The ‘War Years’: A brief history of the 1970s fire service

“America Burning” spotlights firefighters, legends propose new tactics, and smoke detectors change the game


America had a world-class fire problem from the late-1960s and well into the 1970s. The fires were fueled by the nexus of societal breakdown, entrenched poverty, crime, an economic crisis, the OPEC oil embargo, urban decline, suburbanization and technological change. These forces played out in race riots, military draft protests and violent anti-war protests over our involvement in Vietnam.

Our fire problem, largely fueled by arson-for-profit schemes, resulted in this part of our history being dubbed the “War Years,” particularly by those who experienced it firsthand. Firefighters and police officers of that era faced the brunt of social unrest and urban decline on their own type of battlefield.

Suburbs expand, FDs grow

Firemen battle flames at a store in the Bronx borough of New York, one of many fires that broke out during the massive power failure that crippled the city for more than 24 hours, seen July 14, 1977. Firemen answered 1,500 alarms, 400 of which were actual fires. Forty of the fires were termed serious.
Firemen battle flames at a store in the Bronx borough of New York, one of many fires that broke out during the massive power failure that crippled the city for more than 24 hours, seen July 14, 1977. Firemen answered 1,500 alarms, 400 of which were actual fires. Forty of the fires were termed serious. (Photo/Associated Press)

By the end of World War II, the need for new housing to accommodate returning GIs spurred a real estate and building boom. Lower land prices beyond cities spurred development in once rural areas and farmlands. Thus, America experienced a post-war economic boom that lasted well into the 1950s and early 60s, with the result that new development stretched far beyond the urban centers, leaving the inner cities decaying from neglect.

By the mid-60s, cities faced a huge uptick in arson, crime and rioting. The arson spree that ensued and continued for almost two decades – the “War Years” – only fueled further suburbanization with the exodus from the cities to areas beyond.

The growth of suburbs created a staffing challenge for small volunteer fire departments in newly developing areas. Over several decades, the volunteer staffing crisis would lead to the creation of more career departments and paid firefighter positions.

More people, more autos, more of everything really, created a demand for public services in areas that were once farmland or was simply undeveloped. Rural volunteer fire departments had to evolve rather quickly, sometimes growing into large county fire agencies over the course of a decade or two.

In 1973, a national commission studying the U.S. fire problem created what would become a wake-up call for fire protection in America. The report, “America Burning,” defined in blunt terms and graphic images America’s fire problem as one of the worst in the world’s industrial countries.
In 1973, a national commission studying the U.S. fire problem created what would become a wake-up call for fire protection in America. The report, “America Burning,” defined in blunt terms and graphic images America’s fire problem as one of the worst in the world’s industrial countries. (Photo/USFA)

“America Burning”

In 1973, a national commission studying the U.S. fire problem created what would become a wake-up call for fire protection in America. The report, “America Burning,” defined in blunt terms and graphic images America’s fire problem as one of the worst in the world’s industrial countries. Any 1970s-era firefighters who read the report could not help but feel proud of their dangerous work.

“America Burning” served as a road map for change. In 1974, Congress passed the Federal Fire Prevention and Control Act. The law created the National Fire Prevention and Control Administration, now the U.S. Fire Administration – and with it the National Fire Academy.

Status quo firefighter training

In many jurisdictions, firefighter training was, to put it one way, sketchy. Many new firefighters learned on the job. Formal academy training programs existed only in the largest metro areas. Volunteers with access to training usually received it as stand-alone courses in basic firefighting, hose handling, ladders, pumps, ropes, SCBA and structural fire attack.

Firefighter certification programs were non-existent. The NFPA through its Technical Committees was just beginning to develop the professional standards for firefighters that we know today, like NFPA 1710 and NFPA 1971.

The most well-known training manuals were the so-called “Oklahoma red books” with their distinctive red covers. The series was developed by the fire service training program at Oklahoma State University, which later became the IFSTA – Fire Protection Publications.

Some fire textbooks widely used in this era:

Clark and Fried both came up in the FDNY. Fried was battalion chief of the 44th battalion in New York City, and his command was possibly the busiest in the world at that time. "Fireground Tactics” became a standard fire science program textbook for strategy and tactics classes. Clark was a strong advocate for occupational safety, and founded the International Society of Fire Service Instructors.

Casey also served in the FDNY, retiring as a lieutenant with Engine 281. He worked as an editor for the FDNY’s magazine “WNYF.”

Layman’s work is still debated today, namely his theory on fog attack and a proposed method for indirect fire attack. 

Beyond textbooks, one of the most popular firefighting books of that era, and perhaps all time, was the memoir “Report from Engine Company 82”, written by FDNY Firefighter Dennis Smith, who told the story of New York City firefighters in the arson-plagued south Bronx. 

