Philadelphia F.D. Marks A Century of Service
The Philadelphia Fire Department is celebrating its 100th anniversary, and long before the year is out, every man, woman and child in the Philadelphia area will be aware of the department’s “century of service.”
From Commissioner James J. McCarey to the newest recruit, every member of the over 3,000-man department is involved in developing total citizen involvement in the centennial— an approach that has been fundamental in winning numerous fire prevention awards for the department.
A blue and gold fire department seal designed for the centennial year is prominently displayed in the commissioner’s office, and reproductions will appear at every department community activity this year, as well as on the department’s specially designed stationery, with the slogan, “A century of service.”
Service goes back to 1736
The Philadelphia Fire Department went into operation March 15, 1871, and the men take pride in the fact that the paid department is a descendant of the Union Fire Company, which was organized by Benjamin Franklin on December 7, 1736. In 1871, the Union Fire Company became Engine 8, one of 22 engine companies in the paid department. It is still operating today, but as one of 67 engine companies in Philadelphia. The original five ladder companies, designated by the letters A through E, have grown to 32 ladder companies. Today’s department also includes 19 rescue companies and three fireboats.
The centennial activities opened with a reception for the centennial committee, which is headed by John T. Gurash, chairman of the board of the Insurance Company of North America. The committee members are all prominent in the civic, industrial, religious, business and educational life of Philadelphia. None is a member of the fire service, so each committeeman, including John Cardinal Krol, archbishop of Philadelphia, received an honorary deputy chief’s badge at the reception.
The more formal start of the round of centennial year activities was a dinner in honor of the fire department given by the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce on March 15, exactly 100 years to the day since the paid department began operations and the outside alarm bells to call the volunteer firemen were stilled by the telegraph alarm system.
Mayor James H. J. Tate of Philadelphia spoke at the dinner, and Edward F. Hubbard, vice president and general manager of the Philadelphia Gas Works talked about the establishment of a burn center at St. Agnes Hospital in Philadelphia. Harold Wessel, C. of C. president, presided at the dinner and John Facenda of Station WCAU-TV was master of ceremonies.
For the rest of the year, the Philadelphia Fire Department will make its centennial a part of every major public event in the city. The Eastern Association of Fire Chiefs will convene in Philadelphia June 3-5. On the night of June 4, the Ringling Bros, and Barnum & Bailey circus will honor the Philadelphia Fire Department, and the profits for that night will be donated to help establish the burn center at St. Agnes Hospital, which has been doing burn research for three years. It is expected that the center will serve the states of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey and New York and the District of Columbia.
Since December, Philadelphia fire fighters in each of the 13 battalions have been making floats depicting some phase of modern or oldtime fire fighting to show the evolution of the department from the hand pumper of the early volunteers through the days of the horse-drawn steam pumpers of the volunteers and paid men to the latest motorized apparatus. Each battalion usually builds a float for Fire Prevention Week, but this time, an early start was made so that the floats could be used in the many centennial events.
The first parade of floats preceded the Chamber of Commerce dinner, and the floats will be either in a parade or on display at such events in Philadelphia this year as the Eastern Association of Fire Chiefs conference, the United States Conference of Mayors, and the International Fire Buffs Associates convention July 15-17.
A statue of Benjamin Franklin, sculptured by Reginald Beauchamp, assistant to the president of the Philadelphia Bulletin, will be unveiled at 4th and Arch Streets, where Engine 8 is located and about a block from Franklin’s grave. The United States Mint is across the street, and school children will cover the statue with new pennies. Upon pressing a button, the statue will announce different fire prevention messages. This part of the centennial celebration was sponsored by the Poor Richard Club, the advertising men’s club in Philadelphia. Later on, the statue will be placed in the side yard of Engine 8.
Throughout the year, the Fire Prevention Division will mark the centennial year at all its activities. In addition to the usual school, hospital, nursing home, industrial, high-rise building and Junior Fire Department programs, the division will celebrate the centennial in its booths at such affairs as the flower, home, auto, boat and sportsmen’s shows, as well as many others. Holiday programs, such as Christmas tree disposal, Christmas time hazards, Halloween, Independence Day, will include literature with the centennial seal and motto.
