What Is The Oldest Fire Department In The United States?


The fire service has a long and noble history and it plays a vital role in American society now and has for several centuries. It was the civil war that truly popularized the use of fire services in America, but what is the oldest fire department and how did it come about? 

There are several fire departments that claim to be the “oldest” in the US, however, the city of Boston in Massachusetts had the first formal establishment of a fire department, which was funded by the public back in 1679. 

The history of the American fire service is much more recent than that of other countries, however, the claim of oldest fire department in the United States will depend on how you define it. Let’s take a look.

Also read: 14 Things Firefighters Do All Day When Not Fighting FiresOpens in a new tab.

When Was The First Fire Department In The World Formed?

Well, it’s fair to say that the United States isn’t even in the running for the title of the world’s oldest fire department.

That’s because that came about more than a 1,000 years before the United States had been founded and before America was colonized by European settlers for that matter.

As you might expect, it is to RomeOpens in a new tab. that we must turn to find the oldest ever fire department, or to be precise the oldest fire department recorded to history.

It is possible that men had organized such an endeavor before this and nobody had written about it, but given we don’t have a time machine, we must accept the written record as absolute.

It was Marcus Ignatius Rufus who formed the first firefighting crew.

Well, actually, it was his slaves that were sent out by their master to walk the streets to find and fight fires (which they did with bucket chains or bucket brigadeOpens in a new tab. where a bucket of water was passed from man to man until it could be thrown on the fire and then the empty bucket was passed back down the line).

They also had the authority to beat anyone they caught who was violating Marcus’s fire prevention codes. We assume that by the time Nero took over, these codes were no longer in use.

Emperor Augustus, also of Rome, would later (in the year 24 B.C.E. to be precise) form a public fire service and he too staffed it with slaves, 600 of them, who were split up amongst 7 different fire stations around the city. 

What Is The Oldest Fire Department In The US?

oldest fire department in the united states

It was in the 17th century that European society finally caught on to the advantages of having fire departments and it wasn’t the public purse which funded them, but rather the purse of insurance companies.

Having been both metaphorically and literally burned in the Great Fire of London in 1966Opens in a new tab., the insurance companies realized it might be better to pay for fire prevention and cure rather than to pay once everything had burned to the ground. 

And indeed, it was in the 17th century, in the year 1679, that the city of BostonOpens in a new tab. decided that it too could benefit from a fire service.

Unlike the European model though, the Boston Fire DepartmentOpens in a new tab. was to be fully publicly funded (though the firefighters themselves were volunteers, it would be quite sometime before the concept of “professional firefighter” would arise). 

Oddly, this was in advance of the introduction of fire insurance in the colony – which would be down to Benjamin Franklin in 1736 (who set up the Philadelphia InsuranceOpens in a new tab. company and the Union Volunteer Fire CompanyOpens in a new tab.). 

What Is The Oldest Continuously Manned Fire Station In The US?

While Boston may be the oldest fire department in the nation, it’s not the oldest continuously manned fire station.

This peculiar honor goes to the good people of Manistee in MichiganOpens in a new tab.. Their fire department was formed in October 1869 and their fire station opened 3 years later.

Their claim to be the oldest continuously manned fire station in the United States is a good one and one which has been recognized by the Guinness Book of World RecordsOpens in a new tab. and thus, we feel it’s a record with some substance to it. 

Oddly, the fire department became an Advanced Life SupportOpens in a new tab. Agency in 2013, but still continues to offer fire services as well as medical emergency support (rather like many other fire departments across the nation).

The city of Manistee is, rightly, proud of this record and the incredible achievements of their local fire department. 

Have a look at this station here:

What Is The Oldest Professional Fire Department In The US?

When you allow insurance companies to run fire departments, you quickly find that you come up against a fairly significant limitation to your fire service – they won’t put out blazes in buildings that aren’t insured. Why would they?

It’s not in the insurance company’s interest to do so even if it would be the right thing to do so. And this is exactly the problem that many cities in America and Europe found themselves in during the 19th century.

So, many cities decided to form their own municipal departments, and, in order to ensure that these departments provided a reliable service, they stopped relying solely on volunteers and instead, began to pay firefighters.

The first such department in the United States was formed in 1853Opens in a new tab. in the city of CincinnatiOpens in a new tab.. Which makes it the oldest fully paid professional fire departmentOpens in a new tab. in the country. 

What Is The Oldest University Fire Department In The US?

The oldest university fire department in the United States is the one formed in 1879 at Notre DameOpens in a new tab.

What Is The Oldest Motorized Fire Department In The US?

This should come as no real surprise if you know your fire trucks.

The first fire truck produced in the United States was built by Knox Automobile of Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1905. 

In 1906, SpringfieldOpens in a new tab. became the first fully motorized fire department in the country. 

What Is The Biggest Fire Department In The US?

We’ve got a couple of other interesting records for you too – these don’t concern the age of a fire department but rather the size of one.

The biggest fire department in the United States is the New York City Fire DepartmentOpens in a new tab., which is confusingly abbreviated to FDNYOpens in a new tab..

It employs over 10,000 firefighters, more than 4,000 EMTs, and paramedics and over 2,000 civilians! It’s a massive undertaking that serves the city of nearly 10 million people and the entire area of the city.

However, this doesn’t make the FDNY the largest fire department in the world, though it’s very close. It’s, in fact, the second largest in the world with the honor of the largest falling much farther away than New York. 

What Is The Biggest Fire Department In The World?

You might be surprised to learn that it’s not in China or India that we find the largest fire department in the world, instead, it’s in Japan.

However, TokyoOpens in a new tab. is what can be fairly described as a “mega-city” it is in the 10 largest cities in the world by land area and by population size and it needs a huge fire service to cope. 

Here is a look at one of Tokyo’s fire stations and apparatus:

There are over 207 fire stations covering the greater Tokyo area and so many staff that it’s impossible to get an accurate measure of how many – particularly as this fire department has also adopted fire fighting robots in its cause to extinguish blazes!

Conclusion

What is the oldest fire department in the US? This can be the subject of many a debate and if we were awarding points in a quiz, we might listen earnestly to all the possible answers and then grant points to everyone with a good case but the oldest fire department in the United States, by our reckoning, is the Boston Fire Department which was formally established in 1679. 

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t other impressive titles for fire departments in the country to lay claim to and the oldest professional fire department, the oldest university fire department and the oldest continuously manned fire department are all honorably mentioned above. It’s also interesting to note that the US doesn’t, for now, have the world’s largest fire department which might come as a surprise to many readers. 

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Chase

I have been a Firefighter in Northern California since 2012 and a Paramedic since 2008. My site is dedicated to helping answer questions people have about the fire service. I am passionate about helping to share what I have learned and assisting those who are pursuing a career as a firefighter. Thanks for coming to my site!

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