At The Ready: The History of the New York City Fire Department

The New York City Fire Department (or FDNY) protects the five boroughs from a host of disasters and mishaps — five-alarm blazes, a kitchen fire run amok, rescue operations and even those dastardly midtown elevators, always getting stuck! But today’s tightly organized team is a far cry from the chaos and machismo that defined New York’s fire apparatus many decades ago.

New York’s early firefighters — Peter Stuyvesant‘s original ratel-watch — were all-purpose guardians, from police work to town timepieces. Volunteer forces assembled in the 18th century just as innovative new engines arrived from London.

By the 19th century, the fire department was the ultimate boys club, with gangs of rival firefighters, with their own volunteer ‘runners’, raced to fires as though in a sports competition. Fisticuffs regularly erupted. From this tradition came Boss Tweed, whose corrupt political ways would forever change New York’s fire services — for better and for worse.

Volunteers were replaced by an official paid division by 1865. Now using horse power and new technologies, the department fought against the extraordinary challenges of skyscraper and factory fires. There were internal battles as well as the department struggled to become more inclusive within its ranks.

But the greatest test lay in the modern era — from a deteriorating infrastructure in the 1970s that left many areas of New York unguarded, and then, the new menace of modern terrorism that continues to test the skill of the FDNY. From burning chimneys in New Amsterdam to the tragedy of 9/11, this is the story of how they earned the nickname New York’s Bravest.

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A poster by Vera Bock from 1936, created for a series by the Federal Art Project, touts the contributions of Peter Stuyvesant to the history of New York firefighting. (LOC) One of two fire engines first received by New York in 1733 (from an 1872 illustration) Courtesy NYPL

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