Among the newspaper, TV and radio publicity events planned was a half-hour documentary scheduled to be shown on WFIL-TV around the anniversary date in March.
Centennial book covers
Some 50,000 school children will be reminded of the anniversary through book covers sponsored by Bell Telephone and the Philadelphia Gas Works. Printed in red on white stock, there is a picture of galloping horses hauling a steam pumper on the front and drawings of old and modern apparatus on the back with 1871-1971 bracketing a drawing of a Union Fire Company fireman.
Matchcover-type first aid kits to be given out at the department’s booth at various exhibitions bear the words: “Soaring 70’s or Sorry 80’s?” on the front and “Philadelphia Fire Department has been saving lives for 100 years” on the back.
Before the decision to form a paid fire department was made, there apparently was a good deal of debate and much resistance by the volunteers, who held a good deal of political influence. As one writer of those times wrote, “the volunteer department was a power.” However, spirited rivalry among the volunteer companies “led to constant disorders and breaches of the peace” that made the formation of the paid department inevitable.
Paid department formed
The ordinance creating the Philadelphia Fire Department on January 3, 1871, established a board of seven commissioners, a chief engineer, five assistant engineers and “as many foremen, enginemen, hosemen, hook and ladder men, and other persons, to be divided into companies, as the number of engines and other fire apparatus belonging to the City shall from time to time require.”
The commissioners, who served without compensation, had to be “not under thirty years of age.” The minimum age for members of the department was 21, and they had to be voters in Philadelphia before appointment.
The annual salaries established by the ordinance were $2,500 for the chief engineer, $1,200 for enginemen, $800 for firemen, $750 for tillermen and drivers, $450 for foremen, and $360 for hose and hook and ladder men. Incidentally, pay day came once a month.
The ordinance authorized the commissioners “to organize a department to consist of not exceeding twentytwo steam fire engines, and five hook and ladder companies; and thereafter such number of companies” as the city government may later authorize.
Each engine company was authorized to have “one engineman, one fireman and one driver, who shall be permanently employed, and who shall at all times be in and about the engine house, except when unavoidably absent, and shall also have one foreman and eight hosemen.” The ladder companies had one driver and one tillerman, who were permanently employed and had to be in the truck house at all times, plus one foreman and 10 members.
In those days, horses were an important part of the fire department. The Philadelphia ordinance provided for four horses for engine companies and two for ladder companies. Each engine company, according to the ordinance, consisted of “at least one steam fire engine, one hose carriage, one thousand feet of hose . . .” On December 17, 1927, the last run was made by horses in the Philadelphia Fire Department.
There also was a provision for up to four extra men for engine companies and up to six for ladder companies. These men went on duty in the absence of the regular men and were paid at the same rate. However, the pay for the extra men was deducted from the monthly salary of the absentees. If the extra men were “worthy and competent,” they were eligible to fill a permanent vacancy in the company to which they were attached.
One of the bright spots in the life of a Philadelphia fireman in those days was a “vacation, not exceeding two weeks in any one year, under such terms” as the commissioners thought “expedient.”
While “going to, while at, and returning from any fire,” the commissioners, chief engineer, assistant engineers and foremen were “authorized to exercise the powers of a police officer.” The ordinance also declared it to be unlawful to “hinder or obstruct an Engine, or Hook and Ladder Company or any members thereof, or officers of the Department, from freely passing along the streets of the city, to or from a fire, or in any manner hinder or prevent any of the said fire companies or any member or officer of the department from operating at any fire.”
This is how the paid department began in Philadelphia, and in the succeeding 100 years it has upheld the trust and faith that the city fathers placed in the department. This is the Philadelphia Fire Department’s year to take pride in the past and look forward to the challenges of the next hundred years.
Philadelphia Fire Department photos