(Appeared in print as "The war at home made the fire service anew")
The fire service often is described as being “paramilitary” in structure. But I’ve found that different generations have different understandings of what that means. “Paramilitary” is defined as being similar to or modeled on the military but not belonging to it. It also can mean an organization staffed by civilians to provide support for the regular military services.
Which definition best fits the fire service?
The first organized fire-protection efforts were the Vigiles, organized by Roman Emperor Augustus around 6 A.D. along military lines. Such practice continued through the Dark Ages, when the paramilitary structure fell out of use. After that, fire protection reemerged as a function of civilian society. One does not have to look much past Benjamin Franklin to see that early American fire departments were driven by economic issues and the social fabric of the community — with little affinity with the military. When did all that begin to change?
The answer is the Civil War. This month marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, and in the war is a fire-service story to be told.
I have reviewed photographs, prints, documents and other sources of information, and the social fabric was evident in the fire service before the Civil War. Politicians rose to power as the head of volunteer organizations. Volunteer fire departments restricted membership to specific ethnic and economic groups, which resulting in severe conflict when an actual fire occurred.
After the Civil War, nearly all of the major metropolitan communities in the U.S. began to hire full-time firefighters. Many of these individuals were veterans, who brought their uniforms and their pride into the firehouses. I’ve been to many museums, where I have observed the transition from the colorful, almost peacock–like costume of the volunteer prior to the Civil War and the subtle uniforms that emerged after the war.
Prior to the war the person in charge of a volunteer fire company often was called the foreman. After the war came the ranks of lieutenant, captain and chief engineer. Fire companies operated independently prior to the war. When the paid fire services took over, volunteer companies became battalions.
The Civil War used the advances of the Industrial Revolution to foster change. So too did the fire service. New steamers required a specific type of driver. Almost anyone could drive a team of horses down the street under ordinary conditions, but it took special skill to handle a brace of horses at a full gallop under a variety of weather conditions. It was dangerous to be careening down the street with tons of steel and a trailing boiler while navigating through traffic. Who was better prepared for that service than former artillerymen?
A statue stands in Excelsior Field in Gettysburg, Pa., that all fire-service members should know about. It features two young men — one a Union infantryman, the other a volunteer firefighter — standing shoulder to shoulder. The soldier carries a musket, an instrument of death. The firefighter carries a speaking trumpet, a symbol of authority. At the base is a plaque dedicating this statue to the 73rd Infantry Regiment, an organization made up of volunteer firefighters from New York.
The statue frequently is visited by students of the nearby National Fire Academy. Another statue in Gettysburg depicts another firefighter/warrior group, the 72nd Pennsylvania. I’ve researched firefighters who were engaged in combat, but I’ve been unable to find an exact number.
Never doubt that one of the reasons the fire service subscribed to the paramilitary concept is that neither soldiers nor firefighters fear going into harm’s way to protect their communities. There are many firefighters serving in Afghanistan, Iraq and other far-flung locations around the globe. The phrase “firefighters in peace — soldiers in war” personifies the paramilitary aspects of the fire service.