Firefighting history: How did we get professional?

Our fire service history is seeped in myths, half-truths and legends; understanding how our service evolved means separating fact from fiction

This is the first 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.

The volunteer fire service as we now know it is at a crossroads. It is facing a difficult future from increasing demand for service, high expectations for professional-like behavior and declining numbers.

The dichotomy that exists between the idea of professionalism and the reality of being a volunteer firefighter has existed since the demise of 19th century urban volunteer departments and remains an underlying issue in the decline of volunteer departments today.

From the Antebellum period to well beyond the Civil War, volunteers in America's expanding urban centers were replaced with paid firefighters. The reasons offered for this move and the context of the situation is essential to understanding fire service history.

Bravery, determination and fortitude were the powerful forces behind the success of the early volunteer fire departments.
Bravery, determination and fortitude were the powerful forces behind the success of the early volunteer fire departments. (Photo/Pixabay)

The popular story of that transition is filled with legends, myths and half-truths useful for selling newspapers and books, but troublesome for developing a historically accurate analysis.

Too often the fire service is its own worst enemy because we fail to look beyond what is easy and accessible. We allow our history, if we even acknowledge it, to be distorted or incomplete. We fiercely defend our traditions, but sometimes have no idea from where or how they originated. We believe in professionalism and yet many lack an understanding of the concept and why it is so important to preserve as an occupational behavior.

The occupation of firefighting, whether seen as a trade or craft, is practiced by individuals, some of whom are paid a salary while others do it for some other reason with little or no monetary compensation.

Either way, they each practice an occupation and (most I hope) strive to do so in a professional manner. By professional I mean possessing the skill, good judgment and polite behavior that is expected from a person who is trained to do a job well.

In the crosshairs of change

Radical cultural changes in society and the perception of acceptable risk are not unique to contemporary society. Benjamin Franklin's idea for societies of volunteer firefighters was born in the pre-Industrial Age and matured in an era that saw political revolutions in America and France bringing forms of republican democracy.

Volunteer firefighting in America survived that near century of political strife alive and well.

Bravery, determination and fortitude were the powerful forces behind the success of the early volunteer fire departments. But these traits would not be sufficient to withstand the most powerful assault yet inflicted on society.

The doors to the 19th century opened wide on industrial and technological forces that would literally change the face of cities and ultimately lead to the demise of the urban volunteer fire department. As the societal and economic upheavals of the Industrial Revolution played out in urban areas, volunteer firefighting saw changes in the types, frequency and severity of fires.

As the volunteers struggled to define themselves in the Industrial Age, they saw membership among the old elite decline and in its place a shift in the demographic composition of the new members.

This fact underscores the transformation from the early colonial fire societies of well-respected men so envisioned by Franklin to the rowdy fire gangs whose behavior grew so egregious in New York, Philadelphia and many other urban centers. The public so lost faith in the volunteers and so feared the recurring threat of fires that business leaders and elected officials agreed that paid municipal fire departments were the only option.

Professionalism arises

The ethic of modern professional firefighting in America descends from a long line including the volunteer firefighters of our Colonial period. Professional has come to be exemplified by organized and trained fire forces strategically deployed and equipped to suppress fires working under direct supervision and in cohesive units.

Under this definition, professional firefighting has nothing to do with being paid or compensated for the service rendered and in fact likely includes the majority of public fire departments in the United States. 

The confusion, where it exists, regarding professionalism springs from the fact that we lack a comprehensive record of its development within the fire services. That might seem an extreme statement, but in fact it is true.

The history of firefighting in America, especially as it pertains to volunteer firefighters, is shrouded in myth. The original stories mostly in the oral tradition and passed down to other firefighters, friends or family members have mostly been lost, while some of those saved have been twisted to serve a different purpose.

Buying into myths

Myths become entrenched and thus powerful because they are repeated in an endless cycle to a point we come to believe them as reality. We have many published departmental histories, as well as accounts of great fires and conflagrations. These stories — both true and less than true — may be weaved together and successfully passed off as our history when in fact they are only part of the whole story.

The second point to be made is that our history itself is only a part of many other larger histories, and missing that, we lose context.

At the root of this is whether the volunteers were really as bad as the public came to see them leading to the calls for replacement by paid forces.

The record such as it exists offers that volunteers turned rowdy and frequently battled one another leaving fires burning unchecked. While this sort of thing did happen and it was serious, it begs some interesting questions.

  • How prevalent and widespread was this rowdiness?
  • How much of a role did changing technology play?
  • Did all volunteers turn rowdy?
  • Who were the main culprits and in what cities was it the worst?

A wider view of history

If you include what was happening in combating urban fires in European cities, the lineage of our shared knowledge and tradition begins roughly about 350 years ago in Amsterdam.

However, if we consider only American fire history, do we start with Ben Franklin's volunteer fire society in Philadelphia in 1736 making it 279 years. Or, do we go with Boston's paid-on-call fire service in 1678, making it 337 years?

Does any of this matter, is it important enough to study, does it change anything? Only you can answer those questions for yourself.

But if it isn't important then we lose the contributions of Jan van der Heyden, James Braidwood, Massey Shaw, John Damrell, Hugh Bonner, Edward Crocker, Lloyd Layman, and scores of others who have shaped modern firefighting over the last three-plus centuries.

Read the next article in the series: Did brawling firefighters kill urban volunteer depts?

This article was originally posted April 7, 2015. It has been updated with new information.

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