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WWI: How the fire service changed in the war years

From mechanization to labor relations, important fire service advances in the early 1900s remain with us today

With the formal declaration of war against Germany in April 1917, the U.S. entered a conflict that had been raging since 1914. America’s boots on the ground came in the form of the American Expeditionary Force under the command of Major General John J. Pershing.

Pershing famously carried the nickname “Black Jack” from his days as a first lieutenant leading African-American soldiers of the U.S Army 10th Cavalry (also known as the Buffalo Soldiers) on America’s western frontier. By nearly all accounts, Pershing, every inch a soldier, exemplified discipline, devotion and courage.

In 1915, Pershing’s wife and three daughters died in a house fire at his Army quarters at the Presidio in San Francisco. His only son survived the fire because Pershing’s Army orderly, an African-American, rescued the child at great personal risk.

Adam Holdaway, of Chelmsford, Mass., plays the bagpipes during the annual raising of Boston's official Christmas tree on Boston Common in Boston, Friday, Nov. 18, 2005. The tree is donated each year by the Canadian province of Nova Scotia as a show of gratitude to the people of Boston for their help in the wake of the 1917 explosion in Halifax harbor. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
Adam Holdaway, of Chelmsford, Mass., plays the bagpipes during the annual raising of Boston's official Christmas tree on Boston Common in Boston, Friday, Nov. 18, 2005. The tree is donated each year by the Canadian province of Nova Scotia as a show of gratitude to the people of Boston for their help in the wake of the 1917 explosion in Halifax harbor. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

The fire victims were suffocated by the smoky fire. Pershing was away at the time serving with the Army on the U.S.-Mexican border.

In 1917, his father-in-law, then a U.S. senator, used political power to petition the Army to build a fire station at the Presidio. This came with the strong support of San Francisco Fire Chief Thomas Murphy.

Explosion at Halifax

In the years leading up to America’s entry into the war, significant change came to the fire service, notably in working conditions and apparatus. That the changes were in progress by the war’s onset was fortunate because the global war effort required economic sacrifice.

The war also demanded heightened vigilance in America’s coastal port cities where the threat of sabotage was very real and German U-boats patrolled offshore to prey on merchant ships carrying war supplies across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe. The handling of explosive and flammable cargo also required extreme caution.

At 7:30 a.m. on Dec. 6, 1917, in the port channel of Halifax, Nova Scotia two ships collided – the French ship, Mont-Blanc and the Norwegian vessel, Imo.

The Mont-Blanc, on her way to join a convoy gathering at Bedford Basin, was loaded with 2,300 tons of wet and dry picric acid, 200 tons of TNT, 10 tons of gun cotton and 35 tons of a benzene-related product. At the entrance to the Narrows, poor judgement by the two ships’ harbor pilots allowed the Imo to strike the Mont-Blanc on the bow.

Although the collision was not severe, a large fire erupted on the Mont-Blanc. The captain, pilot and crew, expecting an imminent explosion, abandoned the burning ship in the channel, using lifeboats to make for the Dartmouth shore.

The burning Mont-Blanc drifted for 20 minutes before coming to rest hard against Pier 6 in the Richmond district, Halifax’s industrial area. The blazing cargo ship drew crowds of spectators who were unaware of the explosives on board.

Those knowing of the ship’s dangerous cargo, a few naval officers and a railway dispatcher, had little success in dispersing the crowd. About 9:05 a.m., the Mont-Blanc exploded.

The ship was obliterated with fragments dispersed over a wide geographic area.

Extensive damage

The force of the blast leveled much of the area around Pier 6 including churches, houses, schools, factories, piers and other ships. The blast hit children bound for school who had stopped to watch, as well as workmen, and families in nearby homes.

Many were killed outright. Those who survived the blast received all manner of blast injuries, but mostly object impalement and deep wounds from splintered wood and broken glass. Many received serious eye injuries.

The crew of the Imo was killed. The crew of the Mont-Blanc survived the initial blast. In a cruel twist of nature, snow fell that night on thousands of wounded survivors lacking basic shelter, clothing and food.

