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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.
1951-2002 -- The challenges of a changing city

The FDNY battles hazardous materials, urban decay,
civil unrest, terrorists, and also the occasional fire.

1951 - Fighting Fires and Urban Decay

The department's first tower ladder went into service in 1964.
The department's first tower ladder went into service in 1964.

The modern FDNY had come a long way from the days of toting leather water buckets to four-story blazes. In fact, in 1954, the department began devoting an entire day each year to the inspection of its many and varied apparatus, called Apparatus Field Inspection Duty.

Yet, the number of fires continued to increase. As always, there was the potential for catastrophe. In June 25, 1958, the freighter Nebraska and the tanker Empress Bay - carrying 280,000 gallons of gasoline - collided shortly after midnight and caught fire directly under the Manhattan Bridge, spilling oil and igniting the entire East River between Piers 29 and 31. Regular use of the river could not resume until noon on the 27th.

On a December morning in 1960, another tragic collision took place when a United Airlines four-engine DC-8 jet with 84 people aboard and a TWA four-engine Super Constellation with 44 people aboard crashed over Staten Island. The TWA plane landed in an empty field on Staten Island, but the other plane continued in the air for another ten miles, finally careening into the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, killing six people on the ground, tearing apart multiple buildings, and setting several fires. Hardly a week later, a fire in the Brooklyn Navy Yard aboard the aircraft carrier the U.S. Constellation, one of the largest ships ever built, required over 600 firefighters to be extinguished.

Luckily, technology was working on the behalf of the FDNY, as several important firefighting tools were developed in the post-War years. In 1964, the department received the first Mack "aerialscope," Tower Ladder 1, and began using rotary power saws to cut through metal, concrete, and wood to slice ventilation holes in roofs. A year later, they received the Super-Pumper, capable of delivering 10,000 gallons of water per minute. In 1966, the department began using High-Expansion Foam (Hi-Ex), and in the '70s, flame-resistant bunker clothing was adopted, as was a new, self-contained breathing apparatus. Also, in 1972 Rescue 1 and Rescue 2 each received a Hurst Tool, more widely known as the Jaws of Life.

Still, fires across the city increased. While there had been 61,644 fires in 1961, by 1970 the figure had risen to 127,249. The city's infrastructure of buildings was aging, and New York was experiencing numerous financial problems. Much of the city's wealthier class was moving to the suburbs (between 1970 and 1980, 824,000 residents left New York, easily the largest loss ever sustained over a ten-year period by a city in this country). In 1965, there were 4000 known vacant buildings, and a growing number of vacant building fires that diverted the force's attention from fires in occupied buildings.

1968 - Turbulent Times

In the 1960s, violence directed at firefighters officially ended the days of travelling to a fire on an engine's running boards.
In the 1960s, violence directed at firefighters officially ended the days of travelling to a fire on an engine's running boards.

Meanwhile, the social upheaval of the '60s was affecting the department. On April 4, 1968, the day of Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination, looting and arson raged through areas of Harlem and Brooklyn. Fire Commissioner Robert Lowery declared "a fire emergency" on April 5 and the civil unrest continued for several days. Broken bottles and stones were thrown at responding firefighters and their apparatus, and according to a radio report three months later, 56 firemen had been hospitalized as a result of injuries inflicted by attacks from residents. Eventually, responding fire companies were escorted by police cars, and in 1969, the department initiated design changes to apparatus that would allow for "crew cabs" enabling all firemen to ride safely inside the trucks.

On March 6, 1970, two members of the Weathermen, a radical offshoot of Students for a Democratic Society, were making bombs in the basement of a Greenwich Village building when one was accidentally detonated, setting off a chain reaction of explosions that essentially leveled the building and ignited a gas main. Six days later, bombs exploded in the skyscraper offices of Mobil Oil, IBM, and GTE. Between 1965 and 1970, a total of 465 bombs were placed in the city; 98 of them never exploded, but bombs continued to be a problem throughout the 1970s. In June of 1970, piles of uncollected garbage were collecting along Sutter Avenue in Brownsville. When two men took the trash and built an enormous pile of garbage in the middle of the street, police arrested the men, spurring a riot that resulted in the firebombing of a police car and numerous rubbish fires around the area.

1981 - With the 80s, Comes Levity
Things calmed down a bit by the 1980s. In 1981, the department qualified Rescue Company 4 as its Hazardous Material Unit, and members of the company received specialized training at the National Fire Academy. Hazardous Materials Company 1 was formed in 1984 and stationed with Engine 288 in Maspeth, Queens. In 1982, the FDNY firemen became firefighters, as a Federal Court judge ruled to change the department's physical exam so that women would be able to join the force. A new test was approved, and that fall 11 women passed the new physical exam, graduated from the Training School, and were assigned around the city. In 1983, Rescue Companies 1 and 2 were officially designated as in-water firefighting teams with the capability of using SCUBA gear to perform underwater search and rescue missions. The Emergency Medical Service was created in the early 1970s, and the late 1980s, firefighters began responding to EMS calls. On March 17, 1996, EMS officially merged with the FDNY.

September 11, 2001 was the most disastrous day in the history of the fire service.
September 11, 2001 was the most disastrous day in the history of the fire service.

1993 - Trade Center Tragedies
On February 26, 1993, a terrorist-planted car bomb on parking level B-2 underneath the World Trade Center's Visa Hotel blew a giant hole in the Twin Towers' substructure, and caused a partial collapse of the PATH train station. FDNY members responded in what was at the time the largest mobilization of apparatus in the department's history. People were stranded in elevators high up in the towers, while others were trapped under debris in the building's basement. Five people were killed and over a thousand were injured, many by smoke inhalation, including forty-four firefighters.

2001 - September 11th
Sadly, this first attack on the World Trade Center was only a hint at the tragic consequences of domestic terrorism. On September 11, 2001, terrorists crashed American Airlines Flight 11 into Building 1, the World Trade Center's north tower, followed sixteen minutes later by United Airlines Flight 175's collision with the south tower. Nearly 3,000 people were killed, including 343 firefighters who were making rescue attempts within the towers at the time of their collapse. Some hope was found the next day as six firefighters were recovered, alive, from the rubble, but the disaster was by far the most catastrophic event in the history of the FDNY. Nevertheless, the department pressed on, performing grueling recovery tours at the site of the disaster for months afterwards. Meanwhile, the Fire Academy increased its class sizes, usually no more than 150, graduating over 300 new probational firefighters every three months since the attacks.

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