By the close of the Civil War, the volunteer fire companies were on their way out in New York. These two articles from the New York Times may be read as a list of middle-class New York's grievances with the volunteer companies. Besides their economic inefficiency and poor record for saving buildings, the Times describes "the shrieking, yelling, hallooing, confusion" that had come to attend the process of putting out a fire, as well as the propensity towards drunkenness, rowdiness, and larceny displayed by the volunteers. The campaign to institute paid fire companies reflects the anti-Irish, anti-working class sentiment common among the middle classes in New York during this period, as well as foreshadowing later civic reform movements designed to clean up the city, both physically and morally.
The Fire Department Question
The Board of the City Fire Department held a meeting on Tuesday evening, to protest against the movement now in progress at Albany for the abolition of the existing organization, and the substitution of a small paid department. The speakers were very energetic in their defence of the present system, and declared it to be their intention to contest the passage of the bill now before the Legislature to the last. What strikes us as singular about all this is, that the firemen should be so dreadfully reluctant to go out, when nobody wants them. They are all volunteers, the services they render to the public are of a very trying and arduous nature, and they receive no compensation. The sole basis of their organization is in fact the desire of the public for their assistance. They have no divine right to extinguish fires any more than anybody else. Those who live in houses and are liable to be burnt up, are the only persons who have the right to decide what should be the nature of the measures taken for their protection. It is neither very dignified nor very civil, therefore, for the Fire Department to persist in forcing their good offices on people who have, as distinctly as good manners and gratitude for past favors will permit, signified their desire to be rid of them.
For there is hardly any difference of opinion among the citizens and insurance companies on this point. The experience of other cities proves conclusively that paid firemen do their work better than volunteers, that fewer fires occur under their management, that they cost less, and that they do no damage to the public morals. And all classes of the community, except the "roughs," are shocked and disgusted by the horrible scenes of disorder attendant on every fire in New-York-the shrieking, yelling, hallooing, confusion, absence of all discipline and subordination, or even show of discipline which mark every "gathering of the companies." Such scenes are a disgrace to any civilized city, and would not be permitted for one hour in any other city the size of ours.
The board has drawn up an ordinance, which was read at the meeting, containing an excellent body of rules, which, if they were carried out, would, no doubt, go far to work a reform in the department. But the trouble is that they will not be carried out, and the public knows that they will not, and so does the board. If putting rules down on paper was all that was necessary to make things go well, every department of our Government would run like clock-work.
There is nothing easier than to make rules. It is not for want of ability in this direction that we find fault with the department. It is because we are satisfied, that as long as the members and officers are appointed as at present, and consist of the same classes as the present, discipline, order and economy will be impossible, no matter what the regulations may be. Regulations have to be enforced by such officers as can be obeyed by the men in the position of those who now fill the companies. Some of the more important sections of the ordinance open the phrase—"it shall be the duty," which sounds very well. But it is now "the duty" of the companies to do a great many good thing; but unfortunately they don't do their duty. If they did, there would be no ground for the complaints made of them before the Legislature. What the world wants now-a-days is not the definition of "duty" in any walk of life. Men's duties are all pretty well known. The great desideratum of the age is means of making people do their duty. The best way of making firemen do theirs, is, in our opinion, to select the proper persons for the service, pay them for their whole time, and keep them day and night under strict discipline; and we believe the public agrees with us.
New York Times March 31, 1865
The End of the New-York Volunteer Fire Department
There is an end to the Volunteer Fire Department system of New-York. The senate bill, substituting for that system a paid department, passed the Assembly yesterday by a vote which lacks but one of a two-thirds majority, and which thus relieves the measure effectually of any partizan or even party character.
No single act of the Legislature probably owed its passage to influences of more unquestioned fairness. Reason, experience, undisputed figures, concurrent testimony of the most comprehensive bearing, all came to the support of those who advocated the change. The opponents of the reform have had open ground on which to fight their battle, from the beginning to the end of the contest. They have lost in a fair fight; although the odds against them from the beginning were overwhelming and irresistible.
It needs some space even to give the baldest summary of the pleas on which the advocates of the measure demanded its enactment. On the ground of economy, they were able to show that the soi disant volunteer system of New-York has involved an outlay in the mere annual money votes for its maintenance, twice or thrice that of the principal cities of Europe where the paid system exists. A comparison even with the American cities, where a Paid Fire Department has been established so recently as to have scarcely yet got thorough working order, shows a decided saving over the volunteer plan. Baltimore, in proportion to its population paid, last year, at the rate of ten percent less than New-York, for an efficient force of firemen with all the appurtenances of the department complete. Boston, Cincinnati, and St. Louis showed apparently less thrift in maintaining their paid systems. But in all these cities the rates of insurance for buildings of a similar class were lower than those of New-York.
The gradual overthrow of everything that could be called discipline in the majority of the Volunteer Fire Companies, which has marked their history of late years, was one of the prime reasons in favor of a change, as it was one of the prime sources of the numberless evils attending the whole practical working of the system for a series of years. Every citizen, honest enough to own the truth, knows what these evils included. Recklessness, where order and steady effort were most essential; turbulence where probably all depended on concerted action; fights for apparent precedence, where solid and useful labor were of prime account; indiscriminate co-mingling of crowds of professional thieves with those professedly assuming the protection of property; drunkenness running riot unchecked in the very crisis of calamity; contemptous [sic], defiant, and all but uniform disrespect of whatever moveable and assessible [sic] property might be saved from burning; promiscuous plundering by hangers on of the Fire Department. These have been some of the fruits of the insufficient discipline. And for years and years all these evils have gone on multiplying and fructifying, until it had become a question whether the losses to property—especially to the insurance interest, from the utter recklessness and the want of responsibility which marked the fireman's services—did not, in many cases, over-balance the account of property actually saved by his exertions.
The contingent social and political abuses, which have grown out of this organization, scarcely need to be emphasized. They have been patent to every citizen capable of estimating the difference between right and wrong. Idleness, dissipation, contempt for steady hard and persevering labor, baneful associations, unwarranted aspiration for political rewards, and official preferments, [sic] combinations for opposing every attempt at municipal economy—all these have been more or less fostered in the late degenerate days of the Volunteer Fire Department.
Much of the history of the Volunteer Fire Organization, as it once existed, will always be remembered with pride and gratitude by the citizens of New-York. It had, unquestionably, in less sophisticated age than this, a satisfactory record to show. And many of those who served as volunteers in those better days, have taken high and honorable positions in the service of the State in maturer life. Even in its most degenerate days, no organization in the country could hope to equal our volunteer firemen as contributors to the success of a public celebration. And it deserves emphatic mention that their Widows' and Orphans' Fund has remained through all the vicissitudes of the Department, one of the noblest charities that this or any other community can boast.
Source: New York Times