History  |  Departments   |  Categories  |  Info  |  Memory

50 years of Lisbon's motorized fire & rescue apparatus-1930 through 1979

(an history aimed non-profit private initiative)

Historical preamble - Lisbon Firefighters and their apparatus


The organizational background


Like any other large European city, more or less structured public services aimed to the suppression of fire and to provide emergency assistance existed in Lisbon since ancient times. However it is usual to set the year of 1395 (Royal Ordinance creating a dedicated Fire Service for the city of Lisbon, as part of the local Administration body) as the historical milestone for that purpose.


In the year of 1852 one organic entity, manned by full time skilled professionals, was created within the institutional framework of Lisbon’s Municipal Council (CML). Later on and until 1930 it would operate under the name of CBML-Corpo de Bombeiros Municipais de Lisboa (Lisbon Municipal Fire Department). From its evolution, under several organizational patterns, has resulted current Lisbon’s paid FD (RSB-Regimento de Sapadores Bombeiros), itself directly resulting from the upgrading of the then BSB (Batalhão de Sapadores Bombeiros), established in 1930 by conversion of then CBML.


From 1868 onwards a number of volunteer (non-paid) FDs have also been created in the capital city and also throughout the country. Those entities were founded and operated, under private law, by benevolent Humanitarian Societies whose members were private citizens motivated by community service ideals. At the end of the 70’s decade of the 20th century 7 of those independent FDs were actively operating in the city of Lisbon, out of which 6 were founded before 1935.


In the decades from the 30’s to the 70’s of last century each of Lisbon’s volunteer FDs, under the ex-BSB’s authority for operational purposes, operated in the capacity of Auxiliary Fire Division or Auxiliary First-Aid Division. The FDs under the latter category were essentially aimed to provide emergency transportation services to victims of injuries and cases of severe illness, namely with regard to destitute citizens. However the so-called Health Service was also operated by the   Auxiliary Departments, in line with an early established traditional pattern. Among other reasons this was due to the fact that a fully functional public ambulance service in Portugal would only be available to citizens in the late 20th century.


The distinction between the two categories of VFDs would however fade throughout time. In fact, from the seventies onwards, all Auxiliary (non-paid) VFDs in Lisbon were already equipped with a variety of emergency response means so that all of them were able to respond, with no practical distinction, to fire and other major incidents, along with emergency health-care transportation.


Within the scope of the operational coordination duties committed to the ex-BSB each of the volunteer FDs in Lisbon were assigned specific urban areas, were each one of those was first due for reinforcement. Some of the volunteer FDs reflected in their statutory provisions established at the time of foundation (and still do), a clear territorial scope of action within Lisbon (cases for the city-Districts of: Ajuda, Campo de Ourique, Beato, Olivais and Cabo Ruivo).


However, in the time-frame concerned by this platform, the designations adopted by those volunteer FDs did not entirely coincide with their BSB-assigned primary area of operation, which was usually wider than the urban district mentioned on the name. Furthermore in higher alarms several Auxiliary FDs would respond simultaneous by orders of the ex-BSB.


The intervention of a specific volunteer FD in fires or other incidents was then (as it is also today) activated, for each incident reported, by a phone order issued from the ex-BSB (today from the RSB), where the alarm and dispatch central is located. However the profile of the consequent turnout depends on the immediate availability of human resources at the time of call. On account (with few exceptions) of the fully volunteer nature of VFDs’ manpower the effectiveness of their response was/is much higher at night and on non-working days, where full-strength platoons are on stand-by in the fire-house.


Becoming automotive


Until the early times of automotive mobility, in the beginning of the 20th century, fire-fighters would carry their intervention resources in hand-drawn carts or animal-drawn vehicles. Like in other countries in Europe, Lisbon FDs have progressively adopted motorized apparatus for carrying personnel and equipment to the incident scene (basic gear only, initially; later on more sophisticated equipment, tailored to different operational needs).


