EXPERIENCES OF NEW YORK CITY WITH AUXILIARY VOLUNTEERS
During the World War Emergency of 1914-1918, 4,000 Members Made Possible Shifting of Regular Firemen to Congested Value Sections
WHILE 26,000 courageous men and women of London’s Auxiliary Fire Service are making fire-fighting history in the beleaguered capital of England, many cities in the United States are giving serious thought to the formation of an auxiliary fire brigade to augment the regular fire force. Some of the coastal and border communities are actually working on the details of such an organization even though the United States is technically in the neutral column.
War Data Censored
In New York, a wealth of information about the splendid stewardship of the London Auxiliary Fire Service was flown to these shores on January 14 by three fire-fighting members of the New York Fire Department. However, it is still a state secret until the Mayor of New York City releases it. The knowledge gained by the New York City fire fighting scouts in London will not be publicly revealed for the present, according to an authoritative source. The information, when and if available, has been pledged to the International Association of Fire Chiefs for the enlightenment and the guidance of fire fighting America in the creation of similar services.
During World War No. 1, the City of New York had a fire auxiliary corps of approximately 4,000 men which functioned most helpfully and efficiently but which did not have to encounter or endure the war risks and the tasks which the fire fighters of England have so valiantly mastered under hazards and with fatalities hitherto unknown. In 1918, when compulsory military service drew about 500 firemen from the ranks of the New York Fire Department, the Municipal Civil Service Commission advanced the entrance age for fireman from twenty-one to twenty-eight, to thirty-one to thirty-five years inclusive, but even then there was a dearth of man power to fill the depleted ranks of the department, which at that time had approximately 5,000 officers and men on a continuous duty system.
Kenlon Formed Volunfeer Corps
The late John Kenlon, Chief of Department, obtained the approval of the late Mayor John F. Hylan for a plan to create a volunteer fire auxiliary corps composed of able-bodied citizens of good character and patriotic interest. Eli Joseph, a civic-minded industrialist, was appointed a Special Deputy Fire Commissioner, without salary, to undertake the details of the formation of such an auxiliary organization.
Through newspaper notice and personal solicitation, men ranging in age from twenty to fifty inclusive, were attracted to the opportunity to serve their city, with the expressed understanding in writing that they would not be compensated and that their service would in no way give them any right to membership in the Fire Department.
Opportunity for Fire Fans
It was a golden opportunity for a small army of New Yorkers, both native and adopted, to get out of their systems that yeomanry which had been in their blood since boyhood. Application forms were issued through the commanding officers of fire companies. Each applicant was required to state in writing his name, address, age, weight, height, occupation, experience, the hours of the days or the nights, or both, that he could devote as an auxiliary fireman, as well as the experience, if any, he might have had, such as volunteer fireman, engineer, steamfitter, plumber, chauffeur, mechanic, etc. There was no physical examination required.
The response to the appeal was so generous that in some of the outlying districts of the city, where it was demonstrated that auxiliary firemen were altruistically on the job day and night, some of the regular blueshirts of those fire companies were transferred to congested high value districts to fill the voids created by absence of draftees.
Men Given Equipment
Chief Kenlon appointed chief officers from the auxiliary force to the command of each borough-wide auxiliary unit. Captains were appointed in charge of battalion districts while Lieutenants and Sergeants were placed in charge of the members of the corps in the fire stations.
Badges of authority, together with boots and rubber coats were issued to the officers and members of the corps from the headquarters of the corps which was in an unused fire station in West 68th Street, near Broadway. Fire helmets were not issued, and at that time the trench hat was known only “over there” in the A.E.F. The auxiliary firemen wore borrowed helmets. In short, the auxiliary corps was organized along the lines similar to the regular city fire department as to personnel and performance.
The regular fire company officer was the superior of the auxiliary members on duty. The auxiliary firemen were each given a printed booklet of rules and regulations which were patterned in brief after the standard rules and regulations of the city fire department. The volunteers were not required to sign waivers of liability to release the City of New York from claims. However, a bill in the State Legislature to make the city liable died in committee.
Believe it or not, some of the auxiliary corps members were none too welcome in some of the stations in the outlying parts of the city, lest their success in recruiting result in massed transfer of the regulars to the industrial, warehouse and general commercial districts of downtown Manhattan or Brooklyn. Like many things in this world that are voluntary, some of the auxiliary lads took their enlistment as a lark for the excitement of it all. but by and large, the greater proportion of the 4,000 members were wholly in earnest.
Served Well During Week
They loved their job, and many of them took risks which the rules forbade them to take. Indeed, many were ofticially commended for their efficient services at various heavy fires. For their exceptional assistance in a Brooklyn subway wreck in November, 1918, a score of the auxiliary fellows was cited for valor by Fire Commissioner Thomas J. Drennan.
Records were made and kept in each fire station journal of the attendance of the auxiliary corps members, and daily reports of both attendance and performance were forwarded by the regular fire company officer to auxiliary headquarters.
If an auxiliary fireman became negligent or disinterested and failed to attend his fire station as pledged in his enlistment application, he was diplomatically “spoken to” and asked to make a decision, one way or another. Busy fire companies were the object of affection of many auxiliary fire fighters, even though they did not reside in or approximately near the location of that fire station. The auxiliary lads were allowed to choose their units for service and some of them made peculiar choices, depending on the personality of the commanding officer, or sometimes the general personality of the members of the fire company, or then again it might be the busy activity of the unit which attracted them.
Ex-Chief G. J. Kuss in Charge
The de facto Chief of the auxiliary corps was Division Chief George J. Kuss, F. D. N. Y., now retired and engaged in the fire appliance business. His suave and genial personality straightened many kinks and ironed out many rough spots, for the auxiliary corps was a temperamental family. Chief Kuss spent his days at Fire Headquarters in the Municipal Building and his nights at auxiliary headquarters in West 68th Street. From there an auxiliary corps squad wagon carrying 1,000 feet of 2 1/2inch hose and miscellaneous appliances, and a dozen or so auxiliary firemen, responded to all second alarms in Manhattan and to all third alarms in the Bronx. In Brooklyn and Queens, where there were still many remnants of the old volunteer fire brigades who had managed to retain their original charters, the auxiliary corps of 1918 was even more successful. Those stalwart braves known as the “Exempts” came back in full force and with rejuvenated vigor and took over several fire companies, excepting for the paid chauffeurs.
The fire department even restored the town or the village call system to summon from home those who preferred to sleep at their residences. Chiefs of former volunteer units took their white helmets out of the attic and dusted them off. The old uniforms were sent to the tailor. Then came the inevitable parades and the colorful pageantry and stunts that went with the public sale of Liberty bonds.
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If the “blitz” comes our way, God forbid, the new legion of auxiliary firemen will have a much graver and vastly different job on hand than the type of service performed twenty-three years ago by the buffs and other good citizens of New York. Much indeed is unofficially known now about the organization, the operations and the accomplishments of the London Auxiliary Fire Service in the current crisis. This information, if needs be, could be disseminated now for the preliminary formulation of auxiliary fire services in American cities, but out of deference to the valorous reconnaissance of the three New York fire fighters who spent two months under fire in bomb-shelled London, their official version is patiently and respectfully awaited by fire-fighting America.