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Professionalization of the Fire Department

General Alexander Shaler

Alexander Shaler served as a commissioner of Fire Department from 1867-1873.  He was a Civil War general who organized the new Department using a military model, and is credited with establishing discipline, accountability, and merit-based promotion.



Engine Company No. 47 Payroll, March 1883

The Engine Company No. 47 roster and payroll in March 1883.  Christopher Hoell was listed on the Company payroll.  From the City Record, 1883.  Larger image.


School of Instruction

Report on the first year of the Life Saving Corps and School of Instruction, which were based in Engine Company 47 quarters from 1883 until they moved to the Fire Department Headquarters in 1887.  Annual Report, 1883.  Larger image.

The Civil Service Examination for New York Firemen

"The Civil Service examination for New York fireman" an illustration accompanying the Harpers Weekly article "Testing Fireman."   Larger image.

New-York Firemen: Severe Tests They are Compelled to Undergo

A New York Times article from 1890 listing the steps to becoming a New York Fireman.

Metropolitan Fire Department (MFD) 1865-1870

The 1865 transition from volunteer to paid force was remarkably efficient.  Firemen were hired from the ranks of the volunteers, equipment was redeployed, and new steam engines were purchased.  In 1867, Civil War veterans General Alexander Shaler and Colonel Theodorus Bailey Myers were appointed Fire Commissioners, with General Shaler serving as President.  They are credited with instilling military discipline, defining districts and company boundaries, and organizing the department into companies, battalions, and brigades.  They revised the rules and regulations[1], created an accounting system for department equipment, established examinations for prospective firemen[2], taught officers classes, created boards of officers to examine candidates for promotion, and set the system of assimilated rank that continues in part today[3].

The Metropolitan Fire Department lasted for only five years.   In 1869, Tweed's candidate John T. Hoffman was elected governor and soon after Albany passed the Charter of 1870 or "Tweed Charter," which abolished all state control over New York City, returning the Fire Department of the City of New York.  In 1873, Tweed was sentenced to prison for embezzlement, and the Tweed Charter was replaced by the Charter of the Committee of Seventy, which the Legislature passed in 1873.  General Shaler had remained on the Board of Commissioners throughout these changes, and he drafted the Fire Department provisions for the new charter, which kept the Fire Department under city control. [4]

Engine Company No. 47 on Amsterdam Avenue (1881-1891)

Engine Company No. 47 was first organized in October 1881 as Chemical Engine 1 at 909 East 149th St in the Bronx.   In August 1882, the company was reorganized as Combination Engine Co. 47, and moved to 766 Amsterdam Avenue.  Combination engine companies were equipped with a steam engine, a ladder truck, and a hose tender, and used in less populated areas that might not need both an engine and a hook and ladder company.   The company was composed of 12 men including officers, and had five horses.  Company boundaries were 82nd St to 110th street between 8th Avenue and the North (Hudson) River.   Seven of the first members of Engine Company No. 47 had served together on Hook and Ladder Company 16, which had previously been quartered at 766 Amsterdam Avenue:  Captain James A. McCormick, Assistant Foreman Owen O'Rourke, and Firemen James K. P. Robinson, James Daly, Thomas E. Schiel, and John H. Griffin.  The new members were Engineer John H. Steele, Assistant Engineer Patrick Martin, and Firemen William Farrell, James Leavy, and James McNamee.[5]

The annual Report did not give company fire statistics for the first two years, but by 1884, Engine 47 had responded to 39 alarms and performed duty at 7 fires. [6]

School of Instruction and the Life-Saving Corps

In 1881 the Rules and Regulations were revised and expanded.[7]  The following year the department called for the establishment of two training courses: the School of Instruction, which covered the practical duties of a fireman, and the Life Saving Corps, taught by Christopher Hoell, a specialist from St. Louis brought to New York to give instruction in the deployment and use of scaling ladders and other rescue devices.   The classes met on the third floor of Engine Company No. 47, and an unoccupied sugar factory at 158th and the North River was used for scaling practice.   Prospective fire fighters were tested following the training, and only those who satisfied the instructors were eligible for assignment.  Attendance was made compulsory for any firemen seeking promotion, and by 1886, 604 veteran fireman had received training[8], and by 1888 all firemen younger than 40 had been ordered to attend.[9]

Civil Service

In 1883, when New York and Brooklyn became the first cities in the nation to adopt civil service regulations, the fire department already had training and testing programs in place.