In the process of becoming automotive an important pioneering role has to be credited to the (volunteer) FD Lisbonenses as from 1910, immediately followed by the Municipal (paid) BSB. Despite the difficulties originated on the first world war all FDs serving the city of Lisbon (both paid and volunteer) managed to increase their automotive resources along the decades of 10 and 20. This took place notably by means of the ad-hoc/one-off semi-artisanal adaptation of light-duty vehicles (then called tourism or commercial). The active life of this type of apparatus has reached the 3rd decade of the 20th century, where a formidable impetus towards the full automotive response took place, mostly with regard to the then BSB.


Compacted timeline

BSB-the apparatus


The main fact to highlight with regard to modernization of BSB’s automotive resources is the remarkable (at the time although even for today’s standards) supply contract passed to the renowned German fire apparatus builder Metz and vehicle manufacturer Mercedes Benz. It consisted in a batch of 29 vehicles of 5 different categories, with delivery taking place between 1930 and 1931.


In the same decade (more precisely in 1936/37) a second wave of acquisitions would add to the fleet a significant quantity of Morris Commercial apparatus, these consisting of 8 different categories (not clear if the body work on those apparatus was performed by local builders or if the rigs were imported in the condition of fully equipped).


It seems appropriate to celebrate 50 years of automotive modernization of Lisbon’s FDs, counting from the acquisition of the above mentioned first batch of apparatus. That event has also coincided with two important facts to highlight: the suppression of the few remaining cases of human and animal traction in the CBML and also the conversion (in 1930) of the CBML into a then militarized unit, as the name suggests: the BSB (literal translation: Fire-fighting Sappers Battalion).


Such a comprehensive renovation of the fleet (the first of the two golden eras of the then BSB for the 1930-1979 period) encompassed many categories of apparatus, including highly specialized ones by nature of response, although not any ladder trucks. This was due to the fact that a recent re-equipment had taken place a few years before (1925/27), by means of a contract for the supply of 6 Magirus trucks with pivotal wooden ladders (quite enough considering the scarce number of tall buildings in town at the time).


The second golden era, in the sense of a time with high innovation dynamics, would have to wait for the restrictions related to WW2. The new set of acquisitions (in the 50’s) led to a new and also substantial modernization of the fleet of apparatus, by means of procuring a variety of modern apparatus, with a high technical differentiation, many of those manufactured in the USA or in the UK.



Volunteer FDs-the apparatus


Lisbon volunteer FDs have also positively evolved in the time-frame 1930-1979, with regard to the modernization of their fleet of apparatus, although in a much more humble magnitude comparing to the then BSB. This illustrates well the permanent funding shortage the Portuguese VFDs, with few exceptions, have had to fight against throughout their history.


Notwithstanding the capital city’s VFDs have progressively expanded and modernized their fleets, thanks to the operation of used vehicles, usually donated and transformed (often by the Firefighters themselves) as well as (although more rarely) by purchasing brand new and well equipped apparatus, all as documented in this platform.


To be noted that some of the apparatus reaching the end of their active life in the BSB used to be donated to the volunteer FDs holding an Auxiliary Fire Division status or capacity at the time of retirement of those rigs. This procedure not only extended, in practical terms, the active life of good quality apparatus but also actively supported the capability of response of its direct beneficiaries, with regard to their assigned role of reinforcing the first due primary duties of the then BSB.



Sources and heritage


The sources related to the history of Lisbon Fire and First-Aid service Agencies are not immediately accessible and data pertaining to the vehicles that all those entities have once operated is even harder to trace and capture. For the more recent times it was possible to partially overcome the lack of a thorough and unified documental background, by means of oral information and access to preserved materials held by institutions or private citizens. For obvious reasons however this could not be achieved with regard to the older facts concerned.


With regard to the volunteer FDs some relevant documentation is kept in small or still embryonic historical nucleus, not all of these however open to the public (case for the FDs Lisboa, Ajuda, Campo de Ourique and Lisbonenses).The LBP (nationwide League of Portuguese Firefighters) runs a History and Heritage Nucleus where additional and rare to find information can also be sourced from.


