A decade-by-decade graph of fatal FDNY apparatus accidents
Photo credit: The Last Alarm
Saturday Night, September 9, 1848
Edward Crowley, a member of Manhattan Engine 20, was one of a crew pulling their hand pumper to a huge fire in Brooklyn. Like a number of other responding companies, they would travel by ferry across the East River. As the apparatus left quarters and proceeded down Fulton Street toward the docks, Crowley apparently lost his footing and fell. Unable to move out of the way, one of the wheels crushed his skull and he died instantly.
Edward Crowley is surely one of America's first firefighters to be killed in an apparatus accident and may be the first such fatality in New York City. Since that late summer night in 1848, 157 other New York Firefighters have died in apparatus accidents.
The Last Alarm
In 2006, Michael Boucher, Gary Urbanowicz and Frederick Melahn, Jr., published a book detailing line-of-duty deaths in New York City. Their effort commences with a death recorded in 1799 and continues through 2006. It is a fascinating story of America's most celebrated fire department. It is also the documented history of a fire department told through the deaths of its members. Their research provides a unique opportunity to explore the relationship between firefighter fatalities and fire apparatus across two centuries.
The Good Old Days?
New York obtained their first pumping engines in 1731 and the first hose cart in about 1818. Beginning then and for years afterward, hose carts and hand pumpers were pulled by teams of as many as 20 volunteers. Though there may have been a limit to how fast they could go, getting to the fire safely required a good deal of teamwork and coordination. These devices were especially hard to control going downhill and it is unlikely that Crowley was the last firefighter to be killed pulling one.
Firefighters scoffed at the notion that horses might be better suited to pull fire apparatus and the competition between men and horses was fierce and legendary. The first documented use of horses for this purpose is in about 1828. In 1832 a devastating Cholera epidemic struck New York and horses were forced into service to pull fire apparatus as so many firefighters were felled by the disease. In that year Hook and Ladder #1 purchased the first horse for $88; it lasted four years.
In exploring the underlying causes of apparatus related deaths it's appropriate to distinguish between the volunteer and paid departments. In the period covered by The Last Alarm, there were 12 discernable apparatus fatalities during the 65 years between 1800 and 1865, the height of the volunteer era. We can assume that because of the paucity of records there were probably more volunteer deaths related to accidents that were not recorded. However, in the 65 years (1865-1930) following the creation of the paid department, there were 82 deaths. This represents an almost 700 percent increase in the fatality rate. As will be discussed later, there does not seem to be a direct relationship between the number of runs and the number of fatalities in the sense that a busier fire department might be presumed to automatically account for increasing apparatus related deaths.
From 1865 through the end of the 19th century there was an average of one firefighter killed every other year in an apparatus related accident in the city. Firefighters variously pulled the pumpers by hand, or ran along with the rigs or rode on them as they were pulled to fires. A large number of these fatalities were from being run over by the apparatus or the horses.
Types of Rigs
There was a gradual transition in types of apparatus and their means of locomotion and during key periods there were a variety of different types in use at the same time. In the 1850s the first steamers were placed in service including a few that were self-propelled. Predictably, they were scoffed at for a variety of reasons. An 1850 plan dividing the city into eight fire districts and limiting responses to companies from just two districts as opposed to city-wide may have reduced the number of apparatus accidents as fewer companies were responding to an alarm.
The widespread use of steam engines also meant the increased use of horses to pull them because of their size and weight. It was generally felt that the response limit in the late 19th century for a horse-drawn steamer was five miles before the team of horses was exhausted. Hand engines were used until at least the end of the civil war.
Technological advances related to fire apparatus during the 19th century seem to primarily be the shift to horse-drawn rigs and steam powered over hand operated pumps. The 1865 legislation mandating the paid department also included a provision that horse-drawn steamers would be used. The combination of these two changes meant much heavier apparatus moving at a higher rate of speed. Between 1850 and 1900, forty firefighters were killed in accidents; of these, 34 fell from apparatus and 22 of those were run over by the rig, the horses, or both.
One factor surely contributing to the death rate was the condition of the streets. Manhattan's famous grid system was expanding slowly and imperfectly uptown. In the early 19th century few streets were paved. Broadway was paved to the intersection of the Bowery and it in turn was paved north to what is now 233 Street in the Bronx. An 1818 zoning battle ended with the area west of Sixth Avenue from Houston to 14th St. (Greenwich Village) being exempted from grid requirements resulting in an "eccentric and baffling" street pattern that exists to this day.
