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May 2024
20min read

The people who stand ready to trade their lives for ours are part of a tradition that goes back 400 years

In the days immediately following the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, a 77-year-old man from Teaneck, New Jersey, tried repeatedly to cross the George Washington Bridge. He was turned away. But he tried again, and again, until finally police and military personnel waved him through, and soon enough, he was among those thousands who were putting their lives at risk in what proved to be a vain attempt to find and rescue survivors in the smoldering ruins of the Twin Towers.

The man from Teaneck knew something about rescues, about building collapses, and about fires. Reginald Julius had joined the Fire Department of New York in 1949 after giving up a job as a letter carrier for the Post Office. His motivation was simple: The Post Office job paid $2,400 a year; the Fire Department paid $3,000. “No decision necessary,” he would say many years later. Julius went on to serve in the FDNY until the late 1980s, when he retired as chief of the Twelfth Battalion, which covers parts of northern Manhattan. As with so many other firefighters around the country—from the largest paid department to the smallest volunteer organization—Reginald Julius’s “retirement” from the fire service simply meant an end to collecting full-time pay. Although he moved to suburban New Jersey, he stayed in touch with colleagues (like his brother, Vincent Julius, a retired FDNY captain), regularly visited firehouses, and kept up with the latest developments in fire science.
So when 343 members of the department he loved were killed on a single, awful day, Reginald Julius grabbed the rubber boots, turnout coat, and white chief’s helmet that he had never put into storage, and he went where he was needed. When he finally got into Manhattan, he drove to his old firehouse in Harlem, boarded a commandeered city bus, and made the journey to hell. As he reported for duty at Ground Zero, a much younger firefighter took one look at him and said, “Well, I guess they’re calling in all the old buffaloes.” Retired Chief Reginald Julius smiled at the semi-affectionate nickname for firefighters of a certain age. “Let me do my work,” he replied. He pulled four consecutive 12-hour tours, picking through the horrible wreckage and sickening carnage. He found bodies and pieces of bodies, but never did he find the two people he was looking for, the chiefs who had succeeded him at the Twelfth Battalion. They were among the 343.
Reginald Julius was hardly the only retired firefighter at Ground Zero in the dangerous days just after the attack. There were dozens there, some of them searching for the sons who had followed them into the fire service. Firefighters from around the country flew in to assist the FDNY, and they worked Ground Zero for weeks, long after hopes for rescue had given way to the bleak ritual of recovery. Still others boarded airplanes or trains, put on their white gloves and dress uniforms, and traveled to New York to offer a final salute to their fallen colleagues during the funerals and memorial services that followed September 11. In their stories, rituals, and sense of fraternity, they represented traditions linking the firefighters of Ground Zero to American firefighters of past centuries.
September 11 was unprecedented, but a 1740s fireman would have recognized the selflessness shown that day. Firefighting in America, one of the nation’s most colorful, storied, and dangerous jobs, is a 400-year-old tale told in three volumes. During most of the seventeenth century, as European settlements grew, firefighting was a civic obligation for all able-bodied males; in the eighteenth century America’s fledgling cities formed volunteer fire departments; and a century later the volunteer departments began to give way in the cities to paid, professional ones. While the popular image of today’s American firefighter is of a highly trained urban professional, more than 70 percent of the country’s more than one million fire-fighters are throwbacks to another era; they are volunteers, many of them working in rural and exurban departments. Most cities are protected by a combination of paid and volunteer companies. Even in New York, home of the world’s most famous professional fire department, 10 volunteer fire companies still operate.
Whether professional or volunteer, American firefighters share a sense of common history and sacrifice. The tragedy of September 11 was unprecedented, but a firefighter from Los Angeles in 1940, Chicago in 1840, or Boston in 1740 would have recognized the selflessness and devotion shown on that day. September 11, 2001, was the worst day in the history of the fire service in America. And during that terrible day, and in the days that followed, centuries of tradition and years of transition commanded the public’s attention as never before. Tradition? Firefighters in America have been putting their lives at risk since the seventeenth century. Transition? As the number of serious fires have declined in recent years, America’s firefighters quietly have taken on new responsibilities as first responders to all kinds of emergencies, from bomb threats to heart attacks, and many firefighters are now trained in CPR and other first-aid techniques. In fact, of those 343 heroic FDNY members who died at the World Trade Center, two were not firefighters but emergency medical technicians. They are included in the FDNY’s total because New York’s fire department, like many across the country, has been merged with the city’s emergency medical services.
