A fireman's pole is a pole installed in fire stations which are more than two stories tall, so that firemen can slide rapidly down the pole to reach the equipment on the ground floor. Today, most fire stations are one story tall, so the fireman's pole is not necessary, but some older two story stations still have poles in place, and a number of museums dedicated to the history of firemen also have such poles on display.
The idea of the fireman's pole appears to have emerged in the 1870s in Chicago, Illinois. Originally, fire stations had at least two levels, to have an area to stable horses and store equipment, and to have an area for the firemen to live and lounge. When a fire call came in, the crew of the station was forced to race down the stairs, sometimes creating a pileup and significantly slowing their response time.
An anonymous fireman stationed somewhere in Chicago presumably realized that it would be faster to just leap down to the ground floor, but that this could be very dangerous. By installing a pole, firemen could jump to the floor below while using the pole to control their descents, ensuring that they arrived safely. While the first firehouse with a pole was undoubtedly a subject of mockery, the invention quickly caught on, because it cut response times down, allowing firemen to get to fires more quickly.
The earliest fireman's poles were wooden, but most stations rapidly switched to polished brass. Wood carries a significant splintering risk, even when well cared for, and it creates more friction, which would have slowed the descent of fire crews. Brass and other metals do not splinter, and provide less friction, allowing people to move down more quickly; plastics can also be used to make fireman's poles, for the same reason. Obviously, in addition to a pole, a fire station would have had stairs, for getting back up to the upper story or stories.
Today, the fireman's pole is viewed as a bit of an anachronism. Many fire departments are concerned that such poles could be dangerous, as there is a risk of falling, and they have encouraged single story construction and the removal of poles from their facilities so that firemen do not hurt themselves. However, the fireman's pole has become an iconic symbol, and such poles can be seen on playgrounds and in other locations as well.