Frank’s Note: The Los Angeles Fire Department started with individual groups of volunteer firemen in the city that was starting to grow. In 1886 those volunteers became members of the LAFD a paid department. Today we have many volunteers helping in our city including the Community Emergency Response Team that works with the LAFD when needed in daily activities and emergencies.
Our LAFD Historical Society is operated by an all-volunteer group of dedicated people to maintain our mission of preserving our history, educating people in our history and fire and life safety and memorializing our fallen firefighters.
We are now at a crossroads with our volunteers in that we need more dedicated people interested in achieving our goals to join us in a worthy cause.
The City Begins
Founded in 1781, Los Angeles began as a small pueblo under the auspices of the King of Spain and flourished as a farming and agricultural community. Buildings, which were constructed primarily of adobe and tile, were extremely practical and more resistant to fire. The storage of large quantities of hay, however, created hazardous conditions which sometimes resulted in large fires. In response to these emergencies, neighbors would rush to assist in saving the property by forming “volunteer bucket brigades”. These brigades, using three-gallon leather buckets and assisted by Native American Indians, worked until the fire was extinguished. Since no fire bells or alarms existed, the person discovering the fire would shoot a pistol into the air repeatedly, followed by the similar action of others until most of the town was alerted. This alarm system was common into the 1880’s.
Volunteer Fire Department
In 1850, the City Council was authorized to create a Fire Department, however, no formal action was taken until 1871 when the Volunteer Fire Department was organized. Prior to this, Los Angeles did not have a firehouse, fire department, or professional firefighters. In November, 1869, during a meeting held at Buffums’ Saloon, an informal volunteer organization was created, made up mostly of young businessmen and leaders in civic and social affairs.
An inadequate water delivery system was a major problem faced by Firefighters until the turn of the century. The City Council, as a result of feuds with the water company, finally authorized the Mayor to use police if necessary to keep the water flowing in the event of a fire. The Volunteer Fire Department worked in this capacity for many years and faced other difficulties in obtaining support from the City Council. For example, in March, 1874, City Council had agreed to authorize two horses to pull an otherwise hand-drawn piece of equipment, thereby making it a more efficient way of pulling the apparatus. It reconsidered the request due to more urgent demands for the money and, as a result, the volunteer company temporarily disbanded in anger. The problem was resolved in 1875 when City Council voted to appropriate funds to purchase a pair of horses for the express purpose of pulling the engine.
As an organized entity, the volunteer company established a set of regulations and monthly dues. They began a campaign to win recognition of their status, but their efforts to raise money from the public to buy a steam fire engine were unsuccessful until ample contributions were made by “miners, saloon keepers, and members of the underworld.” The fire company also won the right to collect fines from individuals violating City ordinances. As the Department became more organized, there was a corresponding increase in fire regulations. Residents were prohibited from storing more than three tons of hay, 50 pounds of gun powder, or 150 gallons of kerosene; walls and roofs had to be noncombustible and dangerous stovepipes were banned.
First Engine House
The first engine house, erected adjacent to City Hall on Spring Street for $665, was an adobe structure which remained in service until 1884. The apparatus consisted of an Amoskeag pumper and hose cart, manufactured in Massachusetts and shipped to San Francisco by train. Since railway facilities did not exist between San Francisco and Los Angeles, the Amoskeag was transported by boat along the California coast. It was equipped with a 100-foot hose with a one-inch nozzle, could throw a water stream approximately 100 feet in the air, and operated at an ideal working pressure of 80 pounds.
Positions and Salaries
In 1872, the City Council appointed an Engineer to operate the steam pump. He was the first and only paid employee of the volunteer company, and earned a salary of $100 per month. Charles E. Miles was elected to the position of Chief Engineer for one year by all members in good standing. This did not become a salaried position, however, until 1884 when Walter S. Moore received $125 per month. Chief Moore was a major influence in the development of the Department, serving as Chief Engineer a total of four separate times. During an interim period, he was elected President of the City Council. As President, he was able to recommend items that were advantageous to the Fire Department, such as construction of a new firehouse. Chief Moore was later elected by the City Council to serve as the first Fire Chief of the paid Fire Department. His accomplishments, which are appreciated by members to this day, include the following: passage of an 1898 bond issue providing $150,000 for the purchase of sites and the construction of 12 municipally-owned fire stations, plans for a Firemen’s pension system, and greater efficiency with the fire alarm system.
Since the 1870’s, the Fire Department has played an extremely active role in civic affairs, going far beyond the boundaries of their profession as Firefighters to become involved with, for example, public parades. For many years, volunteer fire companies were the major attraction at such gatherings. On July 4, 1876, the volunteers provided much of the spirit of a local centennial parade and later provided fireworks’ displays at fire stations.
Official Fire Department- The LAFD 1886
The history of the Los Angeles Volunteer Fire Department was climaxed by the completion of the Plaza Firehouse on rented property in 1884. Expenses for that year totaled $11,500, including salaries of Engineers and Drivers. At that time, the most common causes of fires stemmed from defective lamps and stovepipes, lighting fires with coal oil, and children playing with matches. The Plaza Firehouse still stands on the southeast corner of the Los Angeles Plaza and currently houses a museum administered by volunteers.
During the early part of 1885, the City Council considered the merits of a fully paid Department but decided that the installation of a fire alarm telegraph was a more appropriate priority. The proposed system, consisting of ten miles of line poles, alarm boxes, and gongs for the fire stations, had a projected cost of $7,000. With additional discussion, however, an ordinance was presented to the City Council calling instead for the establishment of a paid Fire Department. Under the Charter of 1850, and after 35 years of development from a small pueblo to a growing, flourishing City, the City Council moved to finance and control the first fully paid, official Los Angeles Fire Department in December, 1885. The LAFD officially went into service on February 1, 1886, with four fire stations. To distinguish the members of the Department, uniforms were a standardized navy blue with brass buttons imprinted with “F.D.” and hats made of black felt and gold cord with a wreath centered on the front.
Submitted by Frank Borden, LAFD retired