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By: Mark Etinger
Ancient Rome is often cited for its innovations. Whether it's local municipal infrastructure, the expansive continental roadway system, contributions to art and culture or imperial ambitions, Ancient Rome covered a lot of ground in its long tenure on the world stage. One thing that is often overlooked is its use of early versions of a police force and firefighters, both of which struggled to do their work before the advent of emergency vehicle lights.

A group called Triumviri Nocturni predated an official firefighting group or police force. Though tasked with protecting the city and putting out fires, the group consisted of privately conscripted slaves. This eventually proved ineffective, or not effective enough, in combating the woes of the city. Augustus, the first emperor of Rome, initiated the first municipal protection force, which he named the Vigiles Urbani, otherwise known as the watchmen of the city. This service was paid for by levying taxes on the sale of slaves.

As a firefighting brigade, the group was modeled after the one in ancient Egypt. They used an early version of a fire engine, pulled by horses, which included a pump and portable reservoir of water. They carried buckets, granting them the nickname, "the little bucket carriers." They used blankets soaked in water to help put out fires. They even toyed with a series of chemical fire extinguishing methods, including the use of vinegar. All of this, they did on the busy streets of the city without the aid of emergency vehicle lights. In fact, emergencies proved so harrowing that great effort was put into prevention. All citizens were required to have fire extinguishing means in their homes. Failure to do so would be met with corporal punishment.

As a police force, they acted primarily as night watchmen, though they were occasionally called in to keep the peace on the streets. This police force kept watch for thefts and runaways, again entirely without the aid of police lights or vehicle warning lights. Communicating urgency and emergencies was left entirely to the inefficient sound of their own voices.

When considering the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD, wherein a full third of the city burned to the ground, one must wonder how much more effective the Vigiles Urbani might have been had they been empowered with the use of emergency vehicle lights. In a city thrown into chaos, communicating with citizens and other emergency personnel becomes of the utmost importance. In the confusion, both police lights and rudimentary ambulance lights might very well have made transporting people and traveling to and from sites of fire a considerably smoother operation, thus potentially reducing the damage.

So, next time you see a fire truck or police cruiser shooting down the road with LED light bar blaring, consider the difference between these same forces then and now. Even small technologies can make a big difference.

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