The New York Fire Department: Background to the Huge Organization with More than 11,000 People

5:46 pm  |  08.12.2021

The firefighters in New York are arguably the only people nearly every resident likes. Long before their heroic mission on September 11, 2001, in which 343 of them lost their lives in the fire of the World Trade Center, the New Yorkers gave them the flattering name “New York’s Bravest”.

The New York Fire Department Transport

The beginnings of the New York Fire Department (NYFD) can be traced back to 1865. The paid professional fire brigade was called the Metropolitan Fire Department at the time. At first, it was only used in Manhattan, later also in the other boroughs of Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island.

Today there are a total of 11,400 firefighters, all full-time, including 32 women, who are distributed across 218 stations in the city. In addition, the FDNY has around 2,800 employees for medical emergencies and a further 1,200 civilian employees. The FDNY is responsible for 772 km2 of the densely populated urban area and is the largest fire department in the United States. The 2021 FDNY budget is $ 2.08 billion.

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It is not only because of the hero status associated with it that a commitment to the fire department in New York is worthwhile. There are relatively few missions, most of them either ambulance missions or false alarms, i.e. long periods of waiting and idleness. If you factor in bonuses and overtime, a firefighter earns more than USD 100,000 a year after five to six years with the FDNY. He can retire after 20 years and will continue to receive half of his original salary as a pension for the rest of his life.

The firefighters also have a lot of free time. After day shifts 36 hours each, after night shifts even 72 hours. Many of them have part-time jobs. Their job is also not as dangerous as is generally thought and is therefore not included on the US Department of Labor’s list of the most dangerous occupations. The risk of dying in the field is usually lower than that of a truck driver. September 11, 2001, was of course a huge exception. In the ten years before and after these attacks, i.e. a period of 20 years, a total of 43 firefighters were killed in action, some of them from heart attacks.

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As a combined fire-fighting and rescue unit, the FDNY is the largest organization of its kind in the world and carries out around 1.3 million emergency trips a year. One million of these relate to medical emergencies alone. All other missions during the year add up to 300,000, of which only about 30,000 are caused by burning buildings and a little less by other fires.

Some stations, like the one in the Zorkville neighborhood of Manhattan, have cats, the so-called Firehouse Cats. This is Carlow

But if there’s a fire, the NYFD is very effective: the average approach time last year was an impressive 4 minutes and 30 seconds – a new record and a great logistical achievement in such a huge city. The recognized good training proves itself in the high quality of the work – probably no other fire service in the world fights fires better. The 109,000 hydrants in the city also help, where each one, when open, shoots 4,000 liters of water per minute from the pipe.

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FDNY 2021 Calendar

But it’s not only hot when there is a fire. Every year a calendar is published that shows the twelve firefighters with the most sex appeal, who present themselves to the world of women with muscles and bare chests. The profits from this best-seller will be donated to charitable causes.

The Great Fire of 1776

The Great Fire Illustration

On the night of September 21-22, 1776, a huge fire broke out in western New York. While the British under General William Howe were trying to take the city, it is believed that a fire broke out in the ‘Fighting Cocks’ tavern, which quickly spread through the streets of the city. And while people fled and tried to save their belongings, between 400 and 500 buildings burned down – almost a quarter of the city. Trinity Church was also among the buildings destroyed by the fire. After British seafarers finally put out the fire, no culprit could be found, so all 200 suspects were eventually released.

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The Great Fire of 1835

On December 16 and 17, 1835, there was a catastrophic fire that burned the New York Stock Exchange and much of the southern tip of Manhattan around Wall Street. 

A fire broke out in a five-story warehouse on Merchant Street (now Beaver Street) in the then snow-covered city, which was fed by unfavorable winds from the northwest towards the East River. The firefighters had to punch holes through thick layers of ice to get water in the cold night. However, the water froze in the hoses almost immediately. Attempts to contain the fire through targeted explosions failed due to the lack of explosive powder. Experts later strongly doubted whether it would have helped. Firefighters from Philadelphia, over 150 kilometers away, rushed to the rescue after seeing the enormous glow of the fire from there.

In the end, around 600 buildings were destroyed by the fire. The damage amounted to $ 20 million, which is probably several hundreds of millions of dollars today. Many insurance companies were among the victims themselves and unable to pay for the damage. Two people died. Many of the buildings were new at the time and had copper roofs, which melted in the immense heat and flowed in large rivulets into the East River. Contemporary witnesses reported that the river looked like a huge lake of blood.

The Fire on the “General Slocum”

The “General Slocum” was a paddlewheel steamer that was built in New York in 1891 and named after Congressman Henry Warner Slocum. 

The ship served as an excursion boat and had hit the headlines several times due to mishaps and accidents. On June 15, 1904, the “General Slocum” caught fire. Onboard were members of the Lutheran Church, Americans of German origin who wanted to go on an excursion. An estimated 1,021 to 1,342 people on board were killed in the fire. Until September 11, 2001, no disaster in New York had left so many victims.

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The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

On March 25, 1911, 146 workers, almost all of them women, were killed in a fire in a textile factory. 

The factory owners had locked the doors to the stairwell and exits to prevent workers from smoking during working hours. Many of the women jumped from the 9th and 10th floors of the building during the fire because the ladders of the fire engines did not reach up to them. These horrific events later led to a change in the law on safety at work and the enormous growth of the textile workers’ union.

September 11, 2001 / World Trade Center

56 minutes after one of the two planes flew in Tower 2, it collapsed, 30 minutes later Tower 1 as well. Some buildings around were destroyed or damaged by falling steel. When it became clear what unprecedented extent the disaster would have, the FDNY decided to take a step that it had not taken for 50 years: the calling up of all firefighters who were not on duty that day. The FDNY helped evacuate 25,000 people in the seven-building complex.

343 firefighters lost their lives, the greatest loss of life in the FDNY’s 156-year history and in all 350 years since the United States began fighting fires. The dimensions of the disaster can also be seen in the loss of almost 90 pieces of equipment, such as fire engines, FDNY ambulances, special emergency vehicles, extremely long ladders. Even in “normal” major fires, it almost never happens that even a single piece of such equipment is destroyed.

The terrible events cemented the reputation of the firefighters among New Yorkers as heroes.

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