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.