While Americans have long admired their firefighters, not until September 11 did many of us fully appreciate the job’s heroism and dangers. Popular culture and the media have made many of us experts in police work (or so we think). Firefighters, however, were nearly invisible in paperback novels, films, and primetime television. Then, suddenly, they became international symbols of sacrifice, courage, and dedication to duty. They achieved a status seldom granted to mere mortals: They have become models for action figures, available in toy departments and stores near you.
A Baltimore fireman about 1850.
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Less celebrated are controversies that also have their roots in the history and traditions of the fire service. The American firehouse has been an outpost of masculinity like few others in contemporary life. Long after women police officers, soldiers, and sportswriters have become commonplace, women firefighters remain a rarity. New York offers the most explicit example, with no more than 30 women among its more than 11,000 firefighters. It is no coincidence that one of the many books celebrating firefighters after September 11 used the word Brotherhood in the title. Similarly, fire departments remain overwhelmingly white even in cities that are majority-minority, or close to it. The Fire Department of New York is 90 percent white; the departments of Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago between 70 and 75 percent white. Those statistics obviously indicate that fire departments have been slow to accept African-Americans, Latinos, and Asians. They also are reminders of the American fire service’s guildlike traditions, which may be out of favor in the twenty-first century but nevertheless offer the service a cohesion and sense of family crucial in times of peril and tragedy. Firefighters often have a combat soldier’s view of the larger world (and of their superiors). They trust each other, and only each other. And they take dim view of those they consider outsiders.
The public, however, seems willing to grant the fire service a pass on its struggles with workplace diversity. And while the outpouring of affection for the nation’s fire departments after September 11 may have marked a change in cultural priorities—suddenly the fame and achievements of athletes and movie stars seemed shallow and trivial—it was not the first time America so publicly embraced its firefighters. More than a century and a half ago a fictional volunteer firefighter from New York named Old Mose took the nation’s stages by storm. He was the central character in a play called A Glance at New York , and both the character and the play were so popular around the country that a series of sequels—called, inevitably, Mosaics —followed. Old Mose was a giant who drank beer from 50-gallon kegs that dangled from his belt, and whose personal consumption of oysters and beef was so prodigious that the rest of New York had to do without when he was on a binge. Historians have described Old Mose, a superhero who rescued women and children from burning buildings, as urban America’s answer to Paul Bunyan. He was a Bowery b’hoy, a brawling character born of the new America taking shape in the nation’s cities. The b’hoys had a “rolling gait” and “surly manner,” wrote one historian, adding that they usually wore a “shiny stovepipe hat tipped over the forehead, soap-locks plastered flat … against the temple.” And, like many of America’s volunteer firefighters—including an ambitious young man in New York named Bill Tweed—Old Mose wore a bright red shirt and loud suspenders. The character of Old Mose was based on the exploits of a real-life New York firefighter, an Irish-American printer named Moses Humphreys, who was famous not only for his bravery but for the quick work his fists made of competing fire companies.
By the time Old Mose became a pop culture icon in 1848, America’s volunteer firefighters had established themselves as local heroes, capturing the public’s imagination with their brawny masculinity and larger-than-life escapades. Prints and illustrations from the middle of the nineteenth century depict them as dashing, gallant, and kindly urban knights who were both courageous and chivalrous, who asked for and received no pay for their services to the community. They also were the bane of many a politician and law-enforcement officer, for they took pride in their skepticism and sometimes outright defiance of civilian authority, and they seemed to enjoy fighting one another in streets as much as they did fighting fires.
The raucous firefighters portrayed in the Martin Scorsese film Gangs of New York were very much a part of the Jacksonian tradition, a time when, as one of Andrew Jackson’s critics sniffed, it seemed as if anybody could become President. Or a fire chief, for that matter. Firefighting had been a gentleman’s vocation in the early years of the Republic, and volunteer fire companies in cities like Philadelphia actually functioned like private clubs. By the 1840s, however, urban companies were drawing from skilled craftsmen and laborers who insisted on electing their own officers, including, in some cities, the fire chief and fire commissioners. These rough-and-tumble volunteers horrified the gentry, sometimes with good reason. While the volunteers were brave, they were also undisciplined and often seemed more interested in exacting revenge on a rival company than in actually putting out fires.
Still, when disaster struck, the firefighters of the 1840s showed they had at least one thing in common with the more genteel volunteers of the past. The organizer of Philadelphia’s first volunteer fire company, Benjamin Franklin, observed that his colleagues in the firehouse “have a Reward in themselves, and they love one another.”
