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Heroes of Ground Zero

Firehouse Primer

1. What is the origin of the odd-shaped firefighter hat?

In 1731, Jacobus Turck, the caretaker of the department's fire engines, made a leather stovepipe hat -- similar to the one Abraham Lincoln would famously wear -- for use by firemen. Hats were made of various materials: wool, felt, papier-mâché, and oil cloth, but none of these materials was as effective as leather, and in 1762, all members of the force were required to wear leather hats while on duty. Badges on the front of the hats were used to identify firefighters and help facilitate operations involving multiple companies. In 1824, fireman/saddle maker Matthew DuBois added a metal wire to strengthen the brim. The final, now-familiar design was developed by New York Fire Department Foreman Henry Gratacap, who set up his own helmet factory in 1836. Today the helmets that firefighters wear are typically made out of fiberglass composites, and feature a fold-down plastic eye shield attached to the front brim.

2. What is the difference between an "engine" and a "ladder"?

A fire engine and a ladder truck are two different types of firefighting apparatus, each with its own set of responsibilities. Fire engines are in charge of deploying the hose lines, and are equipped with a water tank, a pump to propel the water, and various hoses. The standard FDNY engine has a 1000 GPM pump and a 500-gallon water tank. Meanwhile, the ladder crew is in charge of entering the building, providing necessary ventilation, and performing search and rescue operations. Each ladder company is equipped with a number of forcible entry tools for breaking into buildings, as well as extrication equipment for the purpose of releasing trapped fire victims. The FDNY employs three types of ladder apparatus: 75 and 95-foot tower ladders; 100-foot rearmounts; and 100-foot tractor-trailers with tillers. Every ladder company carries 16, 24, and 35-foot extension ladders, a 20-foot straight ladder, 12 and 20-foot straight hook ladders, and a 10-foot folding ladder.

3. Why are fire engines red?

Before firefighting was a paid profession, most communities were served by volunteer fire departments. These firemen didn't have much money to spend on upkeep, and at the time red was the least expensive color of paint. Red wasn't the only color used, however. Before it merged with the force in Manhattan, the Brooklyn Fire Department painted its apparatus a two-tone green to distinguish them from the red apparatus of the Metropolitan Fire Department. Today, there are still different colored fire engines, but red is the most common color out of tradition.

4. Why does the fire department respond when I call for an ambulance?

That has to do with the 1996 merger of the Fire Department of New York and the city's Emergency Medical Service. Before the twentieth century, emergency medical care involved horse-drawn ambulances being dispatched by telegraph from the Centre Street branch of Bellevue Hospital. By 1909, the Board of Ambulance Service, directed by the police commissioner, was supervising the city's ambulances. All of the city municipal ambulances were centralized under the Ambulance and Transportation Division of the Department of Hospitals in the late 1960s. The New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation took control of the Department of Hospitals in 1970, and the Ambulance and Transportation Division became the Division of Emergency Medical Services. This was later shortened to the Emergency Medical Service (EMS). On March 17, 1996, the FDNY and EMS merged, making the fire department New York City's principal pre-hospital emergency care provider and the nation's largest fire department-based emergency medical service.

5. Do firefighters wear fireproof suits? Where can I get one?

Today's firefighters wear what are called "turnouts" or "bunker" gear, named from the custom of turning them inside out and leaving them next to bunks to decrease the time it takes to put them on. In the 1990s, fire turnouts changed from what had been long overcoats and tall rubber boots to jackets and pants that more completely cover and protect the body. Firefighters still wear protective rubber boots with steel toes and soles. Modern turnouts are made with two layers - an outside layer of a material called Nomex, which is fire-retardant but not completely fireproof, and an inner, waterproof layer. Although fire gear can be ordered from a catalog or online, it is not recommended for the non-professional, as a set of turnout coat and pants can cost a thousand dollars or more.

6. Why don't they call it the NYFD?

On January 16, 1865, a bill called "An Act to Create a Metropolitan Fire District" was introduced in the State Legislature. The bill called for the establishment of a Metropolitan Fire District that would involve a paid fire department administered by a governor-appointed Board of Fire Commissioners. This Metropolitan Fire District would encompass the City of New York (Manhattan) and the Eastern and Western districts of Brooklyn. The bill passed on March 30, 1865 and, despite legal attempts to bar the creation of the paid department by the volunteer force, the new department assumed the duty of extinguishing all the District's fires. A few years later, the "Tweed Charter" of April 5, 1870 abolished state control over New York City, effectively eliminating the Metropolitan Fire District and the state-controlled Board of Fire Commissioners. A new Board of Fire Commissioners was established that would be appointed by the mayor, and the old Metropolitan Fire Department became the Fire Department of the City of New York. The order of this title, which places the words "Fire Department" before "New York," is not common, and resulted in the initials F.D.N.Y. The sign on the Mercer Street headquarters building was changed from M.F.D. to F.D.N.Y., and on May 21, 1870, the new Board of Commissioners ordered that the initials "M.F.D." on all the department's apparatus be removed and replaced with "F.D.N.Y."

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