New York Marks 100th Anniversary As Professional Department
—official FDNY photo
Largest single fire organization in world has been long recognized as pacesetter in its field
EMPLOYING over 13,000 uniformed men and operating 367 companies plus 25 special units, the Fire Department of the City of New York celebrates its centennial as a paid department this month. The history of the department from the early Dutch period to the present day, is a record not equalled in fire service annals.
The story properly begins when the foundations of the city were being laid. The settlers of New Amsterdam made provision almost from the first for protection against fire. So firmly was the necessity implanted in the minds of the founders and their descendants, that New York has never neglected its fire department. The loss of property by conflagrations was a calamity to which the city had been peculiarly exposed in its early days. The houses, for many years, were built exclusively of wood—including the chimneys—and roofs were thatched with reeds or straw.
The first fire prevention ordinance, in 1648, prescribed fines for dirty chimneys and provided that funds secured in this way should be used for the purchase of buckets, hooks and ladders. The ordinance established a fire watch of eight men and required all adult men to stand watch in their turn. The records show that 250 leather buckets made by New Amsterdam cobblers were bought in 1658 and distributed to the householders, who were required to turn out with their buckets on hearing an alarm of fire.
In December 1697, it was ordered that “two persons in every ward of this city be appointed as viewers of chimneys and hearths, to inspect the same once a week; upon finding a defect, to give notice that such be repaired; if a person refuse, he to forfeit the sum of 3 shillings, one-half to the city, the other half to the viewers. If any person’s chimney be on fire after such notice, he shall forfeit the sum of 40 shillings; if the viewers neglect to perform their duty, they forfeit the sum of 6 shillings, and others shall be appointed in their place.” The viewers and overseers were the first persons appointed to perform fire prevention inspection duty. There was as yet no organized fire company and the fire fighters were the entire adult male population.
It was not until 1731 that two handoperated pumpers were ordered from Thomas Newsham, a London fire engine builder. The engines arrived on the ship Beaver in December of 1731, and were stationed at City Hall, Nassau and Wall Streets.
The room provided in City Hall was found to be too small and consequently, in 1736, the corporation ordered a fire station built. This building, the first engine house in the city, was in the middle of Broad Street, halfway between Wall Street and Exchange Place. It is shown on a map of the city made by David Grim in 1742.
The General Assembly of the colony, in December 1737, passed an act “For the Better Extinguishing of Fires that May Happen within the City of New York.” This required the Common Council of the city to “elect, nominate and appoint strong, able, discreet, honest and sober men (not exceeding 42 in number)…to have the care, management, and working of said fire engines, and other tools and instruments for extinguishing of fires.” With the publishing by proclamation in September 1738, of the names of the first 35 men appointed by the mayor and council, the volunteer fire department was established in the City of New York, these men taking charge of the two engines.
Under an act of incorporation passed by the State Legislature on March 29, 1798, the department was reorganized and incorporated as “The Fire Department of the City of New York.” The department developed and expanded under this charter until superseded by the paid Metropolitan Fire Department in 1865. When mustered out, the volunteer service consisted of 52 engine, 54 hose and 17 ladder companies, with a force of 16 chief officers and 3778 company officers and firemen. Most of the officers and firemen of the new paid service were recruited from the volunteers.
One hundred-year history begins
For several years there had been agitation for a paid department for New York City for the advantages it would bring, but efforts to supersede the volunteers were not successful until the Civil War drew to a close. The act to create a “Metropolitan Fire District and Establish a Fire Department” was passed by the Legislature on March 30th, 1965. By this law the Metropolitan Fire District was established as a state-controlled organization, and included the cities of New York and Brooklyn. The Board of Metropolitan Fire Commissioners were appointed by the governor and made their reports to him.
—photo by James Heffernan
After the constitutionality of the law had been decided by the Court of Appeals in May 1865, the Metropolitan commissioners proceeded with the disbandment of the New York volunteers. By the end of November they had completed their work of organizing full-paid “Metropolitan companies” in the territory south of 86th Street, with “Suburban companies” to cover the district from 86th Street to the Harlem River, the city’s northern boundary.