The Canadian government dispatched military troops in the area and sent additional resources. Boston, over 600 miles away, quickly summoned doctors, nurses and relief workers along with medical supplies, food and clothing and set out on a train bound for Halifax.

The city of Halifax, so grateful to the city of Boston, has each year since sent a huge Christmas tree that is placed on Boston Common as a "thank you" gift from the people of Nova Scotia.

By the numbers, 1,630 homes were completely destroyed and many more lost to ensuing fires. In all, 12,000 houses were damaged and 6,000 people left without shelter.

The death toll rose to over 1,900, 250 bodies were never identified and many victims never found. Twenty-five suffered amputations, over 250 lost an eye and 37 people were left completely blind. Hospitals treated 4,000 injuries.

The force generated by the Halifax explosion made it one of the largest man-made explosions ever, second only to the atomic bombs that destroyed the Japanese cities in August 1945. The scientists who designed the two atomic bombs studied the 1917 Halifax explosion to estimate the potential damage from the bombs intended for Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Firefighters organize

The war years saw firefighters forming labor unions. In 1918, 17 locals banded together to form the International Association of Fire Fighters and affiliate with the American Federation of Labor.

Although firefighting was a coveted job, the hours and living conditions were more like a military than a municipal department. Firefighters routinely worked 84 hours a week in 24-hour shifts, with only a few hours off. Safety equipment was also lacking with multiple line-of-duty fatalities and career-ending injuries were commonplace.

As with factory workers, firefighters were considered low-skilled labor with salaries often below 29 cents an hour. Few cities had pension systems or provided meaningful assistance for widows and dependents of those killed.

Too often, department promotions were based on political connections and vacation time was sparse. Organized labor unions were the vehicle that changed the firefighting profession into the career opportunity it is today.

The first organized local was in Washington, D.C. in 1901, but it stayed organized for only a brief time. In 1903, Pittsburgh organized as AFL Local 11431. Pittsburgh’s union solidified its strength when a newly elected city government threatened to remove firefighters who were union supporters.

In an attempt to break up the union, the city administration summarily dismissed Pittsburgh’s first union president, Capt. Frank G. Jones. But the members of the union paid his wages and fought to have him reinstated.

In 1906, Jones was reappointed as a lieutenant, but he got his revenge by submitting a resolution to the AFL for firefighters to be able to organize locals across the country. At its 1917 convention, AFL President Samuel Gompers welcomed the growing number of firefighter locals and thereby helped create the IAFF.

The IAFF was officially founded when 36 delegates selected from 24 locals gathered to attend the first IAFF convention on Feb. 28, 1918 in Washington, D.C. They adopted a constitution and bylaws creating a labor union to benefit rank-and-file firefighters in the United States and Canada.

They chose a name and created a special fund to benefit orphaned children of firefighters. In 1918, London’s fire brigade also organized a trade (labor) union.

Beginnings of a modern fire service

The years leading up to World War I set the bar for staffing and apparatus in urban departments. As firefighters organized for better pay, hours and benefits, their chiefs led the transition from horses to mechanized apparatus.

Springfield, Mass., tested a chemical engine and an aerial ladder truck having each wheel separately driven by a three-horsepower, railway-type electric motor. The motor was powered by an 80-cell wet battery delivering 225 ampere/hours capacity at 160 volts.

Passaic, N.J., meanwhile used a Christie front-drive tractors to pull apparatus, thus facilitating the transition from horses.

At a 1913 national conference, one fire chief summed up the potential for motorized apparatus by remarking that no longer would he hear complaints from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals about his fire horses being tied up in sight of a fire.

In time, volunteer and small-town fire departments employed mechanized pumping apparatus. It is safe to say that the internal combustion engine made firefighting a practical service for places that would otherwise not have organized fire protection.

As firefighters faced the challenges of growing urban areas with high-rises and automobiles, the need for better training was recognized. Departments began to formalize their training using planned drills and training curriculum.

New York City organized a yearly fire college for its members that would eventually grow into a recruit training academy.

At the end of the war, soldiers returned to new American landscape that had been changed by progress and the war itself. And an unmistakable part of that changed landscape was the American fire service. 

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