Trending Topics

How fire departments went from volunteer to career

Political ambition and sketchy fire insurance companies pushed cities to convert volunteer departments to career


The push to replace Pittsburgh’s volunteer firefighters with a professional department came from politicians and businessmen.


This is the last of a four-part series on professionalism in firefighting, specifically how it evolved out of the transition from urban volunteers to a paid fire service and how volunteers would later come to embrace the concept of professionalism itself.

On April 10, 1845, Pittsburgh’s volunteer firefighters had an abundance of spirit. But as fire companies, they were unprepared to face the most disastrous fire in the city’s history.

Despite their failings, the city nonetheless paid them tribute for saving several notable buildings and slowing fire spread on the flank running parallel to the Allegheny River.

America in the early decades of the 1800s was in a period of rapid industrialization. While cities grew increasingly more combustible fueling the public’s inherent fear of conflagration, there was as yet no sustained call to replace the volunteers.

It took changes in the demographics of volunteer membership and the introduction of steam fire engines to push the transformation that led to professionalism.

By mid-century Pittsburgh’s volunteer companies, as in other cities, were places of male culture tinged with aggression, competitiveness, a sense of patriotism, and connection to neighborhood. Volunteer rowdyism was widespread, contributing to the loss of public confidence and respect, but the failure of the volunteer system was not the sole reason for the establishment of a paid professional service.

The new politics

In the second half of the nineteenth century municipal governments reorganized under new models as the influence of politics in local government operations grew.

Men running for public office acquired votes and power through political bosses. Volunteer fire companies were the type of neighborhood-level organization that could make or break a person’s political career.

The push to replace Pittsburgh’s volunteer firefighters with a professional department came from politicians and businessmen, the community elites of the city.

In Pittsburgh, the impetus for change came from Christopher L. Magee. In 1870, Magee was president of Consolidated Traction Company, the owner of the Pittsburgh Times newspaper, cashier of the city treasury, and city treasurer.

Magee studied municipal governance structures in Philadelphia and New York and came to the convenient conclusion that cities needed “bosses” to make them safe and secure places.

Not simply skilled in business administration, but political control as well, Magee tapped into his business connections and applied his political skills to build a power base within the city’s Republican Party machine. This necessary strategic consolidation of power paved the way to rid Pittsburgh of its disorganized and unmanageable volunteer fire companies.

Insurance scam

For home and apartment dwellers, fire posed a daily threat to lives and property. But to business and factory owners, fire represented something different. For them, fire was a risk to their investments.

While we think of the risks from fire losses as being covered by fire insurance, successive conflagrations in American cities in the nineteenth century threatened the financial foundation of fire insurance companies.

Insurance in that era was an unregulated industry and many fire underwriters were under-capitalized, meaning they lacked the capital reserves to pay out the claims they were insuring.

In short, though you paid your premium with no guarantee the fire insurance company had the reserves to cover the losses sustained during a great fire. Business owners thus had a strong interest in ensuring that all fires were attended to quickly and fought aggressively.

In March 1870, Pennsylvania’s governor signed legislation granting powers to Pittsburgh to establish a municipal fire department. With this law, Magee and Pittsburgh’s elite had the necessary power to transform the city’s fire department by dismantling the volunteer system.

As they saw it, the city’s fire problem was significant, complex and diverse making it reasonable that a fire department should be run as a large business or corporation would, with trained managers issuing orders to workers who carried them out soberly and faithfully.

Business of firefighting

In the first seven years of the department’s existence, five men held the position of chief engineer. All five had been volunteers and provided the critical continuity for a smooth transition.

Importantly, Magee neutralized any potential disruption to his political-machine by appointing volunteers to leadership positions in the new fire department and ensuring that other volunteers were shown preference in receiving appointments.

Through strict enforcement of rules and regulations covering behavior while on duty and attending fires, the problems inherent to a volunteer system were avoided.

City administrators made sure the fire department followed proper purchasing procedures and accounting rules. The members of the department wore uniforms to show loyalty to the organization as opposed to a single fire company, as well as to make them noticeable to the public as their servants and protectors.

The rules demanded courteous behavior while on duty, not only to interactions with the public, but with each other, requiring officers and firefighters address one another by surname only, and showing a respectful manner. The prohibitions included profanity, smoking and drinking alcohol.

The meaning of professionalism

Applying a corporate culture to a municipal fire department produced a well-managed department. Whether it produced the necessary component of leadership is open to question and it appeared that way to one nineteen-century fire chief.

That man was Eyre Massey Shaw, commanding officer of the London Metropolitan Fire Brigade.

During a visit to the United States around 1870, Shaw encountered a prevailing attitude among American fire chiefs that he deemed unprofessional. He offered proof of this in what became a famous quotation about the job of a fireman.

Shaw spoke of an American fire chief who claimed that the way to learn the business of being a fireman was to go to fires. Shaw, himself a colorful character, observed that the chief’s statement was as preposterous as a person wanting to learn the job of a surgeon by going about lopping off people’s limbs.

Today, we know that going to fires is a critical component of learning to be a good firefighter. And while Shaw was pointing out a questionable attitude, he knew going to fires was important. That is evident as Shaw never missed a day in his first six years as chief, endeavoring to attend all serious fires in London.

What Shaw was implying was that there was more to the profession of firefighting than a well managed, business-like organization.

Shaw, himself an ex-military officer, believed in training, study, practice and drilling as the foundations of professional firefighting. The American belief that esprit de corps or attitude was all that a department needed would in time show itself as a fundamental weakness resulting in negative attitudes toward formal learning in firefighting for many decades.

While the metropolitan departments established formal training programs, it was not until after World War II that the states established firefighter training programs.

By the 1970s, the basis for certified training programs grew from national standards written by the National Fire Protection Association. With formal training programs based on a national curriculum, firefighter training became universal for all fire departments and with it professionalism spread.

Read the next article in the series: Firefighting history: How did we get professional?

This article was originally posted July 14, 2015. It has been updated with new information.

Bruce Hensler served as a firefighter from 1976 to 2011 in career, combination and volunteer departments. He previously served as a fire program specialist in the Emergency Response Support Branch of the U.S. Fire Administration, retiring in 2017. He also previously served as deputy director of the operations division for the firefighter training program in Maine. Hensler has a master’s degree in public administration. His interest in history led him to write “Crucible of Fire: Nineteenth-Century Urban Fires and the Making of the Modern Fire Service.” More information about his book is available at Connect with Hensler on LinkedIn.