As America learned on September 11, 2001, that hasn’t changed. The fire service in early colonial America was a form of mandatory community service. When fire broke out, adult males roused themselves from bed or left their work to man bucket brigades, taking their place on one of two lines. One line passed buckets filled with water from a well or reservoir to the fire; the other line passed the empty buckets back to the water source. It was tedious work and not intended to save the burning building so much as it was a defense against a larger conflagration. Unfortunately, the citizen firefighters of seventeenth-century America had plenty of opportunity to learn their vocation. Capt. John Smith said of Jamestown that he would consider himself safer in “wild Indian country” than within the settlement because of the tendency of “fools” to “burn down their homes at night.” Ben Franklin said his colleagues in the firehouse “have a reward in themselves, and they love one another.”
Decades later, authorities in Boston and New Amsterdam shared Smith’s frustration. The frequency of fires and the dangers to the community at large inspired colonial officials to initiate a struggle that continues to this day: imposition of a rudimentary fire code, which placed the interests of the public in general and firefighters in particular against the rights of property owners and developers. Boston authorities and the famous Dutch reformer in New Amsterdam Peter Stuyvesant outlawed roofs made of grass and thatch, and they also banned the use of wooden chimneys—yes, wooden chimneys.
Fire was something of an obsession with Stuyvesant (that and the tendency of New Amsterdam’s settlers to drink heavily and behave badly; modern mayors of New York no doubt will sympathize). He raised a property tax in order to buy 150 new leather fire buckets. And he purged New Amsterdam of its curious wooden chimneys and thatched roofs. Few government officials respected the rights and privileges of property more than Peter Stuyvesant, for he was, after all, an agent of Holland’s business interests. Still, he recognized in the 1650s that public safety and fire prevention required at least limited government control over private property. And so was born the centuries-old debate between firefighters and real estate developers over just how much regulation in the name of safety is enough. More than 300 years later, in the late 1990s, some of New York’s firefighters battled developers over legislation that would have required all residential buildings to be retrofitted with sprinklers. It was a bitter battle, one the firefighters lost. The city council decided the measure would be too expensive.
Stuyvesant also took a tentative step toward a paid fire department in New Amsterdam, hiring four fire wardens, supplying them with buckets and hooks and ladders, and sending them out on patrol at night. They were empowered to examine private homes to make sure that chimneys were properly swept. Later citizens of the colony established a “rattle watch,” in which a captain and eight men were given rattles to sound an alarm when they spotted a fire (or a crime in progress). The patrols were so successful that Stuyvesant soon had a complement of 50 fire wardens. While they were not paid firefighters per se, these men certainly were the ancestors of today’s FDNY.
Firefighting as a profession began in Boston in 1678, about a quarter-century after the city had ordered its first, primitive fire engine from an ironmaker named Joseph Jynks. The city hired a professional fire company of a dozen men and an officer to operate another engine the city had recently purchased from London. No other cities immediately followed Boston’s lead in hiring and training a corps of professional firefighters. In fact, New York waited until 1865 before establishing a paid fire service. But as fire equipment became more sophisticated, colonial officials realized that they could no longer depend simply on the civic spirit of brave but untrained civilians. In 1731 New Yorkers assembled near City Hall to witness the arrival of the very latest in firefighting technology, two pumpers that could throw water on a fire through a primitive nozzle. The engines had been developed in the shop of a savvy English inventor named Richard Newsham, who had the foresight to publicize his machines in broadsides published in the New World. The advertisements noted that Newsham’s fire engines had so dazzled the Old World that no less a figure than King George II had ordered one to protect his palace. Thus was born, long before Madison Avenue was so much as a cow path, the celebrity endorsement.
The arrival of these sophisticated engines and the growth of settlements along the New World’s Eastern Seaboard soon required a trained corps of firefighters. Volunteer fire departments were organized in New York, Philadelphia, Boston (to complement the paid fire company there), and other towns. To encourage recruitment, city officials offered volunteer firefighters an exemption from jury service—a tactic that might be employed to good use today—and from militia duty.
Of course, not just any citizen was welcome. From its very beginnings, fire service was considered man’s work, and in most cities, Charleston, South Carolina, being one exception, white man’s work at that. What’s more, those white men were expected to be, in the words of a law that created New York’s volunteer fire department, “sober” and “discreet.”