In the 1870s a paved street consisted of "successive layers of stone broken into pieces of nearly uniform size." Further downtown, cobblestones were removed on Broadway, Wall, West and other streets and replaced with granite blocks set in sand which "produced a jarring, undulating ride; carriages appeared to rise and fall as if on a troubled sea." Fifth, Madison, and Lexington Avenues barely made it to present day Midtown before petering out in boulder strewn paths. Pulling a heavy steamer across these surfaces that were often slick or icy would have been a perilous experience. The accident statistics seem to bear that out.
Paradoxically, some of the best streets were in the "suburbs," including the area around 110th Street and the Harlem River where Boss Tweed had created whole neighborhoods and cross town connecting streets noted for their quality. Like the variety of apparatus and appliances in the fire department, the streets across the city were a hodge-podge that often spelled death and disaster for firefighters.
As early as 1697 the city was requiring homeowners to hang a lantern from an upper story "in the darke time of the moon." In 1759 whale-oil lamps were installed as a crime fighting measure. In the 1820s the first gaslights were installed to wide acclaim. The final step in the illumination of the city was the adoption of an electric light system which was seriously undertaken in the 1880s. By 1886 there were hundreds of street lamps up several avenues from the Battery to 59th Street. Still, much of the city was in darkness after sunset and for many years the fire department would continue to make night-time responses in low light conditions that must have contributed to the number and severity of accidents.
In the 1870s, some 18,000 vehicles used Broadway every day. It was said that to attempt to cross it was to take your life in your hands. In addition to the 40,000 horses and thousands of pedestrians, there was also stiff competition from horse cars and trolleys. And, any semblance of modern traffic control was non-existent.
At the close of the century, horse cars were rapidly being replaced by electric trolleys and the result was a combination of chaos and death on the streets. By 1885 trolleys had killed 105 people and injured another 400, most of them children. These locomotive size vehicles moved at 30 mph, yet still had the braking system of a horse car. Several firefighter fatalities were the result of collisions with trolley cars, their power poles or tracks.
We may grumble about the traffic we face today but it pales in comparison to what these early urban firefighters faced on every run they made.
Dawn of the 20th Century
Horses were heavily used throughout the first decades of the 20th century. In 1906 the department had a stable of 1,500. By 1915, the conversion to motorized apparatus was well underway; it would be complete by 1925. From 1900 to 1930 the annual death rate from apparatus accidents nearly doubled to two per year; 57 firefighters were killed in apparatus accidents. In 1915 the department was about one-half the size it is today.
There can be little doubt that the conversion from horse drawn to motorized rigs was a turbulent time of technological change within the department. Greater speeds were achievable and there was essentially no protection for firefighters who were simply hanging on to the sides of apparatus. It is likely that many engineers were operating large and powerful machines for the first time.
From 1931 through 1960, 37 firefighters were killed in apparatus accidents. Twenty-five of these incidents were collisions with another vehicle; a trend that first begins to emerge around 1912. In fact, from 1912 through 1925, 50 percent of the fatalities were collision related. Were engineers simultaneously adapting to motorized apparatus and the proliferation of other vehicles on the streets? Firefighters have been killed in collisions with other department units in (at least) 1851, 1863, 1907, 1925, 1930, 1932, 1938, 1945, and twice in 1954.
New York began procuring pumpers with jump seats as early as 1947. Still, some or all firefighters continued to ride on the back step until well into the 1970s. Firefighters assigned to ladder companies also continued to stand, especially those assigned to tower ladders, as they lacked enough seats for the assigned crews. The first crew cab pumpers were ordered in 1969 and it's acknowledged that by 1980 most crews were riding inside and sitting down, though not belted in.
During the late 1960's and early 70's New York endured a period of unprecedented building fires as wide swaths of the city were ravaged by arsonists. Both the number of runs and workers skyrocketed as whole blocks of tenement buildings were gutted night after night, week after week. As an example, a single firehouse, Engine 82 and Ladder 31, ran a total of 157,000 runs between 1965 and 1977. Despite the extraordinary number of fire department responses, there were but five apparatus fatalities from 1965 to 1980 citywide. And this was a period when by and large, firefighters were still standing, just as they had 100 years before. From the same period 100 years earlier, (1865 to 1880) there were 12 apparatus deaths when the department ran a fraction of the calls it did during the "fire wars" period.