The program became a model for other cities, and the article "Testing Firemen," Harper's Weekly proclaimed:

"The Fire Department of the city of New York has long been recognized both at home and abroad as among the best in the world as to efficiency, activity, system apparatus and progressiveness." [10]

In 1887, The School of Instruction and Life Saving Corps left Engine Company 47 and moved to the fifth floor of the newly-built Fire Department Headquarters on 67th Street.  Classes were conducted on the fifth floor and the outside walls were used for scaling practice.   A "Company School" was added in 1888 to afford "the entire force to obtain a familiarity and knowledge of the recent improvements in apparatus, implements, tools, ladders, and life-saving appliances, which are continually being added to the equipment department,"[11]  and the Annual Report published grades of companies attending the Company School.  The New York Fire College was founded January 1st, 1911, with schools for Officers, Engineers, Probabtionary Firemen and Companies. 

New York was proud of its skilled fire department.  A New York Times article from 1890 details the steps to becoming a fireman:

  • Initial application to either the Municipal Civil Service Board or to one of the three Fire Commissioners (though the Times notes that most prospective firemen apply directly to the Commissioners)
  • Complete a written application in his own handwriting before the Department secretary
  • Obtain signatures of four reputable witnesses who will certify that they know the applicant personally
  • Provide a sworn statement that no money has been paid
  • Meet with the department medical examiner for a physical exam and meet basic requirements for height, weight, chest circumference.
  • The application then goes to the Battalion Chief in whose district the applicant resides, who is required to make inquiries as to his character and reputation
  • If the battalion chief's report is favorable, the applicant is referred to the Civil Service Board in the Cooper Institute for a series of strength and agility tests.  A score of 60 or above is passing.
  • This is followed by a oral and written examination which includes reading, writing from dictation, and a general intelligence test.  A score of 70 is passing.
  • If the applicant passes both civil service exams, his name is placed on a list with his percentage, and holds his place on the list for a year.
  • Positions are filled from this list.   Newly hired firemen are placed on probation.  During this time they perform fire duty at night in their company, and attend classes at the School of Instruction from 10am to 4pm. 
  • At the end of the month they take final examination, and if they pass they are hired as a fireman, third grade.  Taller men are eligible to serve on Hook & Ladder companies.  After serving a year they are eligible for promotion to fireman second grade with a salary of $1000. [12]


[1] "Discipline of the Department."  Annual Report of the Metropolitan Fire Department (1867) 7-13.

[2] Costello, Augustine E., Our Firemen: A History of the New York Fire Departments (New York: A. E. Costello, 1887), 638.

[3] Limpus, Lowell M, History of the New York Fire Department (New York: Dutton, 1940), 258.

[4] Limpus, 262.

[5] City Record Supplement (1883), unpaginated.

[6] New York Fire Department, Annual Report (1884), 58.

[7] New York Fire Department,  "Rules and Regulations."  Annual Report (1881), 7-147.

[8] Golway, Terry,  So Others Might Life: A History of New York's Bravest, the FDNY from 1700 to the Present (New York: Basic Books, 2002),  141.

[9] New York Fire Department.  Annual Report (1888), 70.

[10] "Testing Firemen," Harper's Weekly 30 (October 9 1886) 651, 656.

[11] New York Fire Department.  Annual Report (1888), 70.

[12] "New-York Firemen: Severe Tests They are Compelled to Undergo" New York Times July 27, 1890.

Professionalization of the Fire Department