There certainly was enough work, and enough danger, to keep the volunteers on the straight and narrow. Even as America’s emerging cities added to their fire codes by regulating building materials and restricting the storage of explosive material, fire was a constant worry. “By one thoughtless act,” wrote a Philadelphia citizen, “a whole neighbourhood, town or city, may be shortly reduced to ashes, great numbers of lives lost, and numbers ruined … in the dreadful conflagration.”
From the beginning, fire service was considered man’s work, and, in most cities, white man’s work at that. In the decades leading to the Revolution and for a time afterward, America’s volunteer fire companies included people of the caliber of Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Adams, and George Washington. Franklin, who surely was not the most objective source on the subject, described volunteer firefighters as “brave Men, Men of Spirit and Humanity, good Citizens, or Neighbours, capable and worthy of civil Society and the Enjoyment of a happy Government.” They certainly were worthy of admiration, for they were expected to respond instantly to an alarm, and more often than not, that meant leaving their homes at night, when more fires occur, and returning hours later—wet, cold, and exhausted, with no reward other than the admiration of fellow citizens and the camaraderie of their fellow firefighters.
One of firefighting’s hardiest traditions, the firefighting family, can be traced to the early volunteer days. The Stoutenburghs of New York served on the Common Council, won appointment to early patronage jobs like oversight of the city’s night patrol, and were prominent members of the city’s volunteer fire companies. One of them, Jacobus Stoutenburgh, was given the title of “chief engineer” of New York’s volunteer fire department in 1760. He was among America’s first fire chiefs.
He also was part of another fire department tradition—the convergence of firefighting and military service. Firefighters to this day tend to be veterans in numbers disproportionate to the general population (Chief Reginald Julius, for example, served in the Navy in World War II), and during the Civil War, firefighters formed their own regiments in the Union Army. Stoutenburgh was a patriot, and when George Washington evacuated New York in the fall of 1776, leaving the city to the British, he and many other volunteers under his command joined the American army. Legend has it that Stoutenburgh formed a battalion of firefighters and was commissioned an officer, and Stoutenburgh’s name does appear on muster rolls from the war.
The volunteer fire departments and fire clubs of the 1760s and 1770s played an active role in patriot agitation, as Benjamin L. Carp noted in an October 2001 article in The William and Mary Quarterly . Carp found that of the 36 men who turned out at the inaugural meeting of the Albany Sons of Liberty in 1776, 20 were volunteer firefighters or firemasters, who inspected buildings for fire hazards. “These social bonds,” Carp wrote, “… provided the structure for the formation of organized resistance to the Stamp Act.” At least seven fire companies in Philadelphia, Carp noted, instituted their own nonimportation agreements during patriotic boycotts of British goods in the 1760s and 1770s. (Among other measures, the firefighters swore off all but domestic beer.)
To be given the nozzle for the first time is to know that you’ve arrived as a young firefighter.
The end of the Revolution brought a reorganization of the young Republic’s volunteer fire departments. The model created under British rule remained largely intact, but over the first five decades of American independence, the profile of the volunteer firefighter changed. Businessmen and other civic leaders gave way to blacksmiths and cobblers and other skilled laborers in the 1830s. Soon the indefatigable diarist George Templeton Strong was complaining that “a large part of the firemen do nothing but bustle around in their caps, swear at everybody and try to look tremendous.” Strong found that every aspect of firefighting in the post-Jacksonian age was “as badly conducted as possible.” He did not mention, however, that he chose not to follow the fine example of his aristocratic uncle Benjamin Strong, a financier who had served as a volunteer years before.
For better and worse, this was the golden age of urban America’s volunteer fire departments, roughly from 1835 to the Civil War. In their less savory moments, these firemen would look not unlike today’s English soccer hooligan. Every company wanted the honor of what they called “manning the pipe”—in modern terms, working the nozzle. Racing to a fire only to be relegated to a supporting role, like relaying water to the main pumper, was nothing short of humiliating. (That point of pride remains intact. The nozzleman remains the envy of every self-respecting engine company, and to be given the nozzle for the first time is to know you’ve arrived as a young firefighter.) Brawls occasionally decided which company would work the pipes and which would provide unglamorous support.
Political clubhouses and gangs looked to firehouses as fertile recruiting ground in the 1840s for any number of reasons, not the least of them being that the neighborhood firehouse served as a social center. Not only the volunteers congregated there. So did young boys and teenagers who looked up to the firefighters as neighborhood celebrities. One New Yorker came to personify the intersection of politics, gangs, and firefighting: Bill Tweed, the onetime leader of the Cherry Street gang, the foreman of Engine Company 6 in downtown New York, and the boss of Tammany Hall. For Tweed, one job led naturally to the next.
