Nothing New Under The Sun


As new generations enter the fire service, they begin to sort out their own place, their own social order. As new technology enters the fire service it also goes through a sorting, being fully embraced without question in some instances, tried and tested in others and flat out refused in few (see “we’ve always done it this way” or “that’s trying to be like the big city”). The culture changes as well and in the fire service a lot this involves pride. It’s part of the tradition in the fire service, company pride, which is passed on to the incoming generations. In turn they use the methods that are easiest, and most likely innovative, to express that pride. One area is in apparatus response and arrival on the scene. Years ago there was no “pre-alert” system; no signboard or CAD printer. Members listened to the department radio for the address being announced. Quality drivers who knew their area well would make for the rigs when they heard a certain hundred block announced. In other ways, a keen dispatcher would ring the station on the phone and give the person answering the address before the call was announced. This was really good to benefit from especially if the address was not in your first due area. An engine company beating the first-due engine company had all the bragging rights, without having to say a word. Everyone would know it with the announcement of the layout instructions and the initial sizeup report. But pride doesn’t let us stay silent, and word gets around quickly. Nearly every company has some small bit of grandstanding at the expense of another company. It’s human nature and comes in various ways, reinvented by each new generation of firefighters.

The “calling card” pictured is one form. I remember when on a box alarm the engine was third-due and arrived first-due. At the end of the alarm as we were racking up, a senior member called me over and told me to discreetly go to the assigned first-due engine, and their tower, and leave a bunch of these cards inside the cabs. Innovative, maybe the idea came from “Apocalypse Now” where Robert Duvall’s character, Colonel Kilgore, is tossing out the division’s playing cards onto the bodies of the dead NVA and Viet Cong soldiers in the village they just overtook. No doubt it is a manifestation of pride. Why else would we put “Death From Above” on the front of our helicopters or a catchy phrase on the front of our engines? Some of what is out there is pure genius. Some is pure stupidity. But none of it is brand new.

In a 1948 edition of “With New York Firefighters” (WNYF), is a interview with then retired Battalion Chief Michael Conley, who came on the job in 1898 [1]. As a fireman with Engine Company 213 in Brooklyn he shared his experiences with the bell system and horse drawn apparatus to mention a few. In order to find breaks in the telegraph lines, some firehouses had circuit sections. Conley stated that the one they had would always give them a jump on an alarm. “So fast moving were our men and so well were the horses trained that we sometimes had the horses hitched and the company out the door before the first bell hit”. But getting the jump wasn’t the only bit of pride, as he explains further,

“Now there was a certain box in Greenpoint to which 229 Engine, at that time located on Kingsland Avenue and Frost Street, was first due. We were second due. That box was hooked up to our section circuit. The tip-off we thus received enabled us to get down Driggs Avenue before Engine 229. There we would wait. Pretty soon we’d see 229 turning into Driggs Avenue, the driver shouting and the horses straining at their fastest pace. My captain would hold my arm with one hand and wave them on with the other. As soon as they passed us, the captain would release my arm and say “Now, Mike, pass that company,” and we were off like a shot. We always passed them, beat them to the nearest hydrant to the fire and often had water on the fire before they found another hydrant. Sometimes, just to “rub it in,” one of our men would mockingly let a short piece of rope trail behind our steamer as we passed them as if to offer 229 some aid in getting to the fire.”

One hundred and ten years ago a company was getting the jump on a box, beating the due company and rubbing it in. There is nothing new under the sun. It’s just pride and traditions passed down and reinvented in different forms.

1. "Uncle Mike Recalls" Michael F. Conley, Battalion Chief (retired) as told to Charles S.W. Rubin (Fireman, Engine 213) WNYF January 1948

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  • Anonymous says:

    fun to remeber the old days, but i feel if you look around the pendulem has swng too far, our newer gung ho members are sarficing safety for the pride of being first in. And when the officer in charge is the same age or younger than the crew you cant expect him to act any different. watch a Pg county rig respond sometime, its a circus

  • Anonymous says:

    Who are you to comment on the brothers from PG. You can’t even spell correctly. There is only one word in your post that is relative. PRIDE, they have pride and they go hard. A rather well known member of the FDNY once said “when you get there, you go put the fire out and the emergency goes away”. Why do you think so many “vest wearing”, “2 in 2 out” departments are killing and injuring fireman ? It’s happening because they take their sweet time getting out of the firehouse and when they do get on the scene they spend another five minutes getting their act together and once they do go inside, if they go inside, they wonder why bad things happen. We all know the dangers of lightweight construction but yet departments are still taking their time, standing outside, deciding to go in and then getting lost, and in turn injuring and killing firemen. Unless you have worked in a big city or volunteered in PG you’re missing out on how things should be accomplished on the fireground. People like you are just products of the system and because you’re messed up you want to bring the good departments down with comments like it’s a CIRCUS in PG. It’s a shame you are so misinformed, why don’t you try a ride-along at a good company in the city or PG and toss you’re CIRCUS comments around there and see how far it gets you. Like I said you’re a product of a system that breeds ignorance in the fire service. You probably take 5 minutes to get out and have to take you’re traffic vest off of your turnout coat in order to get dressed for a box. Where I come from, the brothers have you’re CIRCUS !

  • PG Fireman says:

    Talk smack all you want, Anonymous #2, but Anonymous #1 is right. PG has become a circus in which safety of it’s members have been placed on the back burner. The sad truth is, with the exception of a few companies, beating someone in means nothing. They just beat them in. No fires get put out any quicker. Anonymous #2, remember “only fools rush in”. Take a look at what you got, and make a fast, INFORMED decision based upon what is presented in front of you. Be safe everyone.

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Backstep Firefighter

“To provide a point of critical thought about certain acts and events in the fire service while incorporating behavioral education and commentary in a referenced format.”

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