The Colonial Period
The history of the New York City Fire Department dates back to 1648 when New York was the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam. Peter Stuyvesant, the governor of the colony, appointed four fire wardens to patrol the city and inspect homes with wooden chimneys and thatched roofs. Each home was required to have three leather buckets filled with water and placed at their doorsteps every evening at sundown. If a fire broke out, all the townspeople were expected to help put the fire out by passing the buckets of water down a line of people to where the fire was. Empty buckets were passed back down another line to be refilled. News of a fire was typically spread by the “rattlewatch,” a team of eight men who patrolled the city at night with wooden rattles that they would sound at the first sign of smoke or fire.
When the British took control of New Amsterdam in 1683 and renamed the colony to New York, they instituted a more formal firefighting system that utilized hooks, small ladders, and bells that would be rung at forts and churches in case of a fire. This equipment was maintained through fines collected by fire wardens. If townspeople were found to be in violation of the city’s fire prevention ordinances, they could be fined as much as 20 shillings.
Fire engines were first used in New York in 1731. These hand-pumped and hand-drawn engines were more effective at fighting fires than the buckets that were previously used, but they required a larger group of volunteer firefighters to operate. The fire engines were originally housed at city hall, but they were moved to the city’s first firehouses on Broad Street in 1736.
Fighting fires in New York became understandably difficult during the Revolutionary War, but the city’s volunteer fire department grew in size and prestige after the war was over. Volunteers saw fighting and preventing fires as their civic duty, and joining the fire department was sometimes used as a springboard into politics. Firefighting companies became almost like social clubs, with members sharing a camaraderie that can still be felt in the modern NYFD.
Firefighting equipment and techniques became more advanced as water became more readily accessible. The first fire plugs – large cork-like devices intended to stop water from spilling out after firefighters bored into the city’s water mains – were installed in 1807. These fire plugs were the forerunners of modern fire hydrants. By 1842, the first Croton aqueduct was completed and allowed firefighters to have better access to water from practically anywhere in the city.
The Modern Fire Department
The NYFD that we know today began on July 31, 1865, at Four Centre Street in Manhattan. This was when New York’s first professional fire department was established. This early fire department was originally known as the Metropolitan Fire Department or the MFD. In 1870, the MFD became a municipally controlled organization with new leadership and titles of rank. This was when the now-familiar FDNY lettering began to be used.
On January 1, 1898, the FDNY began overseeing all fire services in New York’s five boroughs. The Board of Fire Commissioners was replaced by a single commissioner at this time.