THE VOLUNTEER ERA
RELATED ARTICLE: The Colonial Period
Volunteers: The Beginnings of Brotherhood
After the Revolutionary War, the volunteer department grew in size and reputation. Volunteers viewed their duty as a civic responsibility, and sometimes used firefighting as a springboard into politics. Volunteer companies were also like social clubs, fostering a sense of camaraderie between members that is still a feature of fire companies. In 1795, engine houses were furnished with two poles, each long enough for firemen to carry twelve buckets each. This innovation decreased the need for the general populace to become involved in bucket brigades and furthered the sense of fellowship existing between company members. Members not only took pride in each other for successes at fires, but also in their apparatus, which was usually well-taken care of at the company’s expense. Apparatus were not only used to fight fires, but also spectacularly paraded through the city.
A volunteer fireman at the ready in his iconic red shirt, black pants, and leather helmet.
The Impact of Water Supply
Firefighting techniques changed as water became more accessible. Water was supplied by wells and water mains. In 1807, the first fire plug – forerunner to the modern fire hydrant – was put down at the corner of William and Liberty streets. Fire plugs operated like large corks, stopping the flow of water from holes firemen bored into wooden water mains. The first hose company was established in 1812 and, in 1831, the first hydrant company was formed. Hose companies brought extra hose for engines, especially as the city grew beyond available water supplies, and hydrant companies opened hydrants at the scene of a fire. In 1837, construction began on the first Croton aqueduct. Upon completion in 1842, the increased availability of water improved how volunteers fought fires. Men no longer had to drag their apparatus, possibly miles, to the nearest water source – decreasing their response times to fires and their need for runners.
Runners and Rivalries
Until the paid department was established in 1865, the fire department constantly had to manage unofficial firemen, called “runners” – young boys and men that hung around the firehouse waiting for an alarm. Runners helped at fires by filling engines with water and helping pull the engine or hose wagon. Because runners were attached to one company, they often fought to help their company reach a fire or water source first.
At the scene of a fire, the hydrant company to arrive first also decided which engine or hose companies would be supplied with water. In the volunteer days, it was common for hose, engine, and hydrant companies to form alliances, often leading to physical disagreements. On occasion, hydrants were covered by barrels to disguise their location from rival alliances.
The Paid Department Enters
The combination of runners and rivalries between companies led to the fire department's bad reputation, especially among the police officers who had to break up fights. The city was also growing too large for a volunteer department. The city needed an organized and enforced system put into place, as well as men who could devote more time to fighting fire. Citizens could no longer expect volunteers, who had other jobs, to provide such a laborious duty for free.
On March 30, 1865, the New York State Legislature passed an Act creating the Metropolitan Fire Department. Chief Engineer John Decker, who had been elected in 1860, led the transition, but retired as soon as it was over. The transition from the volunteer department to the paid department took until November of 1865. The volunteers continued to protect the city during this time.