Gear, tactics and apparatus

Firefighting in the 1970s was not too different from earlier decades, nor was the turnout gear, which afforded only minimal protection. Helmets were plastic, aluminum or leather and typically made by MSA or Cairns Brothers.

If a firefighter was lucky enough to be issued one, or willing to shell out around $50 of their own money, they could wear a Cairns leather New Yorker. It featured a simple web suspension but lacked impact protection. Many who wore it added a Bourke Eye Shield. Others added a strip of rubber cut from an old inner tube (pre-tubeless tires) and used it on their helmet to secure gloves, sprinkler wedges and small flashlights.

Firefighter coats typically featured a canvas duck outer shell with a separate vapor barrier. The inner flap had snap closures and mechanical spring-clasp closures on the outer flap. The outer flap closures hindered quick removal in the event the coat ignited. Most firefighters wore a longer coat to cover the top of the three-quarter-length boots when pulled up. The major turnout gear manufacturers were Janesville, LION and Globe.

Firefighter boots were rubber, three-quarter length and usually issued in the wrong size. Firefighters used work gloves of cotton or leather which were often purchased from hardware stores.

Given the emphasis on creating steam in the fire compartment to aid suppression, firefighters often bailed out to avoid the turnout gear-penetrating, skin-searing steam.

Interior fire attacks were commonly done without benefit of SCBA, which at the time were heavy because of the steel cylinder. The most popular models were manufactured by Scott Aviation. MSA and Survivor also produced SCBA.

In this era, apparatus might carry just two SCBA units stored safely in hard-case storage boxes kept in truck compartments. Many trucks still carried a Chemox breathing unit. Note: Chemox is a closed-loop oxygen re-breathing apparatus designed for the U.S. Navy by MSA in 1942 for shipboard firefighting. Fire departments would later acquire Chemox units, keeping one or two units on an apparatus. The units were useful for rescue efforts and less than practical for structural firefighting.

Fire-resistant hoods and PASS devices had yet to be invented.

As for getting to the scene, firefighters still rode apparatus by standing on the tailboard or at other spots with a grab rail. This practice would later come to an end with the adoption of NFPA 1500 in 1987, as the fire service focused more on safety.

Some firefighters sat in the jump seats, and a few departments began mounting SCBA in the jump seats.

Open-cab trucks were still in wide service, leaving the driver-engineer and officer exposed to the weather. The major apparatus manufacturers were American LaFrance, Mack, Seagrave, Crown, Pierce, Sutphen and Darley.

Fire departments modified engines to carry pre-connected attack lines. The rear hose-bed would be packed with either, or both, 2½- or 3-inch supply hoses. Hose-beds were often split using a wood or metal divider. This arrangement facilitated laying either single or dual supply lines. The rear hose-bed was often set up to include a pre-connected 2½-inch line for blitz attacks – a combination of both exterior water application and an interior offensive attack. 

Putting a pumper on the hydrant to pump the supply line was an option with many benefits, but some departments still relied on single or dual 2½- or 3-inch supply hoses connected directly to the hydrant running straight to the pumper at the fire scene. In other words, they did not put a pumper on the hydrant to pump the supply line, thus adding additional pressure to account for various system pressure losses. Certainly, as pump design improved and diesel-powered engines became the norm, this practice fell away.

Some rural and suburban departments were experimenting with synthetic large-diameter hose (LDH) fitted with Storz couplings as a replacement for smaller, cotton-jacketed supply lines.

Fire prevention

Into the 70s, America’s civilian fire losses were thought to be around 12,000 deaths per year.

NFPA data reveals near parabolic growth in the use of residential smoke detectors from the 70s well into the 1980s. The data also show a very steep decline in the number of reported home structure fires during the same time period with an obvious decline in fire deaths.

Moving into the next decade

Throughout the course of life, we rarely see our own daily experiences in the context of being a part of history. Because adaptation requires effort and there is the ever-present need to move on and get the job done, we can lose track of how far we have progressed.

The social turbulence of the late-60s spilled over into the 70s and on into the 80s. We learned a lot from the experience of the War Years and put much of it to good use. We saw change begin to occur soon afterward, spurred by the intervention of numerous government agencies along with non-governmental organizations in the 1980s.

Without the powerful influence of federal and state governments, the NFPA, the IAFF, the IAFC and other groups, we would likely still be doing it “old-school” style, losing 200-plus firefighters a year.

It is our own loss if we lose track of what happened; after all, what happened is how we got to where we are today. The changes that came to the fire service in the 1980s were profound and shaped the future, much as 9/11 changed how we did things. In the next piece in this series, we take a closer look at the 1980s, when apparatus, equipment and training began to evolve.


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