125 Years of History
125 Years of History
On February 1, 1886, the City of Los Angeles began to pay 31 firemen to protect the citizens and property within the city limits. The first Fire Chief, called the Chief Engineer, was Walter S. Moore. His firemen had for the most part, been part of the cadre of volunteers that had previously provided fire protection for 15 years. Moore himself had been a volunteer, with more than 11 years of service.
At the time, Los Angles was a small, but growing community that was already evolving from a small farming pueblo into one of the first industrial cities on the west coast outside of San Francisco. Like San Francisco, the railroad and shipping industries drove change. The completion of the transcontinental railroad into L.A. in 1876 redefined the city’s foundation and future.
Within a few years of the department’s formal integration into the local government’s organization, additional changes created a whirlwind of growth, including the discovery of oil in 1892 at a site near today’s Dodger Stadium and rapid influx of immigrants who brought with them the zeal and idealism of their homelands.
The first firemen in Los Angeles were not paid well, and most lived directly adjacent to the fire stations in which they served. Their uniforms were made of navy blue cloth and consisted of a sack coat, vest, trousers and a black felt hat. Buttons on the coat and hat included “FD” engraving. No helmets were included in those early days and it was one of Chief Moore’s first tasks, to demand the City Council provide leather helmets to “protect” the department’s members.
From the first day of operations in the new LAFD, history began to stamp itself in nearly every facet of firefighting. The first major commercial fire that challenged firemen was the Belmont Hotel fire, with the Southern Pacific Railroad’s freight house being exposed and threatened. Firemen saved the freight house, and the railroad, in gratitude, provided the LAFD with a check for $1,000. That check was used to create the Los Angeles Firemen’s Relief Association.
In those early days, fire apparatus was all horse drawn. Fire horses were a special breed and were known for finding the fastest routes to a fire, would place themselves in the proper places to allow their pumps or hose carriers to be best used at fires, and would provide firemen with all kinds of amusement. One horse, named “Fire Eater,” was known to devour cigars.
Los Angeles was not the first city to migrate to motor driven apparatus, but once the initial buggies and conversion cabs were put in use, the move became rapid, and L.A. was all motorized by 1921. One of the most recognized fire horses, “Blackie,” was a noted LAFD celebrity, appearing with school children and at events long after he retired. When he died of old age on November 6, 1939, all firehouses received the “ten bells” notification that a member of the department had passed away.
Innovation became a core theme for the Los Angeles City Fire Department. When 34 year old Ralph J. Scott was promoted to Chief Engineer, many thought he was a short-timer, without credentials or the stamina to make a dent in the already heady political environment that enveloped the City of Angels. Scott proved those critics wrong, and has been perhaps the most innovative Chief in the department’s history; responsible for super fire engines, fireboats, fire education, including a department fire college, not to mention fire prevention, rescue and salvage tactics. Scott’s innovation moved the LAFD into the role of trendsetter.
When World War II demanded Americans turn to military service, the LAFD turned to its citizens and created a powerful volunteer corps. These unpaid volunteers supported the LAFD throughout the war and for several years afterwards.
In the years following WWII, the city began to experience significant disasters, such as the explosion of the SS Markay in the Port of Los Angeles. At the same time, other safety and political issues began to create new demands on the leadership of the department. In the midst of this, the department was able to attain a Class 1 rating, setting new standards for fire insurance rates and standards.
While initially an integrated department, the LAFD had been for most of its history a segregated agency. Black firemen were assigned to two fire stations and promotions were nearly impossible to attain. It took the dedicated efforts of politicians, two Chief Engineers, and most importantly, several dedicated firemen to turn the tide and develop a successful integration program. By the spring of 1956, the LAFD was fully integrated.
The 1960s saw the city continue to expand, with a spread of nearly 470 square miles. As people moved into the hillsides and roads and buildings appeared day after day, new challenges put the LAFD to the test. The 1961 Bel Air fire, perhaps the worst in the city’s history, raged for nearly two days, and destroyed more than 484 homes and structures. It also saw the first use of a helicopter as a command resource, although the department’s initial Bell Helicopter did not arrive until 1962.
In 1965, South Los Angeles exploded in civil unrest, and the Watts Riots coined terms like, “Burn baby, burn,” and “charcoal alleys.” From the Watts disaster, a new method of fire response tactics emerged in the form of Task Forces, in which multiple fire companies would operate as a team. As a result, first arriving companies were able to demonstrate remarkable flexibility.
The 1970s saw the city’s horizon change, as skyscrapers reached for the sun. The LAFD developed highrise tactics that became standard operating procedures for major cities across North America and in fact the globe. As the city became more industrialized, hazmat incidents provided yet another threat to firefighter safety, while a string of arson-related blazes resulted in new methods and tactics to capture firebugs and promote fire science.
The last quarter of the 20th century bore witness to more LA firefighter fatalities than any other period, with arson playing a key role in line of duty deaths at Cugee’s Restaurant and the Proud Bird Restaurant. During this time, the department began to implement new services as well, including rescue and paramedic services. Women began to hire on, and soon, men and women were fighting fire hand in hand, changing the designation of fireman to firefighter.
Today, more than 85% of all emergency responses within the City of Los Angeles are emergency medicine service (EMS) related. The tremendous advances developed and enforced within the city in the area of fire prevention have dramatically altered the types and severity of everyday structure fires. As an example, in the 1970s, Fire Station 9 in downtown Los Angeles might have responded to 60 calls in a fireman’s three-day “segment,” with ten of those calls being for significant fires. Today, 9s responds to up to 35 calls a day, but has only dealt with five to six significant fires during the last six months of 2010.
Today, the LAFD is a department in transition. With better training, equipment, and fire prevention enforcement than at any time in its history, the department is often overlooked in the complex matrix that makes up Los Angeles. Yet, the threat of a remarkable disaster looms over the city 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Of the 17 identifiable threats established by FEMA, 16 can occur in L.A. It is because of those threats, and because of the leading edge reputation of the department, that a new era is beginning to emerge. As the department looks into the future, it has the opportunity to continue the finest tradition of the fire service, while becoming more efficient, effective, and technologically aware.
Author: David Barrett
Please visit the LAFD Museum and discover the wonderful history of the Los Angeles Fire Department in person. With thousands of artifacts, some of the most remarkable fire apparatus anywhere, and guaranteed opportunities to speak with real firefighters, the LAFD Museum is a "must visit" opportunity for every family.