Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

Chapter 47, Part V

By Holice and Debbie

Another article, an appeal to the State Legislature, says, "If we except a few decent young men, sturdy and honest workmen, the bulk is comprised of rude fellows without any regular calling, lazy clerks, street loungers, bruisers, and sportsmen who have their pockets full of money though they never work. * * * There is no actual fire in the City of New York which does not attract at least one thousand two hundred firemen, and about as many ex-members with the different companies, the children, the nincompoops and the thieves. * * * We emphatically affirm--because we have seen several fires in both London and Paris, and know how they were disposed of, that the Fire Department of new York is a costly and ridiculous farce."

When the bill was before the Assembly the following comments were made in a prominent newspaper:

The bill transforming our city's Fire Department into Paid one, having passed the Senate by a very large majority, is now before the Assembly on its third reading. There is said to be danger tht it will be beaten by bribery. We do not credit the imputation, though without bribery we are sure it cannot be defeated. And for these reasons:

I.--the insurance companies are necessarily and intimately acquainted with fire and their extinguishment, and know what methods prove effective ad what are conducive to needless loss, waste and robbery. And these companies, with scarcely an individual dissenter, are praying for the change proposed. Their officers are of all parties and of none; but on the question they are substantially unanimous. They originated the movement for a Paid Department; we are but deferring to their judgment in the premises.

II.--The precedents and analogies are all in favor of the measure. A village, or small city, in which a fire occurs but seldom, adheres naturally and properly to the volunteer system; but wherever fighting fire becomes a business, requiring constant, vigilance and the devotion of a large share of the firemen's time, it is simply honest and just that they should be compensated. The very worst way of paying them is to incite them to pay themselves.

III,--Under the present system five times as many firemen are enrolled as are actually needed. They thus secure exemption from onerous public duties, and become members of a powerful organization, which controls nominations and elections, rewards favorites and takes vengeance on adversaries. The engine houses are dens of political intrigue, where in primary meetings re rehearsed and regular nominations "fixed"--for a consideration. It is the fact which incites the fierce hostility which the proposed reform encounters. The firemen are the Janizaries, the Praetorian Guard, of our ruling politicians. They make our aldermen and councilmen--a bad lot, but this is owing in good part to the badness of the raw material. To abolish the volunteer Fire department is to derange the machinery whereby our city is made to pile up such atrocious copperhead majorities. We do not suppose this will make much difference in the long run, yet the terror and rage of our governing classes argue that the placer thus disturbed is a very rich one. But we want no votes for a Paid Fire Department on any other ground than that of its intrinsic right.

IV.--The very men who make the most ado in Albany against it are themselves paid firemen now, and anxious to remain so. The engineers who insist that firemen should not be paid take good care to be well paid themselves. The cost of having our fires put out for nothing, including ground rent, engine houses, engines, trucks, hose, salaries, etc., etc., amounts to several hundred thousand dollars per annum; yet we are asked to consider this an unpaid service.

V.--Our firemen now chose their superiors, who of course cannot control them. The chief and assistant engineers are made so by votes cast in the engine houses. This proves fatal to subordination and discipline. If the chief should prove stern, he will be superseded at the next election. Hence lawlessness and crime, which are winked at from interested motives.

VI.--Notoriously, our fire Department is a nursery of dissipation and vice. Large numbers of the firemen sleep or "bunk" at their respective engine houses. This cuts them off from all home or virtuous female influence, while exposing them to peculiar and urgent temptations. Our city is far more debauched and corrupt than it would be but for the deadly influence which centers in and emanated from our engine houses.

VII.--With the Paid Department we may reduce the number of firemen four-fifths, while the commissioners, being independent of the firemen, could enforce discipline, punish rowydism, and expose theft. We shall no longer squander on fire extinguishment five times the force actually needed therefor. Vicious boys and rowdies will no longer "run with the machine" on purpose to steal whatever they can surely hide. We shall save, by the change proposed, time, money, muscle and morals. And, while the whole community is signally benefited, nobody will be injured, unless it be such as clearly ought to be."

Legislators at Albany! What valid reason, not of the greenback persuasion, can be given for hesitating to pass this bill?

Mayor C. Godfrey Gunther's sympathies with Volunteers are in legislative crisis were evinced by the following preamble and resolutions prepared by him, which were adopted by firemen at a meeting at Firemen's Hall:

Whereas, the threatened passage of the act now pending before the Legislature of the State, which contemplated the establishment of a Paid Fire Department in lieu of the present Volunteer system, demands at our hands an expression of our sense of the unmerited degradation hat is about to be put upon those comprising the present Volunteer system--a system that now is, and from time immemorial has been identified and most intimately connected with the best interests, the development, progress, and prosperity of the City of New York; and

Whereas, it is evident, in the opinion of this meeting, not only by the arguments or statement used before the Legislature, by the advocates of the new system, but by the fact that, without any previous intimation of the intention to supersede, violently and suddenly, the present system, without any consultation with its officers to the best means of improving it where improvements re needed; without even allowing of an opportunity to test the relative value or efficiency of the teo systems, as well as entirely ignoring the opinions or wishes of the people of this city, who are the most directly and the most really interested parties, that it is intended to degrade the present Department, and, through it, the people of their city. Be it therefore

