Article includes
interactive timeline

Laying the Groundwork: 1865 – 1945

image description

Firefighters ready for fire after alarm is received at the housewatch desk.


Under the Metropolitan Fire Department, the New York State governor had control over the Board of Fire Commissioners in the cities of Brooklyn and New York. The fire departments in those two cities operated separately under the guise of the MFD and were not incorporated into one department until the Greater City of New York was consolidated in 1898.

After John Decker retired, Elisha Kingsland was elected Chief Engineer. In 1867, he was replaced by General Shaler, who converted the MFD into a well-organized department operating with military precision. He required prospective firemen to have a public school education and pass a physical exam. Officers and engineers had to take classes training them in their respective duties. By 1883, this type of instruction included all firemen, who were trained at the School of Instruction.

The paid department introduced horse-drawn steam engines, which were faster and more efficient at fighting fires in New York than hand-drawn pumpers. Engine houses had to be renovated to fit horses and larger apparatus. The first professional unit, Engine Co. 1, went into service July 31, 1865. Sections of Manhattan, north of 87th street, were protected by volunteers until 1867. Volunteer companies were gradually phased out in the more rural areas of Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx until the 1930s.

The paid department was established during Boss Tweed's reign over New York City politics in Tammany Hall. In April of 1870, the "Tweed Charter," a new city charter ending state control in the city, passed in the state legislature. Part of the charter affirmed that the rules, regulations, and general special orders put into place by

the Metropolitan Fire Department would continue, but be controlled by the city government as the Fire Department of the City of New York. In May of 1870, the letters "MFD" on apparatus, quarters, or insignia, were replaced by "FDNY".


The 20th century saw a change in how the FDNY fought fire. When New York City was consolidated in 1898, the Department went from being led by three commissioners, to one, John J. Scannell, and the incumbent Chief of Department, Hugh Bonner. These two men took command of 989 paid firefighters from Brooklyn and Long Island City, 3,687 volunteers from Queens and Staten Island, and controlled 121 engines, forty-six trucks, a hose wagon, and a water tower.

With a greater number of people and square mileage to protect, the FDNY had to adapt new firefighting strategies. The Croton Aqueduct had provided New Yorkers with plenty of water for drinking and bathing, but there wasn't enough pressure for the demands of high-rise firefighting. During the first decades of the 1900s, the city built four high-pressure pumping stations. As technology improved, these stations were replaced, during the 1950s, by apparatus that could pump 1000 gpm of water.

After the tragic Triangle and Equitable building fires in 1911 and 1912, the Department aggressively inspected buildings, enforced fire codes, and investigated arson through the Bureaus of Fire Prevention and Fire Investigation. This also marked the time when the FDNY recognized the equal importance of fire prevention and suppression.

Just as the volunteers were slow to give up their hand-drawn pumpers, the paid department was slow to make the transition from horses to the internal combustion engine. Motorization of the department began in 1911 and the last horse-drawn engine was put out of service in December of 1922. This, like many other department changes, was necessary to keep up with the demands of the growing city.


Post-WWII Era Firefighting: 1945-Present + Timeline

Marine Operations: 1865-Present + Gallery


image description
History & Heritage

New York has had organized firefighting since the Dutch colonial days. More

image description
Volunteer Era

Organized firefighting has a long history in the City, beginning in the 1600s. More

image description
Fire Insurance

Discover the relationship between fire insurance and firefighting in New York. More

image description

Tap into fire history and genealogy resources. More

Buy Admission Buy Admission