FDNY: Apparatus Fatalities, Technology and Change

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...

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.

Integrating Innovation
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 ericslamar@gmail.com.