The New York City Fire Department: A Timeline of the City’s Firefighting History | History Hit

The New York City Fire Department: A Timeline of the City’s Firefighting History

Celeste Neill

09 Sep 2021
FDNY firefighters at Ground Zero after the September 11 attacks.
Image Credit: Anthony Correia /

The Fire Department of the City of New York (FDNY) is the biggest Fire Department in the United States and the second largest in the world, after the Tokyo Fire Department. Approximately some 11,000 uniformed fire-fighting employees serve the city’s 8.5 million residents.

The department has faced some unique fire-fighting challenges in its history. From the Great Fire of 1835 to the 1977 Blackout and the more recent devastation of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, ‘New York’s Bravest’ have been at the forefront of some of the world’s most famous fires.

The first firefighters were Dutch

The origins of the FDNY date back to 1648, when New York was a Dutch settlement known as New Amsterdam.

A recently arrived immigrant called Peter Stuyvesant formed a group of local volunteer fire wardens who became known as ‘the bucket brigades’. This was due to their equipment being little more than a large number of buckets and ladders that the group would patrol the local streets with, watching out for fires in the wooden chimneys or thatched roofs of local houses.

The city of New York

In 1663 the British took over the New Amsterdam settlement and renamed it New York. As the city’s population expanded, a more efficient means of fighting fires was needed. A system of hoses was introduced alongside more elaborate fire fighting apparatus such as hand pumpers, hook and ladder trucks, and hose reels, all of which had to be hand-drawn.

Dan takes a walk around Colonial New York with Karen Quinones (of Patriot Tours) to explore the great battle and in its original setting.
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Engine Company Number 1

In 1865 the first professional unit, Engine Company Number 1, went into service in Manhattan. This was the year that New York firefighters became full-time public employees.

The first ladder trucks were pulled by two horses and carried wooden ladders. Around the same time, the city’s first Emergency Medical Service appeared, with horse-drawn ambulances operating from a local hospital in Manhattan. The first reference to the ‘F-D-N-Y’ was made in 1870 after the Department became a municipally controlled organisation.

In January 1898, the Greater City of New York was created with the FDNY now overseeing all fire services in the new boroughs of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island.

FDNY Battalion Chief John J. Bresnan (left) responding to an incident.

Image Credit: Internet Archive Book Images / Public Domain

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

On 25 March 1911, a large fire in the Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory killed 146 people, many of them workers who had become trapped inside the building. It triggered a wave of reform to New York State Labor Law, which rolled out the first laws in regards to mandatory fire escapes and fire drills at work.

In 1912 the Bureau of Fire Prevention was created. In 1919 the Uniformed Firefighters Association was formed and a fire college was created to train new firefighters. The first organisations were also formed, in the early part of the 20th century, to protect the rights of minorities in the Department. Wesley Williams was the first African American to achieve commanding rank during the 1920s and 1930s.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire on 25 March 1911.

20th-century firefighting

The department rapidly expanded over the next 100 years to prepare for the possibility of attack during multiple foreign wars, whilst dealing with the complexity of protecting the city’s fast-growing population.

The FDNY developed equipment and strategies to fight fires along the vast waterfront area of the city with a squad of fire-fighting boats. In 1959 the Marine Division was established. It went on to play a critical role in fighting major New York fires such as the Jersey City Pier fire in 1964 and the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001.

Financial crisis and social unrest

As New York’s prosperity dwindled in the 1960s and 1970s, poverty and civil unrest grew, leading to what became known as the city’s ‘war years’. Property values slumped, so landlords took to burning down their assets for insurance payouts. Arson rates rose, and firefighters were increasingly attacked while riding on the outside of their vehicles.

In 1960, the FDNY battled roughly 60,000 fires. In 1977, by comparison, the department fought nearly 130,000.

The FDNY implemented a number of changes to combat the challenges of the ‘war years’. New companies were formed towards the close of the 1960s to alleviate the strain on existing firefighters. And in 1967, the FDNY enclosed its vehicles, preventing firefighters from riding on the outside of the cab.

The 9/11 attacks

The September 11 terror attacks took the lives of some 3,000 people, including 343 New York City firefighters. Search and rescue efforts at Ground Zero, as well as the clearance of the site, lasted for 9 months. The flames at Ground Zero were only fully extinguished on 19 December 2001, 99 days after the attack.

The FDNY received roughly 2 million letters of praise and support after 9/11. They filled two warehouses.

In the aftermath of 9/11, the FDNY launched a new Counter-Terrorism and Emergency Preparedness unit. A medical scheme was also developed to monitor and treat the various illnesses suffered by FDNY crews after 9/11.

Former FDNY Commissioner Thomas Von Essen shares his memories from the frontline of 9/11. On the morning of September 11th, 2001 terrorists flew planes into both the World Trade Centre towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington with a further plane crashing in Pennsylvania as the passengers onboard attempted to wrest control of the aircraft from the hijackers. This atrocity utterly changed the world leaving thousands dead and injured and launched the War on Terror.
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Celeste Neill