Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

Chapter 57, Part IV

By Holice and Debbie


An engine house, now, is a very quiet place, except, just when an alarm is received and when the company has returned from a fire. When everything has been made clean and trim, the firemen sit around the station house quietly reading, smoking, or chatting. At night the place is still more tranquil. Arranged at equal distances along the side of a narrow dormitory up-stairs are ten or a dozen cribs. It is midnight and the cribs are occupied. At the side of each bed is placed a pair of high boots, into which a pair of trousers have been carefully tucked. Everything is in apple-pie order, and the boots and trousers have evidently been arranged with an eye to an emergency.

Below on the ground floor stand a large fire engine of modern pattern, multiplying the surrounding objects upon its shiny surface. The wheels are painted vermilion, and the paint is without flaw. Every part susceptible of polish is polished. Indeed, the whole thing looks highly ornamental, and the spectator feels that it would be a pity to soil it by a drop of water. When it returns from a fire it is less gay. The furnace is filled with fuel, and a brand soaked in petroleum is ready for lighting; but the steam is already up to a pressure of five pounds, as the tremulous little gauge shows the necessary heat passing into the boiler through a pipe forma stationary furnace in the cellar of the building. The hose carriage, or tender, occupies a place behind the engine, and farther in the rear are three stalls in possession of three fine, large, glossy horses, whose pet names are inscribed in gilt letters over the manger, and whose sleek condition betokens unusual care.

Suddenly the electric current causes a bell to sound, the measured strokes being given in quick and startling succession. The men spring from their beds simultaneously, as if they had been lying awake waiting for this summons. Ten or twelve pairs of legs are at one and the same time thrust into the trousers and boots, and are pulled on with two hitches. The trousers close upon the hips, so that no time is lost with suspenders or belts. There is a terrific racket below. The bell is still sounding, repeating the signal five times over. Down a brass rod in one corner of the room slide the firemen in rapid succession. On the ground floor they find the horses already hitched to the engine, the driver on the box, and the furnace lighted. Each man jumps to his place on the tender, the doors are flung open, and in one minute from the first sound of the alarm the company is on its way to the fire. In fact, it is now unusual for an engine to be out of the house and on its way to a fire within forty seconds of the moment when the bell first strikes. During the first visit of the Grand Duke Alexis to new York, an alarm of fire was sounded at the Clarendon Hotel in Fourth Avenue, near Seventeenth Street, and a stream of water was turned upon the building by an engine within two minutes and thirty-five seconds, the engine having been manned and brought four blocks in the mean time.

The location of the fire is known instantly. Behind the captain's desk is a placard exhibiting the number of every alarm box in town, with the spot where it is placed. While the men are getting ready, the captain glances at the card, and the moment the last stroke of the bell is heard, shouts to the driver the location of the fire. The wild gallops through the streets, the vehement blazing of the furnace, the bright line of sparks following in its wake, the shouts of the spectators, the scurrying of vehicles out of the way, all produce a thrilling effect, even upon the men who have had years of experience. Although an alarm of fire may prove not to have resulted in a dollars' worth of damage, yet the same zeal and celerity are shown as if millions were known to be involved. When the men return to the station, no matter how tired they may be, the engine is restored to its original brilliancy, the horses are groomed, the harness is washed with castile soap, the hose is readjusted on the tender, and soon the company is prepared for another alarm.

Each man has his own place on the tender, where he leaves his hat and coat, donning these articles on the way to the fire. the horses are almost as well trained and as zealous as the men. The moment the alarm sounds the spring out of their stalls and put themselves into the shafts without a word of direction. Up to that moment they have been haltered, but the stroke of the bell released them by an automatic arrangement of weights, pulleys and shafts. So, too, the pipes connecting the boiler of the engine with a boiler in the cellar of the building, and thus maintaining several pounds of steam in the former, though its furnace is not lighted, are automatic. As the engine leaves the station for a fire, the pipes close themselves, and do not require a moment's attention form the engineer, who has simply to leap with his assistant, onto the platform, and to hold on for dear life. The driver secures himself on the box by straps, without which he could not keep his seat. Alarm or no alarm, the men are always ready and in habitual suspense. The constant watching and waiting take the edge off their capacity for surprise. They are mechanically responsive to the stroke as the weight which releases the halters of the horses. No matter in what quarter of the city a fire is, the alarm is sent to every station house, and at the first stroke of the bell every company is required to prepare for action. The completion of the signal may show that only about one-tenth of the companies in the city are required, but the rest are ready to dash out of the station while the gong is still hammering and vibrating the last notes of the signal.

It is because the horses see so little of outdoor life that they display so much activity when an alarm is sounding, and put all their strength into their gait. A foreman of a company was once asked why it was necessary to halter them at all when they were so intelligent in the performance of their duties. "Bless you," he answered, "they'd play tricks on us if we didn�t tie 'em up. There 's a fellow," he added, pointing to a powerful gray in superb condition that snapped at the visitor who attempted to rub its nose, "that has been steadily at work in the department for over eleven years; know his business like a man, that horse does; but he's up to many a little game, and would raise brimstone if he's the chance."

The sitting rooms of the stations are comfortably furnished, decorated with portraits of the past and present worthies of the department, and supplied with books, dominoes, cards, chess, and other games. In the old days of the Volunteers the presence of cards and dominoes would have subjected the owners there of fines. The playing of any cards of chance would have been considered a dire offense. The following extract from the minutes of Hose Company no. 36 will show how great the difference is between the Old and the New Departments on this subject:

November 5, 1851.--Resolved, That any member of this company found playing cards or any game of hazard in the house, for the first offense shall be fined one dollar, and for the second offense he shall be expelled from the company, and if not a member of the company, he shall be refused admittance in the house for the future.

Of course, this is not desirable now, as the conditions of the men has changed, and our firemen must have some relaxation, and very little time they get for it. Now, as in the olden times, the discussion of politics and the use of profanity are strictly forbidden. "Gentlemen," said a prominent official, once addressing some new appointees, "you have been chosen from among eight hundred applicants, and I expect you all to be sober, industrious, and honest; and I also expect that you will obey all orders with alacrity and willingness. Avoid all discussions with your fellow laborers, and do all your work without grumbling. Politics and religion are subjects which I positively forbid being discussed. Ignore them absolutely. Vote for whom you please, go to any church you choose, but you must not engage in electioneering. Should you become involved in a misunderstanding with a fellow member of the department, come to me and I will arbitrate your difference at once. Be sober, for is you are drunk your brains are out, and you are no longer fit for duty. Drunkenness will certainly not be tolerated. In your whole deportment show yourselves to be gentlemen. I consider you such, and there is no reason why should not act as gentlemen at all times. Profanity is uncalled for. It is a vile habit, and one which I have always got along without. I never practice it, and hope that you will follow my example. Be polite; and now report at your posts."

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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