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FDNY - A History: From volunteers to professionals, buckets to Super-Pumpers, 350 years of New York City firefighting.Photo of an old fire truck

New York's first volunteer firefighters operated for nearly a hundred years without even the most primitive fire engine.
1899 - 1950 -- Development of modern firefighting

As the Manhattan skyline races upward, New York
City firefighters must learn to climb.

1989 - Towering Infernos
The year 1898 ushered in a new era of firefighting. On midnight of January 1, 1898, Greater New York was formed by uniting the five boroughs, Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island. The Board of Fire Commissioners was replaced by a single Commissioner, John J. Scannell, who had been head of the Board since 1894 and was appointed by Mayor R.A. Van Wyck. All of the area's volunteer departments were to be replaced by the FDNY, and Chief Hugh Bonner assumed control of three paid departments: New York, Brooklyn, and Long Island; 121 engines, 46 trucks, one horse wagon, and a water tower; in all, 309 square miles of firefighting territory.

Brooklyn alone had almost a million people, making it the third largest city in the country at the time it merged with New York. So at the turn of the century, the population of New York City was 3.4 million, placing it second only to London among the world's most populous cities. More of the city was beginning to depend on gas and electricity, and as elevators came into use, buildings started growing taller, raising concerns amongst the city's fire chiefs about the department's ability to combat blazes and protect residents of these new skyscrapers. In December of 1898, a fire spread from next-door into the top of the 16-story Home Life Building. Firefighters were able to save the building, but several of the upper floors burnt out.

A year later, a stray match ignited an awful blaze in the seven-story Windsor Hotel on Fifth Avenue during the St. Patrick's Day Parade. Flames and smoke smashed through the glass windows on Fifth Avenue, as the parade froze and the crowd's collective jaws dropped. Firefighters slowly fought through the growing horde of standstill-gawkers, and were able to rescue a number of people before the front wall collapsed, killing 45.

1904 - Perils of a Modern Metropolis

146 lives were lost in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911, instigating a public outcry for reforms to they city's fire codes.
146 lives were lost in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911, instigating a public outcry for reforms to the city's fire codes.

A series of waterfront disasters culminated in 1904, when a Lutheran congregation from Manhattan chartered the pleasure-cruise ship The General Slocum to steam up the East River to the Bronx for a Sunday School picnic. As the ship passed Randall's Island, a fire broke out within the cabin; yet instead of bringing the boat to shore, the captain continued upstream and firefighters were unable to battle the blaze, as 1031 of 1400 passengers perished. For nearly a hundred years, it remained the worst disaster in New York history.

The city was becoming a more dangerous place. And while fire chiefs called for more safety measures, more lives would have to be lost before serious changes were made. On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out in a scrap bin on the eighth floor of the Asch Building. Around 700 young women, immigrants from Italy and Eastern Europe, were working on the top three floors of this ten-story building in the Triangle Shirtwaist Company's clothing factory when the fire spread to cans of machine oil and exploded. Most of those working on the eighth floor were able to escape on a freight elevator, and many on the tenth floor broke onto the roof through a skylight. Scores of others, however, fled for the fire escape, which soon overcrowded, buckled, and broke, tossing workers to the street below.

The doors to the interior stairwell were locked, in accordance with a policy to prevent theft, so the only way out was through the elevator, manned by a boy named Joseph Zito. Zito made five trips to the ninth floor, carrying 25 to 30 women down at a time. Nevertheless, desperate, smoke-choked workers jumped from windows and tried sliding down the elevator cables to safety. By the time the first fire companies arrived, they were forced to park away from the building to avoid running over the bodies. Later, over thirty corpses were found in the elevator shaft. Three men had even tried forming a human bridge from an eighth floor window across to the next building, providing an escape route across their backs for a few women before the men lost their grip and fell to the pavement.

The fire itself only took twenty minutes to extinguish, but the department had arrived too late to save 146 workers. According to Fire Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo, the fire "demonstrated forcibly the contention of the Fire Department that, while a building might be fireproof, the contents are not." Numerous fire safety laws were added in reaction to the tragedy, and in 1912 a Fire Prevention Bureau was established. The incident was also an important instigator of the labor union movement. In fact, in 1917, FDNY members organized the Uniformed Firefighters Association, which replaced the grueling 20-hour shifts firemen were working at the time with a two platoon system that divided twelve hour shifts among the company.

Meanwhile, the dangers of the 20th Century metropolis turned out to be more than just skyscrapers and poor fire-exits. In January of 1912, a fire spread through the dumbwaiter elevator system of the Equitable Building on Pine Street. Eight companies fought the fire for a half an hour before Chief John Kenlon ordered everyone out of the building. Additional companies arrived from Brooklyn, and while firefighters attempted to rescue people stranded on the roof, the building collapsed, dooming the victims on the roof as well as two firemen. Meanwhile, it took an hour and a half and fifteen saw blades to cut through the steel bars that sealed three men in the building's basement. By the time they were released, one of the men had submitted to the smoke.

1915 - Rescue 1 to the Rescue

As more chemicals and hazardous materials moved through New York harbor, the importance of the department's fireboats increased.
As more chemicals and hazardous materials moved through New York harbor, the importance of the department's fireboats increased.

Incidents like this - and a subway fire January 8, 1915 that injured hundreds when the tunnel filled with smoke - resulted in the creation of Rescue Company 1 on January 18, 1915. The country's first heavy rescue unit, Rescue 1 was outfitted with the most advanced equipment available, like Draeger Smoke Helmets and tools to release victims trapped beneath heavy debris. The unit was instrumental in controlling such disasters as a 1916 ammonia fire in the cellar of the Park and Tilford Company, a 1917 explosion of hydrogen gas aboard a submarine in the Brooklyn Naval yard that threatened to destroy the entire fleet, and the 1932 explosion in a Ritz Tower Hotel basement paint room that left eight firemen dead and another eight seriously injured.

As if the hazards of chemical fires weren't enough, New York got its first taste of another sort of menace in 1920 when a wagon filled with 100 pounds of dynamite exploded outside Morgan Bank on Wall Street, killing 38 people and injuring hundreds more. Blamed on anarchists, no arrests were ever made.

The United States had entered the global stage, and as the country entered World War II, 1832 FDNY members joined the armed forces. To help account for this, a civilian Auxiliary Corps was formed that responded on FDNY apparatus, lending support by stretching hose, operating deck pipes, and performing other miscellaneous tasks. On July 28, 1945, a B-25 Bomber, blinded by foggy conditions crashed into the 78th and 79th floor of the Empire State Building, causing three separate fires within the building and killing fourteen people. That same year, The Fireman's Medal of Supreme Sacrifice was endowed by the Uniformed Firemen's Association to be awarded annually to the families of FDNY members who die in the line of duty. By 1948, a fire alarm was transmitted every nine minutes, with an actual fire occurring every twelve minutes.

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1951- 2002 -- The Challenges of a Changing City
The FDNY battles hazardous materials, urban decay, civil unrest, terrorists, and also the occasional fire.

1648-1835 1836-1898 1899-1950 1951-2002