There seems to be little correlation between the number of runs and the relative risk to responding Firefighters over the period from 1865 to 2000 as the greatest number of fatalities was during the earlier and quieter period when the fire department was significantly smaller and much less busy.
Lessons for the Future: Technology, Infrastructure and Change
Just two decades out of nearly 170 years account for 26 percent of the apparatus related fatalities: 1861-1870 and 1921-1930. During this time the department was dealing with extraordinary internal change. In the earlier period the paid fire department was created (1865) but more importantly, the conversion to steam pumpers was occurring. As stated previously, these rigs were heavier and higher and operators and crews were traveling at greater speeds. In the latter period, 1921-1930, the final conversion to motorized apparatus was occurring and again, fire department members were coping with new technology that also entailed larger risks because of size and speed. Fifteen firefighters were killed in rig accidents between 1921 and 1925. In both periods the department was also growing dramatically. During the decade from 1851-1860, the volunteer force essentially doubled in size. From 1915 through 1925, FDNY grew by some 1,100 members.
It's no surprise that the fire department took advantage of technology in the various forms of horses, steam, and combustion engines to enhance their operations. These innovations were undoubtedly introduced into an urban environment that was, at least initially, poorly suited to deal with them. The infrastructure of the city was lacking and only slowly caught up with the proliferation of vehicles, and their increasing speed. Street surfaces, lighting, lack of traffic control, inexperience of other drivers, and the competition with trolleys and other large vehicles created a very hazardous environment in which to operate these new rigs. In both of the key decades, after peaking, fatalities drop off dramatically as the department apparently adjusts to the new technology and the external environment catches up in terms of improvements in streets, lighting and traffic control.
Six in 50
There have been six apparatus fatalities in New York in the last 50 years and none in the last 28. This is a stunning fact particularly given the number of firefighters and runs involved. An important consideration has to be that during this time there has been no equivalent technological innovation that has fundamentally altered the method of propulsion used to travel to fires. In addition, the external environment has been, at least in relation to the two prior periods, either static or improving. We are operating in what is essentially a stable response environment. Finally, though we continue to rely on combustion engines, the design and construction of fire apparatus and chassis components has improved dramatically and Firefighters now ride inside, often sitting down, and sometimes even belted.
If the rise in fatalities was largely due to the introduction of new technologies into a lagging external environment it raises the issue of whether or not similar hazards exist in the 21st century. Such would seem to be the case for the entire fire service. We have some potent examples where communication technology, especially portable radios, have been introduced into an external environment where their performance has been judged to be very poor. Another example is the initial wave of personal alarm safety devices that performed poorly across a number of areas because of their lack of automation and the complexity of the environment they were designed to operate in. We can expect that our reliance on information technology will create other opportunities for "operational enhancements" that may not integrate well into the response environment. These include fireground personnel tracking systems that will claim to relieve members from accounting for each other's whereabouts during interior firefighting.
Down the Road
George Santayana said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Sooner or later, a better way will emerge to get to where we need to go and we will adopt it. The greatest honor that can be paid to those who have been casualties of our earlier attempts to integrate technology into an imperfect environment is to make the next chapter of our long journey of "getting there" safer for everyone involved. That ultimately means understanding that we must carefully take into account the internal and external environments in which we operate because lives are surely at stake.
- Boucher, Michael L., Frederick B Melahn, Jr. and Gary R. Urbandowicz. 2006. The Last Alarm. Mt Publishing Co.
- Burrows, Edwin G. and Mike Wallace. 2000. Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. Oxford University Press.
- Dunshee, Kenneth Holcomb. 1952. As You Pass By. Hastings House Publishers.
- Engine 82, Ladder 31 Centennial Celebration. 2007.
- Limpus, Lowell M. 1940. History of the New York Fire Department. New York: Dutton.
- Personal Interviews. 2009
ERIC LAMAR lives and works in Washington, D.C. He has been involved in the fire service for 30 years. To read Eric's complete biography and view his archived articles, click here. You can reach Eric by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.