Living History: A look back at your LAFD

Part I: From volunteers to professionals and the roots of innovation

The history of Los Angeles is still being written. It is an evolving, growing city first settled more than 200 years ago with a fire department that helped provide a peace of mind needed in a growing metropolis.

This year, we celebrate 130 years of professional firefighting service, taking a deep dive into the history of the Los Angeles Fire Department. Borrowing heavily from the LAFD Historical Archive, we offer pictures, narratives and more as we offer a glimpse of the origins, stories and incidents that is your Los Angeles Fire Department.


Part 1: The Volunteers

It was 1869 and Los Angeles was a city on the rise. Just 19 years earlier, in 1850, Los Angeles was incorporated as California officially joined the United States to take its place on the world stage. A growing population necessitated a firefighting force that resulted in the Los Angeles Volunteer Fire Department, pictured below. As the city grew, leaders of Los Angeles worked toward creating a more full time force to serve its residents and infrastructure.

Los Angeles has always been a place of growth, fueled by dreams and innovation. Just 16 years after California joined the Union, the Southern Pacific rail line to Los Angeles was completed and, in 1892, oil was discovered, propelling the economy of the young city.

By 1886, the population was about 35,000. According to LAfire.com, Los Angeles also had:

three good hotels, 27 churches, an adequate number of saloons and 350 telephone subscribers. Main, Spring, Fort and Hill streets were paved that year, and the streetcar system was double-tracked.

After occupying space in the Los Angeles county courthouse, City Hall moved in 1884 to a two-story brick building on 2nd and Spring streets, where the LA Times now stands. On the docket, City leaders determined it was time to have an organized and paid Fire Department to replace the volunteer fire companies that had served on an intermittent basis since 1869.

In December 1885, Mayor E.F. Spence signed Ordinance No. 205, authorizing the creation of a Board of Fire Commissioners, with power to make all necessary arrangements and do and perform all acts necessary to manage the Fire Department constituted by this ordinance.

The ordinance directed that the department consist of a Chief Engineer, two steamer companies, one hook and ladder company and three hose companies. Two of the hose companies were to remain as volunteer companies.

Professionalism

The Board of Fire Commissioners came into existence on January 18, 1886. Three days later the Commissioners again convened, requesting that the Council elect a Chief Engineer. City Council members adopted that recommendation and the first rules and regulations for the Fire Department, providing among other things, that every member of the department should be:

  • A citizen of the United States
  • At least 21 years of age;
  • A permanent resident of the City of Los Angeles;
  • And able to converse understandably in the English language.

Rule No.18 ordered that engine, hose, and hook and ladder drivers not drive out of a trot in going to or returning from fires and alarms and that racing be strictly prohibited. The Commission on January 28 1886, directed Commissioner Kuhrts to buy five tons of hay, 40 sacks of rolled barley and six sacks of bran.

Thus, the Fire Department was staffed, provisioned and in operation on February 1, 1886, with stations and apparatus taken over from the old volunteer companies.

Also effective February 1, 1886, Walter Moore became Chief Engineer of Los Angeles’ first paid Fire Department, overseeing 31 full-time firemen and 24 on reserve.

Street Map of Los Angeles 1886 [link]

Innovation

As of 1900, the Los Angeles Fire Department counted among its ranks 120 full-paid men. (Today the LAFD has more than 3,000 men and women of all backgrounds.) At the time, the Department owned 18 fire houses each mirroring local architecture and all “thoroughly equipped with the latest modern appliances, to enable the men to make quick response to all alarms.”

Innovation has always been important to the LAFD, even 115 years ago, when the Department worked to ensure public safety throughout the young city:

There are one hundred and ninety-four street boxes, of the latest Gamewell pattern, with glass key protectors, enabling the citizen to ring an alarm without the least delay. Throughout the city are scattered six hundred and sixty hydrants, a great many in the business portion having double outlets. The Los Angeles Fire Department is up-to-date and will compare favorably with any department in cities of its size throughout the world, and is so recognized by the National Board of Underwriters.
Engine Company 9 On A Run
Engine Company No. 5
525 East Fourth Street
at Fourth Street
Engine Company No. 7
328 East 24th Street
at Maple Avenue

In 1911, the LAFD responded to 1,681 alarms, including 1,468 actual fires for a total fire loss of $807,000. Today, the LAFD responds to about 1,200 calls a day.

That year, the 25-year-old Department opened three new fire houses rounding out the 32 stations at the time. Engine Houses 23, 24 and 25 would be the last of the houses built specifically for fire horses.

At the time, the Department housed 163 horses, the most it would ever employ and the last year all 25 horse drawn steam fire engine companies remained in service. Although the department would continue to purchase horses during the next four years to replace older animals, the era of motorization had begun. 1911 was also the year that the department purchased its first single-piece auto pumper and hose-carrying apparatus — Engine 26.

A shifting cultural identity and a growing population would continue to mark the history of the LAFD, including a fire in 1939 that would test the mettle of its members and city.

Stay tuned for Part II…