A dramatic history of the men and women in black (with reflective piping) who make up the Fire Department of New York, from Irish-American historian Golway (For the Cause of Liberty, 2000, etc.).
Firefighting has come a long way since New York City was called New Amsterdam and men with leather buckets worked to squelch the flames that routinely licked at its wooden structures. These worthy volunteers, though “honest and sober,” had little by way of tactics and discipline. That changed when the department went professional after the Civil War, Golway writes. A command structure was put in place, and demands were placed on the city to provide the funds necessary to purchase adequate equipment. Each horrific fire—and that is where the author concentrates his attention, from tenement to opera house to the ghastly 1911 Triangle Shirt Waist factory blaze—found the department evolving to meet the needs of a changing city and the municipal government enacting laws to promote fire protection. Golway doesn’t see New York reacting with quite the same vigor these days; he cites the Happy Land social club fire of 1990, which killed 87 people but prompted little official effort to close down other such venues. He does, however, find in the fire department an abiding sense of family and purpose, with such qualities as honor, pride, and integrity still highly prized. Not that there haven’t been breakdowns in those ideals, as any African-American or female member of the department will be able to attest. Golway details their travails and makes sense out of such seemingly picayune grievances as the brouhaha surrounding FDNY’s merger with Emergency Medical Services. He also details a period of great discord during the 1970s, when budgets got slashed as the number of fires (many of them deliberately set) rose precipitously.
Fair-handed, laudatory without being obsequious, and brimming with potent stories of New York City’s fires and firefighting.