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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