When you join the volunteer fire service, you become a part of the centuries-old tradition of selflessness and bravery that has withstood the test of time. Before modern technology, flashing lights and sirens, there was only man versus fire in a primitive fight to protect.
Our story begins in 1648 in the former Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, what is now New York City. After suffering from fire destruction and devastation for far too long, the need for proactive fire prevention became evident, leading to the first safety inspections and laws requiring homes to have at least one leather bucket at the ready to distinguish a fire.
A decade later, the “rattle watch,” the earliest of fire alarms, was born. Community members were known as the rattle watch stand guard from sunset to dawn each night wielding nothing but buckets, ladders and wooden rattles to shake at the first sign of flames.
At any given hour, if a rattle was rung, it was the duty of all citizens to spring out of bed and rush to the origin of the fire with their leather buckets of water.
The Bucket Brigade
This “bucket brigade,” consisted of two lines of people, one line passing water buckets towards the flames, and another passing the empty back to be filled. This simple extinguishment method was not effective in halting the roaring flames altogether, but was, at times, enough to stall the fire long enough for lives to be saved and personal belongings to be salvaged.
Thrown into the line of fire with little to no protective equipment, the bucket brigade didn’t ask for praise or recognition. When the smoke began to rise, they rose to the cry for help and served bravely. Unbeknownst to the brigade, their selfless acts of courage had sparked the first unofficial volunteer fire service in present-day New York.
The camaraderie that followed these volunteers while risking their lives together was just one factor that continued to entice men to assist in the fire brigades.
New York State was quicker than most others to adopt new firefighting technology. In 1731, leather buckets became obsolete with the introduction of hand-pumped engines which distributed a faster, more voluminous stream of water.
While this method proved much more effective than leather buckets, the hand-drawn engines required substantial amounts of manpower to pull. Volunteers were expected to drag the ladder trucks to the source of the fire.
Bucket brigades were still relevant, but their volunteer roles had changed now that actual buckets had been outdated. The brigades were now responsible for filling the engine’s water cistern.
A few short years later, after the strength and dedication of the courageous volunteers was finally legitimized with the introduction of the first firehouse built in on Broad Street in New York City.
One year later, the General Assembly created the first official Volunteer Fire Department of the City of New York. Over 30 men strong, these volunteers were expected to be on call 24/7, with the only requirements to be “sober, discreet, able-bodied men.”
It wasn’t always honorable, though. During the 1800s, the infamous gangs of New York fought more than just fires. Around the Civil War era, tensions between rival fire stations were high, leading to many violent outbursts to earn the privilege of fighting the fire.
Regardless of these less-than-honorable leanings, many lives were being saved as a result of their heroism. Many years later, as volunteer firefighting became recognized as a legitimate and honorable profession, even women were able to join. The first known female volunteer firefighter was based right out of New York City.
Now and Then
As the times and technologies progressed, so did fire engines and equipment. Manpowered engines transitioned to horse-drawn and it wasn’t long before New York had introduced the first self-propelled engine in 1841.
In 1872, the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York (FASNY) was born to unite and protect the interests of volunteers in New York State. Today, there are more than 1,700 departments and 110,000 volunteers, all equipped with professional training and tools.
Is There Fire in You?
It is an extremely important function of many communities as more than one-third of Americans are protected by all-volunteer fire departments. Two-thirds of all U.S. departments are volunteer thanks to pioneering states like New York.
Gone are the days of hand-pump systems and bucket brigades, but the camaraderie and heroism that once sparked the desire to volunteer still exists within the volunteer fire service of New York State and continues to burn even brighter with the addition of each new volunteer firefighter.