown in civilian use.

  9. Historically, the word in the UK was 'fireman' but in recent years, I've noticed that this has changed to 'firefighter' on news channels etc as part of the move to remove words perceived as sexually discriminatory.

  10. "Outside cities, American ones may be volunteer-run."

    This may, or may not, be interesting. In the UK there is still one volunteer-run fire station in existence, in Peterborough. I know this as I happen to live there.

    It was formed in 1884 by a group of businessmen after they believed the efforts of the City of Peterborough Fire Brigade had been ineffective following a serious fire.

    Today, the Peterborough Volunteer Fire Brigade operates as a private fire brigade under a special contract with the Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue Service.

    There are also two full time fire stations in Peterborough as well. The last time the Volunteer Fire Brigade were called out was two days ago.

  11. In the US a fire hydrant is sometimes called a fire plug.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)