History of the Fire Service

The history of the fire service in the United States begins in New Amsterdam (later New York), when Director-General Peter Stuyvesant appointed four fire wardens in 1648. Similar legislation followed in Boston in 1653, and this city purchased its first fire engine in 1654. Philadelphia secured an engine in 1719, and New York in 1731.

Early efforts at fire prevention and extinction relied on chimney laws, bucket brigades, simple ladders, and hand-pumped engines imported from Europe, all manned by loosely organized volunteers. Actual fire companies and departments, however, were active in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia early in the eighteenth century. Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson, as well as other prominent men, were among the ranks of these early volunteers.

Alarms of fire in the early period were given verbally and by rattles, gongs, and bells. The fire alarm telegraph system, with its distinctive fire boxes, developed gradually. Today there are paid dispatchers, radio pagers, the Emergency 911 telephone network, and voice-activated emergency response system street boxes.

The labor of firefighting was divided from the beginning. Hose companies supplied water to the engines and they, in turn, applied it to the fire. Hook and ladder companies were responsible for rescue, ventilation, and overhaul. It is much the same today. Similarly, the helmets, turnout coats, boots, axes, and so on used today closely resemble their predecessors.

Despite their energy, skill, enthusiasm, and dedication, volunteers in large cities were unable to control major fires. A typical example is New York: large portions of the city were destroyed in 1776, 1835, and again in 1845. Even so, the volunteers stubbornly defended their system and hand-drawn equipment against the critics.

By the mid-nineteenth century, urban volunteer fire departments in this country had reached their zenith. They were well organized and, for the most part, effective firefighting forces. But they were also excessively large, racked by dissension and rowdyism, and unwilling to adopt the new technology of the steam engine. This resistance to change, well-publicized fights, and pressure from insurance companies and influential citizens led to the end of the volunteer system in large cities. Politics, ethnic tension, greater fire risks, increasing population, and a decline in the quality of membership were also factors in the change from volunteer to professional firefighters. The transition was not an easy one, however, and the volunteers sometimes fought with their paid successors. In New York the problem was exacerbated by the traditional practice of using nonfiremen, or "runners," to augment the regular force of some three thousand men. These runners, of dubious character and intensely loyal to individual companies, were often only too ready to engage in fights with rival companies. Responding to criticism of the new steam engines by most of his contemporaries, Cincinnati's chief engineer, Miles Greenwood, reportedly said that steamers didn't get drunk or throw brickbats. He apparently felt their only drawback was that they couldn't vote.

With a successful self-propelled steam engine in service ("Uncle Joe Ross"), Cincinnati instituted the first paid department in 1853. New York followed in 1865 and Philadelphia in 1871. It should be noted, though, that many former volunteers filled the ranks of these early departments. Elisha Kingsland, long a volunteer, served as New York's first paid chief engineer.

A paid department, however, did not guarantee that major fires could be quickly and successfully controlled. Witness the devastating fires that occurred in Chicago, 1871; Boston, 1872; Baltimore, 1904; and San Francisco, 1906. Nevertheless, paid departments did offer the following advantages: a constant labor force, modern equipment, greater discipline and efficiency, selective response, and improved alarm systems.

Twentieth-century firefighters, both volunteer and paid, benefited from three technological advances: the internal combustion engine, radio communication, and self-contained breathing apparatus (scba). As technology advanced, however, risks also increased. The large fires of yesterday were certainly dangerous, but they were not fueled by toxic chemicals, petroleum distillates, and radioactive material, sometimes in a skyscraper setting. As a result, two distinctively modern firefighting units have evolved in large cities: hazardous materials and high-rise. Some departments also have rescue units, fire boats, and ambulance service.

Fire protection in the United States today is provided by volunteer and paid firefighters, male and female, acting both separately and in concert. Volunteer departments greatly outnumber paid ones at present, but the fire service continues to change. In many suburban and rural areas, volunteer departments are in peril. Recruiting and retaining members is becoming increasingly difficult because of the high cost of housing, strict training requirements, population mobility, and distant employment. The coming decades will bring more paid departments, greater reliance upon female firefighters during the day, and increased interdepartmental cooperation via the mutual aid system.

Another factor that affects today's firefighter is the keen competition for the taxpayer's dollar; regrettably, this often revives the old rivalry between volunteers and professionals. Municipal governments and their constituents are faced with the huge costs of apparatus and equipment, insurance, and building maintenance. Volunteer departments have traditionally provided low-cost fire protection, but it remains to be seen if they can continue to do so.

Twentieth-century firefighters, like their early counterparts, endure extremes of heat and cold, enjoy parades, and curse false alarms. Having adopted the cross worn by the medieval Knights of Malta as their emblem, they also continue to save lives and property on a daily basis.

Donald J. Cannon, general ed., Heritage of Flames (1977); Paul C. Ditzel, Fire Engines, Firefighters (1976); Dennis Smith, Dennis Smith''s History of Firefighting in America (1978).

Thomas J. Dunnings, Jr.