—Wide World photo
The 123 companies of the volunteer department were replaced by 34 Metropolitan engine and 12 Metropolitan ladder companies, and five Suburban engine and three Suburban ladder companies. On January 1, 1868 these suburban companies, each of which received $1,000.00 a year for their services, were susperseded by Metropolitan companies and the establishment of the full-paid service was completed in the entire area of the city as it was then constituted.
The Metropolitan fire commissioners continued the services of the volunteer companies in the City of Brooklyn. During the time the Metropolitan board had jurisdiction over the Brooklyn organizations—the eastern district and western district fire departments— no move was made by them to establish paid service in the areas covered by these volunteers.
Each of the Metropolitan engine companies was equipped with horsedrawn steam fire engine and horsedrawn tender, and the ladder companies had horse-drawn city-service ladder trucks of the tiller type. The original companies consisted of two officers and 10 men—engineers, stokers, drivers, tillermen and firemen. The working schedule was continuous duty, with one day off a month and three hours daily for meals.
After the establishment of the fullpaid companies in the “suburban district” and the disbandment of Engine 1, in 1868, following explosion of its steamer on the Bowery (killing seven persons), the department consisted of 38 engine and 15 ladder companies, under command of Chief Engineer Elisha Kingsland, Assistant Chief Joseph L. Perley, and 10 district engineers. On January 1, 1870 the title of chief engineer was changed to chief of department; three chiefs of brigade were appointed to command the three brigades into which the nine battalions were divided, and the district engineers became chiefs of battalion.
Separate departments created
The act which created the Metropolitan Fire Department was not a popular one and, at the instigation of the New York City delegation, a lengthy investigation into the management of the department was conducted by the Legislature in 1868. In addition, the people of Brooklyn were not happy with the conduct of the Metropolitan commissioners in not inaugurating plans for a paid fire service in the eastern and western districts. Their efforts to divorce themselves from the Metropolitan district resulted in the passage of an act signed by the governor on May 5, 1869, creating the paid fire department of the City of Brooklyn.
The “Tweed” Charter of 1870 replaced the Metropolitan Fire Department with the Fire Department of the City of New York, the change being effective April 11, 1870. The department then became a municipally controlled organization, with commissioners appointed by the mayor. Chapter 335 of the Laws of 1873—the “Charter of the Committee of Seventy”—created a new board of fire commissioners and legislated out of office all officers of the department above the rank of captain. Chief Joseph L. Perley was named civilian head of the department by Mayor Havemeyer, being the first chief of department to be named commissioner. Assistant Chief Eli Bates was promoted to chief of department, and all but five of the other chief officers were reappointed.
—official FDNY photo
—photo by James Heffeman
The first enlargement of the territory protected by the FDNY came in 1874 with the annexation of that part of Westchester County lying between the Harlem River and the boundries of Yonkers and Mount Vernon, an area equal in extent to the entire city below the Harlem. The territory included the Towns of Morrisania, West Farms and Kingsbridge, and a dozen villages. On annexation, six engine and two ladder companies of the FDNY were ready for service as replacements of the several volunteer departments. The year 1895 saw the expansion of the City and County of New York to the east of the Bronx River, with the annexation of the villages of Wakefield, Unionport, Westchester and Williamsbridge. Four paid engine companies took the places of these volunteers.
The Charter of the Greater City of New York which became effective on January 1, 1898, consolidated the counties of New York, Kings, Richmond and part of Nassau into one municipality and the fire department faced the tremendous task of merging three paid departments, and coordinating the operations of 119 companies and 3775 members of 21 volunteer departments.
There were 10 separate fire alarm systems; no standardization of apparatus and equipment; civil service regulations varied widely; there were countless rules, regulations, ordinances and laws to be put into workable codes and manuals. The single fire commissioner of New York assumed overnight the responsibilities of not less than 20 superseded officials.
On the eve of consolidation, the force in “Old New York”—the area now included in the boroughs of Manhattan and the Bronx—consisted of 1223 men in three divisions and 14 battalions. The 210 pieces of apparatus and three fireboats in service were operated by 64 engine companies, 22 ladder companies and three water tower units. One ladder and nine engines were double companies. There were six separate fire departments in Richmond, with 41 companies and 1742 men. The Queens units totaled 15 departments, 63 companies and 2033 men.