Firefighters around the country have taken on new responsibilities—and, with them, new dangers. Clubhouse and gang loyalties gave an added ferocity to rivalries between companies. A nineteenth-century history of New York’s volunteers is filled with admiring references to manly displays of fisticuffs between companies before, during, and after conflagrations. Philadelphia’s firefighters in the 1840s and early 1850s were notorious for settling their intramural disputes with, in the words of a contemporary observer, “pistols, knives, iron spanners and slung shot, whenever they met, whether at fires or in the streets.” A civic committee charged in 1853 that there was “scarcely a single case of riot brought before the court that has not its origin in the fire departments… .”
Even where riots were uncommon, disorderly behavior was not. In Nashville, authorities in the 1850s cracked down on firefighters who thought that battling a blaze required the assistance of liquids stronger than mere water. In Pittsburgh in 1842 firefighters took it upon themselves to identify and then protect thoroughly houses that served as brothels. A Pittsburgh firefighter, William G. Johnston, wrote that “a rowdy element managed to get a foothold” in the fire department, and those rowdies believed that “fighting was no small part of the duties of a fireman.”
So was electioneering. Volunteer firefighters became a potent political force in New York, Baltimore, St. Louis, and other cities, to the dismay of reformers and, increasingly, the emerging nativist movement, which noted that the volunteer firefighters were becoming Irish and Catholic through the 1850s. As the historian Amy Greenberg noted in her study of nineteenth-century volunteer fire departments, Cause for Alarm , the first elected mayors of Baltimore and St. Louis were firefighters; so were several antebellum mayors of New York. In fact, when the New York Common Council fired a popular and decidedly independent fire chief, James Gulick, in the aftermath of the aptly named Great Fire of 1835—it burned 52 acres in the financial district and destroyed 700 businesses—the firefighters countered by nominating and then electing Gulick to the minor post of city register.
Firefighters were a natural voting bloc in the 1840s for the very reasons that firefighting remains one of the nation’s last guilds. Despite the violence between companies in the 1840s, firefighters were and still are intensely loyal to one another. They share dangers that no outsider can know. They were and still are quick to perceive disrespect or claim a collective grievance. Volunteer firefighters walked off away from their vocation in New York in 1836 and twice in Memphis, in 1858 and 1860, when they felt insufficiently appreciated. And, as firefighters proved in Baltimore, St. Louis, New York City, and elsewhere in the early days of the urban machine, they were happy to vote together when they felt slighted or their interests were at stake. The implications of this chip-on-the-shoulder insularity are being played out in firehouses throughout the country today, as women and minorities try to get a foothold in many professional departments.
Today’s firehouse culture, where firefighters literally live together and form bonds far stronger than in most civilian professions, has its roots in the intensely masculine, parochial, and raucous world of the Jacksonian volunteers. When cities began disbanding their volunteer departments before the Civil War and replacing them with professionals, the days of riot and rowdy behavior were over, but the culture was passed on—generally for the better, sometimes for the worse.
Professional firefighting in the cities of the late nineteenth century was something like indentured servitude. Firefighters were on duty all the time. They lived in their assigned firehouse 24 hours a day, save for three meal breaks, when they were allowed to return home for an hour or so. In some cities, chief officers lived with their families in their assigned firehouse. Days off were rare, perhaps one or two a month.
Still, the job was coveted, in part because professional firefighting retained the glamour and prestige it had when the work was performed by volunteers, in part because firefighting became, albeit slowly, a gateway job into the middle class. It was dangerous work, but with the coming of civil service reform in the 1880s, it also was secure work. Firefighters didn’t lose their jobs in hard times. City hall never went out of business.
Understandably, then, immigrants and the children of immigrants in the roiling cities of late nineteenth-century America coveted firefighting jobs. While immigrants from Germany, Poland, Italy, and Scandinavia show up on the rosters of fire departments in the 1880s and 1890s, no group became more identified with fire service than the Irish. Like many other immigrants, the Irish craved economic security, having fled that most insecure of worlds—tenant farming—in the old country. By the time cities across the country began forming professional departments, the Irish already were a powerful voting bloc. They were more than happy to work for city hall, and often their friends in city hall were more than happy to accommodate them.
