Origins of Fire Protection in Washington DC

The origins of fire protection in our nation’s capital Washington DC goes back to before its creation as a city within a federal territory. In 1789, before the national capital city is even conceptualized, citizens organize the Georgetown Fire Company to protect the then Maryland port town now a part of Washington DC.

Mechanized fire protection arrives in the new Capital Washington in May 1800 when two pumping engines funded by Congress are placed at the Treasury Building for use by government employees. In August 1804, a meeting at the Western Market brings organization of a volunteer fire company for the First Ward. Other similar endeavors follow in the then other three wards. In 1806, the First Ward Fire Company disbands its members merging with the Union Fire Company that takes over the Treasury Department engines by 1812. The city and its fire protection suffer a severe blow as the British invade laying waste to Washington in August 1814.

In the years after, Washington and its fire protection rebuild. In December 1818, the Navy Yard Fire Company organizes to protect one of the first such facilities in the nation. About 1838, members of the then two Navy Yard companies merge with the existent Anacostia Fire Company that is located off base but nearby. Various volunteer fire companies come and go in Washington including two ladder companies in the 1850s. Of course by this time fighting among the volunteers is an increasing problem and the suggestion horses be used to pull larger more powerful pumping engines also an issue.

The Civil War brings much change to the city as its swells in population its volunteer companies stripped of young members who join the military. Those that remain are unable to meet the rapidly growing demand for fire protection. The Federal Government in September 1862 assigns a fire engine to the vacant and previous Union Fire Company house. Intended to protect nearby government buildings including the Executives Mansion (White House), the US Steam Fire Brigade is the first paid fire protection in Washington DC. On November 20, 1862, all of the city’s volunteer fire companies are placed under a paid Chief Engineer. On July 24, 1863 the US Steam Fire Brigade expands adding two more steam engine companies. This comes to be called the Government Fire Department headed by its own Chief Engineer under the US Quartermaster General. They are given authority over fires in all government buildings the volunteer companies protecting the rest. This still proves inadequate.

The volunteer era of fire protection comes to an end on July 1, 1864, when the Washington City Fire Department begins service. Companies consist of three engines and one ladder all from previous volunteer firehouses. A five-member Board of Fire Commissioners appoints a new Chief Engineer overseeing paid Foremen of each company. Each engine company is assigned a pumping engine and hose reel plus three paid and six extra call-men. The Ladder Company gets the same staffing plus a new hook and ladder wagon. To pull the apparatus, horses are placed in each firehouse kept in recently added stalls on the apparatus floors. On this day, the city’s volunteer companies disband however the Anacostia Fire Company may have remained likely for protection of the Navy Yard.

On April 1, 1867, two volunteer companies of Georgetown are replaced by the Georgetown Fire Company Number 1 made up of paid and call-men. In 1868, the Washington City Fire Department becomes the city’s sole fire protection as the three companies of the Government Fire Department disband. In February 1870, the Washington City Fire Department goes all paid adding another engine company that may have replaced the Anacostia Fire Company that possibly moves to the Navy Yard as an on base department.

On September 23, 1871, the Washington City Fire Department becomes the District of Columbia Fire Department taking over all of the previous companies adding Engine 5 in Georgetown. A new Chief Engineer is appointed as is an Assistant Chief Engineer. This department expands greatly over subsequent decades becoming as today the District of Columbia Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department. This department now operates from thirty-four firehouses with thirty-three engine, sixteen ladder and three heavy rescue companies plus various other units and the EMS Division. Several federal fire departments protect other facilities and installations in the city as well. Gasoline Fire Fighting Pump