Encyclopedia Of Detroit

Detroit Fire Department

For the first century of its existence, the city of Detroit did not have an official fire department. By the early 1800s, Detroit was a growing frontier town made up of wooden homes and businesses, cramped close together behind the safety of a stockade. Detroiters knew there was risk of fire and so they created an informal bucket brigade system; citizens would line up between the fire and the river and quickly pass buckets of water up to slow down the blaze. With the city’s expanding boundaries, this process became unreliable and inefficient. Bucket brigades seldom saved a burning structure, but they did have some success at preventing the fire from spreading throughout the city.

On June 11, 1805 a blaze started in a bakery’s stable within the stockade. The small spark grew into a ravaging fire that quickly spread throughout the village. The bucket brigade was useless at putting out the fire, and residents were forced to flee to neighboring towns where they watched the fire consume their village. After the fire of 1805, Detroit had to be rebuilt by its citizens. Village officials instituted several ordinances to help reduce the risk of fire. One required each citizen and business to have a full barrel of water at the ready. They were also required to conduct regular chimney sweeping and to have a ladder that could be used to reach the building’s roof.

As the city expanded, volunteer fire companies organized to protect neighborhoods. The men were required to provide their own equipment, but the city provided each with a pumping engine. The efforts of these independent companies were noble, but they were unorganized and were essentially undisciplined social clubs.

In 1860, the city of Detroit finally hired its first paid firefighters. These firefighters included one engineer, five horsemen, two drivers, and a foreman to operate the first steam fire engine, named “Lafayette No. 1”. The steam pump was housed at the northeast corner of Larned and Wayne Streets. It was capable of pumping 600 gallons of water per minute and was pulled by two horses. The following year the fire department purchased two more steam engines that they named “Neptune No. 2” and “Phoenix No. 3.” In 1892, the city purchased its first fireboat, the “Detroiter.”

By 1902, the wooden boat had begun to rot and the equipment was transferred to a new steel-hulled fireboat. They boat was named the “James R. Elliot,” after Detroit’s second fire chief. By 1900, Detroit’s population had increased to 308,000, and the fire department grew to 476 paid firemen, one fire boat, 423 fire boxes, 3,609 fire hydrants, and 76 pieces of horse drawn equipment. As the world transitioned to motorized vehicles, the fire department reluctantly switched over to the motorized fire engines, manufactured by the Packard Motor Company. On April 10, 1922, more than 50,000 people lined Woodward to witness the horses’ ceremonial last run to an arranged false alarm at the National Bank Building. The five horses, named Pete, Jim, Tom, Babe, and Rusty, were then retired to a farm in River Rouge Park.

Other major events in the history of the Detroit Fire Department include: the hiring of its first black members, Marcena W. Taylor and Marvin White in 1938; the banishment of stations’ dog mascots in 1976 due to the risk of liability due to dog bites; and the hiring of the first woman firefighter, Sandy Kupper, in 1978.

As of 2011, the Detroit Fire Department is comprised of 10 divisions that range from firefighting to office administration. The firefighting division consists of approximately 1,150 firefighters that are housed in 45 strategic locations throughout the city. However, due to city budgeting cutbacks and the city’s exploration of reducing its expanse, the number of firefighters and fire stations may be reduced in the near future.



Phoenix Steam Engine 3 at Abraham Lincoln's funeral procession

Metal Fire Chief's helmet

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