No. 33 in an 1899 Beaux Arts firehouse by Ernest Flagg; Rescue Company 1 was
based here from its formation in 1915 until 1960.
of fire fighting in New York City is as old as the city itself. In
the Dutch colony of 1648, every able-bodied man was expected to help
put out fires (women and children often helped as well), and fire
wardens were paid to find chimneys whose lack of maintenance made
them a hazard -- an early version of fire inspections. There have
been fire regulations for building and maintenance since the English
ruled this city.
| In 1731, the
General Assembly formed the city's first volunteer fire company, of
thirty men. By 1770, the city's volunteer force numbered 170. In
1776, over a third of the city--493 houses-- was destroyed by a
series of fires that were probably the result of arson. In the years
following the American Revolution there were rarely more than ten
fires annually. By 1793, there were 367 volunteer firemen.
record of a woman working with a volunteer fire company is of Molly
Williams, an African-American woman bound through slavery to a male
member of Oceanus Engine Company #11. In the early 1800's, men vied
for the opportunity to belong to a fire company, and the fire
companies competed to be first at fires. Being a fireman was an
entry into city politics, as well as honor in itself. William M.
"Boss" Tweed got his start in politics by forming and being foreman
of Americus Engine Company no. 33.
By the 1830s, corruption and competition in the volunteer forces had
grown so rife as to interfere with the fire fighting, and a debate
was begun on creating a professional force to combat fire within the
city. In 1865, the Metropolitan Fire Department was created, serving
Brooklyn and Manhattan. The first African-American man to enter the
newly professional fire service was William H. Nicholson, appointed
in 1898. The first African American to hold an officer's rank was
Wesley Williams, who, by 1938, had attained the rank of Battalion
Chief. Greater racial integration of the Fire Department was
attained during the 1960s, and gender integration began in 1980.
The greatest losses of civilian life in New York City fires occurred
in 1876, when 295 civilians were killed in a fire at the Brooklyn
Theater on Washington Street, in 1904 when the excursion boat
General Slocum burned in the Hell's Gate section of the East
River killing 1,021 people, and in 1911, at the Triangle Shirtwaist
Factory fire, 146 civilians were killed, most of them women.
In the 136 years since the inception
of a professional fire department, through September 10, 2001, an
offical* count of 776 members of the New York City Fire Department
had been lost in the line of duty. The greatest single loss of
firefighters before September 11, 2001 occurred on October 17, 1966,
when twelve firemen were lost in a fire on 23rd Street. On September
11, 2001, that number grew to close to 1,121.