As for Lisbon’s paid FD (RSB currently; a public service under CML- Lisbon’s Municipal Council) abundant informative resources do exist. The pictorial and written records concerned used to be available, on a case-by-case basis, from the Museu do Bombeiro de Lisboa (MBL) which is an organic division of the RSB. Important information necessary for putting this platform forward was released by the Museum, following formal request submitted, with a remarkably and commendable cooperative attitude.


The start-up of the (then CBML) museum took place back in 1929. In the year of 2004 it was re-located from provisional facilities to a modern and large multi-storey building, designed for that specific purpose. By that time and without favour the museum was certainly one of the best (if not the very best) Fire Service museums in Europe. It then permanently hosted an asset of automotive and other equipment that would place it in the first league of the Fire Service museums, worldwide. More than 40 apparatus from different eras were then under preservation (partially under exhibit), some of those in a good or at least fairly reasonable condition. Those vehicles represented several centuries and decades, particularly the 1930-1079 covered by this initiative, while also exemplifying different operational profiles for the rigs concerned.


Most regretfully the museum was closed and the facilities sold in 2015. Its outstanding historical asset (namely the apparatus) was scattered among several places in town, thus back to the pre-2004 condition, as far as access by the public is concerned. At the time this platform is launched no continuity-aimed initiatives are known with the purpose to clarify the long term prospects of the museum, while also securing the valuable assets entrusted to it and the public service duties concerned.


With regard to Lisbon’s volunteer FDs only the VFD Ajuda keeps and actively preserves a retired apparatus, still is good running order and

able to participate in parades and public events: a Willys 1/4 Ton jeep, portrayed herein.

The feasibility of the present initiative was only possibly thanks to the convergence of many generous contributions, of both institutional nature (RSBMBL, VFDs, LBP) and private origin, the latter including fire-fighters and fire service supporters, historians and other active observers attracted to or familiar with the subjects concerned by this platform. The LIS50 team is highly thankful to all those entities and persons.


Some of the images (photos and other images) depicted herein are privately owned or sourced mainly from: the   Museu do Bombeiro de Lisboa, some of the FDs represented and the Liga dos Bombeiros Portugueses; and also, with due ownership acknowledgment, through internet open access from the site Arquivo Fotográfico da CML-Câmara Municipal de Lisboa and the blogs Restos de Colecção and Fotold. See also the Info tab of this platform. See also the Info tab of this platform.


Except as a consequence of an unfortunate mistake the author or the owner of each photo is duly and directly credited. With regard to the pictures supplied by the Museu do Bombeiro de Lisboa and as per agreement: the ones concerning the preserved apparatus (ie: the ones integrating the museum’s historical asset) are represented in full colour; all other apparatus (records exist, although the vehicle is not a part of the museum’s asset) are displayed under a sepia shade.


The presentation of the FDs in this platform follows the order of the respective date of establishment or historical legacy (image series A, B, C, D, E, F, G and H, respectively). For each one of the 8 FDs represented herein it was also intended that the sequence of the images reflects the starting date of active service duty (or of manufacturing in the absence of that one) for each apparatus illustrated (ie: 01, 02…). However providing a precise date was not always possible of confirmed beyond doubt. On top of that the reference number of all pictures added on post-2016 updates do not necessarily respect a strict time sequence.


Whereas relevant, notably where evidence suggests a new wave of modernization for the FD concerned, additional images are provided, at the end of each series. These regard a number of apparatus which visual reference exits although it is known or assumed that those have only seen active duty in the decades immediately after the time-frame selected for this platform (ie: operation in the 1980-1999 period); in such cases the pictures follow a numerical sub-series starting by 9, for each of the FDs concerned.


© LIS50 | 2016  50 years of Lisbon’s motorized fire & rescue apparatus - 1930 through 1979 //  (an history-aimed, not-for-profit private initiative)


For the sake of preserving historical accuracy: all relevant institutional and individual contributions, aimed to improve or to add, on either factual data

or image content, are welcome - lis50.info@gmail.com