The earliest fire companies and fire departments in America were all volunteer organizations. With the advent of steam fire engines in the 1850s and 1860s, the first fully paid fire departments were formed. In April 1853, Cincinnati, Ohio, became the first fully paid fire department in America. This was followed by St. Louis, Missouri, in 1857, then Louisville, Kentucky, Chicago, Illinois, and Richmond, Virginia, in 1858. In 1859, Boston became the fifth fully paid fire department.
By 1900, there were a few dozen fully paid fire departments as well as many combination departments with a core of fulltime firefighters, which was supplemented by paid “call” firefighters or volunteer firefighters. By 1917, there were more than 200 paid fire departments in America with about 40,000 paid firefighters. Becoming a fireman in one of these fire departments a century ago sometimes required having connections to the local political boss or the city’s political machine. Other times, it required a good score on a civil service examination. All the time, it required courage and determination.
As for the more mundane requirements, such as age and height requirements, these varied greatly from department to department. A 1917 survey of more than 200 cities determined that 86 percent of the cities surveyed required a candidate to be at least 21 years old. Only three cities had a minimum age of 18 years. One required a candidate to be at least 25 years-old.