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.
Minimum height and weight requirements were reported by only 149 cities. These ranged from five foot four inches to five feet ten inches. Most minimums were five-six or five-seven. The average height of an adult male at the time was five-foot seven-inches as compared to five-foot nine-inches today. Of the 64 cities with maximum height requirements, ten cities limited a candidate’s height to six feet. Seven cities, including New York, limited applicants to a maximum height of six foot-five inches.
Of the 143 cities with minimum weight requirements, Cambridge, Massachusetts, had the lowest at 120 pounds. The average minimum weight requirement was around 140 pounds. On average, the 79 cities with maximum weight limits drew the line slightly over 200 pounds. With such a wide variety of standards, the firefighters of the period came in all shapes and sizes.
The homogeny of America's firefighters a century ago was their gender. Firemen were men. There were some rare exceptions, such as a women’s volunteer fire company in Maryland in the 1910s, but the fire service was almost exclusively men until the 1970s. By that time, women had started to enter the fire service in significant numbers despite varying degrees of resistance, discrimination and maltreatment by male firefighters, line officers and chief officers as well as many municipal government officials.
Firemen a century ago were almost uniformly white. There were some black firefighters. Some blacks served in integrated fire companies, where they encountered varying levels of discrimination and abuse. Other black firefighters, mostly those in Southern states and the District of Columbia, served in segregated or “Negro” fire companies. Typically, these units had white officers. Among these companies was Engine Company 4 in the District of Columbia, which is seen above. The government of the nation’s capital and the Federal government were segregated under the administration of Democrat President Woodrow Wilson. Wilson was a southerner and a raging bigot. His father had been a chaplain in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. Wilson left a legacy of segregation. The Washington D.C. Fire Department would remain segregated until 1962.
Some of the discrimination faced by black firefighters was slightly more subtle, but no less insidious. When George Bright, the first black firefighter in the City of Los Angeles, was promoted to Lieutenant in 1902, the department started a policy of de facto segregation. Bright was assigned to Chemical Company No. 1 with all of the other black firefighters in the department so that he would not be in command of any white firefighters. In 1907, the company became Hose Company No. 4. In the 1920s, the entire company was moved from its station in an all-white neighborhood to a mixed-race section of the city. The Los Angeles Fire Department would remain segregated until 1953.
The fire service in the large cities in the Northeastern part of America was dominated by Irish Catholics. With the start of the Irish Potato Famine in 1845 there was a massive increase in the number of Irish immigrants coming to America. Most of the estimated two-million Irish immigrants who arrived between 1845 and 1855 came to New York City, Boston, and other New England port cities. Over the next several decades, many more Irish immigrants moved to New England. Civil service jobs, such as those with urban fire and police departments, provided a great opportunity for these immigrants and their sons to realize the American Dream. A century later the cultural influence of the Irish on the American fire service still is apparent.
The earliest paid fire departments did not have civil service regulations. Appointment of a candidate as a fireman often was more a matter of who they knew than their objective qualifications to be a firefighter. By 1917, two-thirds of the cities surveyed had some level of civil service regulations for firefighters. This included almost all cities with a population greater than 300,000. By 1925, 85 percent of fire departments in Northern cities used civil service tests for hiring and/or promotion. Only 28 percent of fire departments in Southern cities used civil service tests for hiring and/or promotion.
Civil service regulations often required that would-be firefighters be a resident of the municipality for a period of a year or longer. Most required a medical examination. Many cities required an applicant to take a civil service test in order to be placed on a list of candidates that were eligible to be hired. Some cities awarded bonus points to civil service candidates for their prior municipal or military service.
Civil service tests usually involved a written test as well as some sort of a physical ability test. Written test requirements varied. For example, in 1912 the New York City written civil service test, or "mental examination" as it was called, involved a memory test, questions about local government and localities as well as arithmetic. Until 1905 the mental examination also included a spelling test. It appears that no other cities had spelling as part of their firefighter civil service test.
Some cities required a physical ability test. Others did not. Among those that required a physical ability test, there was no uniform test. Most physical ability tests tested a candidate’s strength, agility and endurance.
For the first 40 or so years of paid fire departments, there was little or no formal or structured training for new firefighters. Most all of the learning was hands-on and on-the-job. By the 1920s, formalized firefighting training would become the norm. According to a 1928 paper entitled “Standard Drills Best for Firemen,” written by Chief Joseph W. Fisher of the Dubuque, Iowa, “Fire fighting has become a highly trained profession calling for highly trained, men, possessed of active minds and bodies and officers who can lead their men in and tell them what to do …. The old system of assigning a man to a station without his first being initiated into the hazardous and highly skillful game of fire fighting was wrong.”
As the fire service had adapted to meet then many new challenges that it has been presented, firefighter training has evolved greatly. Today most volunteer firefighters receive significantly more training than paid firefighters received a century ago. Training also has become more realistic and generally safer than a century ago.
Today there are an estimated 1.1 million firefighters in America. These include about 360,000 career firefighters and about 740,000 volunteer firefighters. Firefighting still is a male dominated profession. About eight percent of all firefighters are women. Only about four percent of career firefighters are women. America’s firefighters serve in more than 29,000 different fire departments. About 18 percent of these were career departments, which protect about 70 percent of America’s population. The more than 24,000 volunteer fire departments protect the majority of American communities.