Resolved, That we regard the passage of the proposed act as an unmerited rebuke to men who have, on many occasions, voluntarily periled their lives in protecting the lives and property of their fellow citizens; that we regard it as unwise in forcing a new and untried experiment upon the city, when a failure is certain to be followed by consequences that may involve a fearless loss in life and property. We contend, that if intended for the good of the city, and if destined to more effectually to guard its property and its interests, a gradual introduction of the new system should be provided for, whereby a test of its advantages over the old one could be made, a decisive comparison would be instituted, and the best one of the two be ultimately adopted; we re clearly of the opinion that it is a willful, positive, and direct interference with, and usurpation of the rights of the people of this city, who, if they desired a change, have the power in their own hands, through their immediate representatives in the city government, to inaugurate a system similar to that now proposed by the State Legislature; and be it further

Resolved.--In consideration of the above and many other equally cogent reasons, that we hereby earnestly and fervently yet respectfully remonstrate against the passage of the proposed bill now before the Assembly; more particularly at this time, when the present system was never more efficient, was never better governed or disciplined, and was never in a more advanced state of subordination to duty; and we also fervently and sincerely yet respectfully remonstrate against any change in the present system until it is satisfactorily proven that it cannot be improved in character and efficiency, and until the change shall have been asked for by those who are the most intimately and directly interested--the people of the city--who alone should be consulted and their consent obtained before making the proposed or any other change in any department of their own local government.

The Volunteer organs replied sharply to the attacks made on them at Albany and by the press. One article says:

"So long as the opponents of our present Volunteer Fire Department system confined themselves to facts, and admitted the sole intention they has in view was to benefit the existing organization while they did not expect to make any changes, except perhaps to reduce the force, and confine it within certain limits, we let them go on, and remained silent. Since these opponents have taken themselves to argument, and added to argument vituperation and falsehood, we think it is but just for us to say a few words about the matter.

"The insurance men have testified to but little. They make sweeping assertions against the present organization; say that is cumbersome, expensive, and inefficient, and they believe "the citizens at large are in favor of the change." * * * these very insurance men, when steamers were first introduced, were the loudest in praise of the same. Notwithstanding we foresaw the trouble, and protected against the introduction of too many machines of this kind, these same exempt firemen, who had gone into the "policy" business expected that as steamers were introduced , fires would decrease and the losses must consequently be quite light. * * * They wanted steamers--steamers--steamers. They have got them; and what is the result? The damage done by water at fires in New York amounts to more than that caused by flame and smoke. * * * In just the same light we regard some of these insurance men, who, because they cannot be elevated to positions of trust and responsibility in the present Volunteer Fire Department turn around and villify it. As investigation is demanded. We can give these insurance company gentlemen all they ask--and more too.

" A word to the Police Department, who seemed to have joined issue with the insurance companies. It is a well-known fact that Police Commissioner Thomas C. Acton, instead of attending to the business he was appointed to look after, has been bothering his brains over this Paid Fire Department scheme all last summer, and has asserted he can command the hundred and fifty thousand dollars, if necessary, to break up the present organization, and substitute some other plan in its stead. While himself, Superintendent Kennedy, Inspector Carpenter, and "a number of policemen" are in Albany, lobbying for this Paid Fire Department Bill, the good people of the City of New York who pay those individuals most liberally for wheat little they do, are almost afraid to walk the street after dark for fear they may be robbed or murdered. * * * When the violence of he mob was at its height, and not a policeman dared show his face, did not these gentleman, assisted by certain citizens whom we can name, drive back the mob, so that the different apparatus could get to work? Who patrolled the city at night, as a special police, when those paid for the duty could not be seen? Who drove the thieves and rioters out of the stores in the principal streets? Who protected the shipping, the banks, the gas houses, the croton waterworks, the different factories, and other public buildings, before the national Guard belonging to the city reached home? We answer, the firemen. * * *

So far as reducing the cost and force of the new York Volunteer Fire Department is concerned, of improving it in every shape and way, of making all reasonable and necessary rules and regulations to control the organization, and make every officer and men in it know his proper place. we are with the police commissioners, insurance folk, and everybody else. * * * We admit the mistakes, or misdeeds of certain firemen. We stand up as no apologist for them, believing that the time has come when these mistakes can be corrected, and the organization may be improved and perfected. We feel satisfied that the community at large will sustain us in trying to retain the present organization rather than inaugurate an expensive political machine (for such it is intended to be) to gratify a few men who want office and pay.

AS for doings in Albany, of which too much as already been said, we care nothing. The business there done may be summed up in a few words. Some of the metropolitan police went up (we don't know who paid their expenses) and testified, to what? They thought and believed we had bad men and bad companies in the Fire Department. The clerk of the Board of Fire Commissioners was ordered to read, before the committee, in the case of Engine Companies No. 40 and 53--both wiped out of existence long ago by the fire commissioners, as evidence of rowdyism. Why did they not go back to 1840, when fights among fire companies were of everyday occurrence in New York? * * * Now that a check is placed upon the appropriations, so that hose companies cannot build three-story brownstone houses to contain a reel with eight lengths of hose, and foremen cannot go to this or that alderman and councilman and obtain, through political influence, buildings and machines which are unnecessary, there is a prospect of curtailing expenses and securing economy for the future.

"We have yet to learn who authorized the Police Department, the insurance companies, or the Citizens' Association, to go to Albany and declare war against a body of men who have sacrificed their health and time to save the lives and property of their fellow-citizens.

WE have yet to learn if the people pay the police for doing such work, or whether the insurance companies expect to reap extra dividends in consequence, or if the Citizens' Association is about to resolve itself into a committee of the whole for the purchase of political patronage. One thing we do know, and that is, the firemen of New York have yet to be heard from."

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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