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Laying the Groundwork 1865–1945

From MFD to FDNY

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.


Elisha Kingsland became the first Chief Engineer (the title was changed to Chief of Department) of the paid department. In 1867, General Alexander Shaler, became President of the Board of Commissioners and ushered 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.


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

FDNY Faces a New Century

The paid department was equipped with horse-drawn steam engines, which were faster and more efficient at fighting fires in New York than hand-drawn pumpers of years gone by. 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.


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. Volunteer companies were gradually phased out in the more rural areas of Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx until the 1930s.


During the early 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.

1865 – 1945
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