The Metropolitan Fire Department

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 Previous to the year 1865, New York suffered from all the evils of a volunteer fire department. It had three thousand eight hundred and ten firemen, with a proper force of engines. The various companies were jealous of each other, and there was scarcely a fire at which this jealousy did not lead to blows. Frequently the fire would be left to burn while the rival companies adjusted their difficulties. The firemen seemed to take a delight in the most disgraceful and lawless acts, and were more of an annoyance than a benefit to the city.

The New System

The bill for the organization of a Metropolitan Department became a law, by the action of the Legislature, in March, 1865. As the inauguration of the new system would be the downfall of the old, the friends of the latter resolved to resist it. A case was brought before the Court of Appeals, involving the constitutionality of the bill, and the law was sustained. Measures were set on foot to get the new system to work as soon as possible, but, in the meantime, the leaders of the opposition to it endeavored to be revenged, by disbanding the old force, and leaving the city without any means of extinguishing fires. The danger was averted, however, by promptly detailing a force from the police to act as firemen in case of necessity. By November, 1865, the new system was thoroughly organized, and fairly at work.

The Force

The department is under the charge of five commissioners, appointed by the Governor. They make rules and regulations by which the force is governed, exercise a general supervision over its affairs, and are responsible to the Legislature for their acts. There is a chief engineer, an assistant engineer, and ten district engineers. There are thirty-four steam engines, four hand engines, and twelve hook-and-ladder companies in the department, the hand engines being located in the extreme upper part of the island. Each steam engine has a force of twelve men attached to it, viz., a foreman, assistant foreman, an engineer of steamer, a driver, a stoker, and seven firemen. All the engines and carriages are drawn by horses. There are five hundred and four men, and one hundred and forty-six horses in the department. Each man is paid by the city for his services. The chief engineer receives four thousand five hundred dollars per annum, foremen of companies thirteen hundred dollars, the engineers of steamers twelve hundred dollars, assistant engineers eleven hundred dollars, and firemen one thousand dollars. The steamers were built by the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company at Manchester, New Hampshire, and are amongst the very best of the kind in use. They cost four thousand dollars apiece.

The engine houses are all connected with the Central Station by telegraph. They are models of neatness and convenience. The lower floor is taken up with the apparatus and the horses. The basement is used for storing the fuel for the steamers, and also contains a furnace, by means of which the water in the engine boilers is always kept hot. The upper floor is the dormitory. The twelve men composing the company sleep here. A watch is always kept below, so that the men above, who are allowed to go to bed after ten o'clock, may be awakened without delay. Everything is neat and ready for use. It requires but fifteen seconds in the day, and one minute at night to be ready for action, and on the way to the fire.

The men are not allowed to have any other employment to occupy their time. The department claims their whole duty. A certain number are required to be always at the engine house. In case of an alarm being sounded during the absence of a fireman from the engine house, he runs directly to the fire, where he is sure to find his company. Everything is in readiness to leave the house at a moment's notice. The horses stand ready harnessed, and are so well trained that but a few seconds suffices to attach them to the steamer. The fire needs only to be lighted in the furnace, and in a few minutes the steam gauge shows a sufficiency of power for the work to be done. Great care is taken of the horses. They are groomed every day, and carefully fed at six o'clock in the morning and at six in the evening. If not used on duty, they are exercised every day by being led to and fro through the streets in the vicinity of the engine house. They are fiery, splendid animals, and are so well trained that they will stand with perfect steadiness immediately in front of a burning building.

At Work

When an alarm of fire is given, it is at once telegraphed from the nearest station to the central office, and repeated. The central office immediately strikes a gong, by telegraph, in the house of every engine which is to attend the fire. The locality, and often the precise spot of the fire can be ascertained by these signals. For instance, the bell strikes 157, thus: one--a pause--five--another pause,--and then seven. The indicator will show that this signal or alarm is given from the corner of the Bowery and Grand street. The fire is either at this point, or within its immediate neighborhood.

There is a gong in each engine house on which the alarm is struck from the central station. As soon as the sharp strokes give the signal of danger and point out the locality, every man springs to his post. The horses are hitched in a few seconds, the fire is lighted in the furnace, and the steamer and hose carriage start for the scene of the conflagration. The foreman runs, on foot, ahead of his steamer to clear the way, and the driver may keep up with him, but is not allowed to pass him. Only the engineer, his assistant, and the stoker, are allowed to ride on the engine. The rest of the company go on foot. Fast driving is severely punished, and racing is absolutely prohibited. The men are required to be quiet and orderly in their deportment.

Upon reaching the fire communication is made between the engine and the plug or hydrant, and the work begins. The chief engineer is required to attend all fires, and all orders proceed from him. The most rigid discipline is preserved, and the work goes on with a rapidity and precision which are in striking contrast to the inefficiency of the old system.

A force of policemen is at once sent to every fire. These stretch ropes across the street at proper distances, and no one but the members of the Fire Department, who may be known by their uniforms and badges are allowed to pass these barriers. In this way the firemen have plenty of room to work, lookers on are kept at a safe distance, and the movable property in the burning building is saved from thieves.

The life of a fireman is very arduous and dangerous, and applicants for admission into the department are required to be persons of good health and good character. The men are often called upon not only to face great personal danger, but they are also subjected to a severe physical strain from loss of rest and fatigue. For a week at a time they will be called out and worked hard every night, but all the while are required to be as prompt and active as though they had never lost a night's rest. They are constantly performing acts of personal heroism, which pass unnoticed, in the bustle and whirl of busy life around them, but which are treasured up in the heart of some grateful mother, father, wife, or husband, whose loved one has been rescued from death by the fireman's gallantry.

Nor is the gallantry all on the side of the fireman. During the past year there have been numerous instances where an intrepid policeman has nobly risked his life to save some threatened fellow creature from death by fire or by drowning.


Website: The History
Article Name: The Metropolitan Fire Department
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


BIBLIOGRAPHY: The Secrets of the Great City; A work Descriptive of the Virtues and the Vices, the Mysteries, Miseries and Crimes of New York City by Edward Winslow Martin; Jones Brothers & Co., Philadelphia, Pa. 1868
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