Fire Service History: A Primer for Clinicians (And Many Firefighters as Well!)

“If you want to understand today you have to search yesterday.”
Pearl S. Buck, American novelist (1892-1973)

The term “fire service” in the U.S. is almost an oxymoron–like jumbo shrimp or military intelligence–because unlike the fire service in other parts of the world (e.g., Europe, Asia) the fire service in the U.S. is not a national service under the federal government.

Instead, the fire protection in the U.S. might best be described as coming from many different nations (I’m borrowing from the lexicon of our Native American sisters and brothers). For example, there’s the Northeast Nation (New England, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania), the Mid-Atlantic Nation (Virginia, West Virginia, North Caroline, South Carolina), the Southern Nation (Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana). See what I’m getting at? (I make no apologies for my lack of artistic ability and the groupings are entirely my own subjective opinions).

Now within those nations are tribes and some of those different tribes are municipal government (city/county) fire departments (e.g., full-time career, combination of career and volunteer staffing), paid-on-call fire departments, and all volunteer staffed fire departments.

A Little Bit About Fire Service History

Ask many people where the fire service started in the U.S. and the most likely answer will be “Ben Franklin.” Yes, Mr. Franklin co-founded the first volunteer fire company in Colonial America on December 7, 1736, Union Fire Company (UFC), aka, the “Bucket Brigade”.

UFC was the first formally organized fire company consisting of all volunteers in the colonies and was modeled after Boston’s Mutual Fire Societies. The difference between the fire societies of Boston and Franklin’s Union Fire Company was that the former protected its members only while the latter the entire community.

At the Fire Service Psychology Association (FSPA) we’re all about promoting how psychology can assist the fire service, not just “after the fact” with intervention, but also proactively with the other domains of psychology: assessments, industrial/organizational, operations, and consultation.

But how many psychologists and other mental health clinicians working with firefighters, or looking to begin working with firefighters and their departments, have a working knowledge of how fire departments in the U.S. developed after the founding of the Union Fire Company in 1736? For that matter, how many firefighters and officers have such knowledge?

Now this is where I “hand things off” to someone who’s a much better fire service historian than myself, Bruce Hensler.

Bruce Hensler served as a firefighter from 1976 to 2011 in career, combination and volunteer departments. He previously served as a fire program specialist in the Emergency Response Support Branch of the U.S. Fire Administration, retiring in 2017. He also previously served as deputy director of the operations division for the firefighter training program in Maine. Hensler has a master’s degree in public administration. His interest in history led him to write “Crucible of Fire: Nineteenth-Century Urban Fires and the Making of the Modern Fire Service.” More information about his book is available at

Why Should You Keep Reading?

“History is who we are and why we are the way we are.”
David McCullough, American historian (1933- )

Here are four essays that Hensler had published by in a four-part series on professionalism in firefighting, specifically how it evolved out of the transition from urban volunteers to a paid fire service and how volunteers would later come to embrace the concept of professionalism itself.

After I read them for about the third time, I realized that this small body of work (four online articles) speaks volumes about “who we [firefighters] are and why we [firefighters] are the way we are.” I think you’ll agree after reading them a couple of times yourself.

1. Firefighting history: How did we get professional?

Our fire service history is seeped in myths, half-truths and legends; understanding how our service evolved means separating fact from fiction

2. Did brawling firefighters kill urban volunteer departments?

While rowdyism and thug-like behavior among urban volunteers is well documented, that traditional narrative is somewhat contrived.

3. How the great fires changed the fire service

There is nothing unique about the Pittsburgh fire; history proves that Americans ignored the risks until disaster struck.

4. How fire departments went from volunteer to career

Political ambition and sketchy fire insurance companies pushed cities to convert volunteer departments to career.

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