Inquiries into the distinct, insular, cohesive phenomenon known as firehouse culture have launched a thousand dissertations, examining American firefighters from the perspectives of gender, class, and ethnicity. Few, if any, have pointed out that at least in large cities like Boston, Chicago, New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and San Francisco, firefighting in the late nineteenth century not only was masculine, working class, and Irish, it was Catholic too. In the firehouse, Catholic immigrants and their children found a society and culture they recognized. Firefighters even in the volunteer days came to regard themselves as a community unto themselves, a separate society self-segregated from politicians, civilians, and all other outsiders. Catholic immigrants, particularly those from Ireland, had set up their own institutions to separate themselves from Protestant nativists in the 1840s and 1850s. The fire departments of many large cities became almost an extension of the Catholic parish, school system, and social services networks.
Firefighting was transformed into fire science in the late nineteenth century with the introduction of training academies, civil service exams, and tough physical standards for candidates. But not all firefighting was done in tenement houses and factories, of course, and not all firefighters were from the streets of urban America. On October 8, 1871, the very day that the nineteenth century’s most famous fire broke out in Chicago, the Wisconsin lumber town of Peshtigo went up in flames. By the time it was put out, the fire had killed at least 1,200 people and destroyed more than a million acres of forest and rural settlements. Forest fires were common in Wisconsin, as they continue to be in the West, but the Peshtigo fire was unlike any other wildfire before or, in terms of lost lives, since. The Chicago fire, which killed at least 300 people, remains better known, but the Peshtigo fire was by far the greater catastrophe. And it continues to speak to another, less celebrated tradition of American firefighting, the professionals and volunteers who battle fires in rural and wild America. In Ghosts of the Fireground , a memoir of fighting recent wildfires in the West, Peter M. Leschak noted that the largest group of wildland firefighters are, in essence, freelancers who work sporadically for low wages and few, if any, benefits. Still, when fires break out, they put their lives on the line as surely as any professional firefighter in any American city or suburb.
Several twentieth-century fires stand out as tragic milestones: the blaze aboard the excursion boat General Slocum, which burned in New York’s East River in 1904, killing more than 1,200; the fires set off after the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco; the Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire in Boston in 1942, which killed nearly 500; the Hartford circus fire in 1944, which claimed 163 lives, many of them children; and the Happy Land social club fire in the Bronx in 1990, which killed 87. The worst fires often led to changes in firefighting tactics or building codes. After the blaze in Our Lady of the Angels school in Chicago in 1958, which killed 92 children and teachers, the city demanded that all schools have automated sprinklers, among other safety measures, and as was and is so common after such tragedies, observers wondered why such an elementary step had not been in place before the fire.
But no fire in American history had the impact of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York in 1911. The deaths of 146 garment workers, most of them young women, led to the passage of an array of laws regulating workplace safety and helped launch the careers of Alfred E. Smith, Robert F. Wagner, and Frances Perkins. It’s hard to imagine the New Deal without considering the outrage and reforms inspired by the Triangle Shirtwaist fire.
That blaze, which burned the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of a building that still stands near Washington Square Park, also inspired the fire service in New York and around the country to press for stronger fire codes, mandatory fire drills, and more extensive use of technology like sprinklers. Even as the Triangle blaze was roaring, Edward Croker, one of the great fire chiefs in New York and American history, was denouncing the employers, like the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, who refused to conduct fire drills. Croker, the nephew of the notorious Tammany boss Richard Croker, soon retired from the FDNY to become a full-time advocate for fire prevention.
Just a few years after the Triangle blaze, America’s professional fire departments began to evolve into the highly trained corps of emergency workers we know today. Those in New York and Boston organized their first rescue units, a foreshadowing of the role firefighters were to play on September 11, 2001—that of first responder to an emergency. Rescue companies were to become the elite units of the professional departments throughout the country. Armed with special tools and training, they were prepared for just about any emergency, even those unrelated to fire. Nearly a century later, firefighters around the country—professional and volunteer alike—have taken on new responsibilities and, with them, new dangers in a world where fire and murder can be exported from caves in Third World countries. To cite just one small example, during a panel discussion among fire chiefs in suburban New Jersey not long ago, firefighters told of the hazmat training they now receive as a matter of course after September 11. None of these departments had more than 100 members, which indicates just how widespread special training has become. In a sense, all firefighters belong to rescue companies now, although, given that firefighters have never lost the competitiveness that is the flip side to their intense solidarity, no rescue company member would ever concede such a premise.
Still, all firefighters know that if terrorists strike their city, or if some other catastrophe threatens lives and property, they will be on the front lines, risking their lives, as their predecessors did decades and even centuries ago. Volunteer or professional, urban or rural, whether battling blazes in apartment buildings or national parks, our firefighters share more than history and tradition and a sense of duty. They also share our admiration. With good reason.

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