The Department of Fire of the City of Brooklyn had experienced a remarkable growth from October 15, 1869, when the paid force was established, to the time of consolidation with the FDNY. The territory protected was greatly enlarged by the annexation of the five towns which took in all of Kings County outside of the original city limits; the 19 fire stations of 1869 increased to 70, and the uniformed force grew from less than 200 men to 989. When consolidated with the FDNY, the Brooklyn department consisted of 16 districts (battalions), 56 engine companies (two fireboats), 22 hook and ladder companies and one water tower company. Long Island City had five engine and three hook and ladder companies. These units were formerly inducted into the FDNY on January 28, 1898, and were organized in four divisions and 17 battalions, under the command of James Dale, former chief of the Brooklyn Fire Department, as deputy chief-in-charge, Brooklyn and Queens; Chief W. H. Delehanty, of Long Island City, was assigned as deputy chief of the 9th Division.
It was not until 1904 that definite steps were taken to extend the paid department to Queens and Richmond (Staten Island). Commissioner N. J. Hayes then requested budget funds for a start on the program and selected Staten Island and the Rockaways for the first conversions. Five engines and a ladder company went into service on the Rockaway peninsula in September and November of 1905, and on October 1st and November 1, 1905, eight engines, five ladders and one hose company replaced 48 volunteer units of the North Shore, Edgewater and Tottenville departments on Staten Island.
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New York Marks 100th Anniversary
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In Queens the paid service was further extended to Jamaica and Richmond Hill in 1907; Flushing and College Point in 1908; Newtown in 1913; Woodhaven 1915; Hollis, Queens Village, St. Albans and Creedmore in 1921; and to Douglaston and Little Neck in 1929.
In the boroughs of Richmond and Queens a professional fire fighting force of 103 engine, ladder, marine and rescue companies, with more than 3000 officers and men, had been established.
In addition to the companies placed in service in Queens and Richmond since consolidation, 94 additional companies have been established in the boroughs of Manhattan, the Rronx and Brooklyn, giving the department a total of 215 engine, 130 ladder, nine marine, nine squad and four rescue companies, stationed in 280 houses throughout the five boroughs. These companies, with their auxiliaries, such as ambulances, floodlights, tenders, thawing apparatus, mask service and communication units, are organized in two area commands, 13 divisions and 47 battalions, with a uniformed force of more than 13,000 officers and men.
After the merger of the New York, Brooklyn and Long Island City Fire Departments in 1898, the paid establishment had in service and reserve 167 steam fire engines; 78 ladder trucks; 154 hose tenders; seven water towers; 11 chemical engines and 32 fuel tenders—all horse-drawn. The volunteer companies operated 81 pieces of horse-drawn apparatus. The only self-propelled equipment were the six fireboats.
The first automobile used in the department was a Locomobile steam carriage, purchased in 1902 by Chief E. F. Croker to replace the horse-drawn buggy assigned to the chief of department. In July of 1904 two gasoline-powered “automobile carriages” were purchased for the commissioner and the chief of department, these being the first motor vehicles owned by the department.
Motor-propelled fire apparatus was introduced into the FDNY late in 1909 when a Knox high-pressure hose tender was installed at Engine 72. The initial extensive purchase of motorized apparatus was made in 1912. Three years later Commissioner Robert Adamson commented that the department was then 50 percent motorized, with 283 pieces of automobile equipment and 280 horse-drawn apparatus.
On December 20, 1922 Assistant Chief Joseph Martin transmitted a signal from the alarm box in front of the Brooklyn Borough Hall that marked the end of an era—the last run of horse-drawn fire apparatus in the City of New York. When the steamer and hose tender of Engine 205 returned from this run to quarters in Pierrepont Street the company apparatus was a motor combination pumper. The Fire Department of the City of New York was 100 percent motorized.
During the past 10 years, under the administration of Mayor Robert F. Wagner, all overage apparatus has been replaced with equipment of the most modern types and the department is now provided with 790 motorized vehicles, with an average age of 11 1/2 years for pumpers and aerial ladders. Seven new fireboats have been purchased during this period and only one steam-powered fireboat remains, the other nine being diesel-electric or straight diesel. Included in the apparatus fleet are 154 aerial ladders, of which 102 are all-metal, hydraulically powered, in sizes from 85 to 145 feet extended length; 352 pumping engines; 115 pieces of special service types and miscellaneous vehicles; and 169 executive and chief officer cars and station wagons.