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Post-WWII Era Firefighting: 1945 – Present

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Firefighters battle blaze on W 43rd St. in January of 1985.


In the years following WWII, the urban landscape was changing. The Department relaxed residency restrictions, allowing FDNY members to live outside the five boroughs. With the help of the highway system, firefighters were able to become commuters, rather than living in the city where they worked. The housing benefits of the GI Bill for veteran firefighters, and the prosperity of the 1950s, allowed firefighters to move to suburbia and buy their own homes.

The decades of the 1960s and 1970s, however, were not as prosperous for New York and poverty rates increased as the city underwent a fiscal crisis. Social unrest combined with a bad local economy led to what many refer to as the "war years." Vacant buildings and decreasing property values, led to landlords setting fire to their properties in order to obtain insurance claims. Arson was also used as a political statement. Civil unrest, caused by the general political and economic climate, as well as specific events, such as Dr. King's assassination in April of 1968, caused rioting in the streets of major U.S. cities. In New York, firefighters battled waves of arson and were attacked while riding on the outsides of their apparatus. The number of fires from 1960 to 1977 increased from 60,941 to 129, 619. False alarms also rose, going from 89,432 in 1960 to 263, 659 in 1970.

In response to these tumultuous times, the Department instituted major changes. In 1967, apparatus were enclosed so that all firefighters rode inside the cab. In 1969, the FDNY formed new companies to relieve engine and ladder companies in high workload areas. In an effort to decrease the number of false alarms, the first Emergency Response System fire and police alarm boxes were installed in 1970, which required voice communication between the emergency dispatcher and the person reporting the alarm.


Advances in firefighting technology and apparatus, such as the Scott Air-Pak, the Tower ladder, and the Super Pumper, were accompanied by reorganizations and additions to the Department – all to efficiently and effectively meet the growing challenges of fighting fires in the modern age. During the Cold War, the Office of Civil Defense began training firefighters and auxiliary forces for disaster scenarios. This type of training continues today, in addition to regular training at the Fire Academy, and includes drills for biological and other terrorist attacks, explosions, and evacuation. In 1981, members of Rescue 4 were qualified as the first Hazardous Materials Technicians and were trained to help evacuate and decontaminate people affected by harmful chemicals and to contain or remove hazardous substances. In order to provide better on-site medical aid, the Emergency Medical Service, formerly part of the New York Health and Hospitals Corporation, merged with the FDNY in 1996. Along with specialized units, training and equipment, the FDNY continues to work toward preventing fires by providing fire safety education and inspecting public places of assembly for fire code violations.

During the latter part of the 20th century, the battle for respectful inclusion in the Department began. Organizations formed to protect the rights of minorities in the Department. Wesley Williams was the first African American to achieve commanding rank during the 1920s and 1930s. In 1940, Chief Williams founded the Vulcan Society - a lobbying and support network for African American firefighters - which provided a foundation for the formation of other minority associations. The Hispanic Society was formed in 1962, the United Women Firefighters was founded in 1982 with the help of Brenda Berkman and, in 1993, Fire Flag/EMS was formed by gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender firefighters and emergency medical officers. These groups continue to provide a support network for minority firefighters as the FDNY works to diversify the uniformed workforce.

Because of the size of the city, the number of people, and types of dangers, the FDNY continues to operate with the same military-like precision that General Shaler instituted when he was commissioner in the 1860s. Firefighting in the FDNY requires a careful orchestration of people and equipment from the dispatcher to the firehouses to the fireground. The job is made easier with communication devices, including a Computer Aided Dispatch system, cell phones, and mobile data terminals, extensive training at the Fire Academy, and, ultimately, the reliability of fellow firefighters to perform their duties.


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