Philadelphia Fire Department holds onto tradition while moving into future

Charles Mostoller

The Philadelphia Fire Department has come a long way from the days when horse-drawn fire trucks raced to the scenes of blazes to spray water pumped out of the Delaware River. But the spirit of the men and women who serve is still the same.

“The Fire Department’s been in operation for 145 years,” said John Wright, the Fire Department’s official historian. “There’s a lot of traditions, and there’s still people keeping these traditions to this day … But the basic concept is still get a hoseline and put the fire out.”

The technology has changed a bit, but the core responsibilities have not. There are still stations full of Philly firefighters waiting to respond at a moment’s notice to a fire around the city, with one guy sitting watch waiting to respond to calls 24/7.

The Fireman’s Hall Museum, where Wright has volunteered for 29 years, has a steam fire engine from 1858 that firefighters used to pulled by hand.

Back in those days, water was piped underground through hollow cypress logs. Fire fighters would have to dig underground to spike a hole in the logs to get access to the water, which they later plugged up and marked for future firefighters – that’s why in Philly, some people still call hydrants “fire plugs.”

The Fireman’s Hall also contains the Fireman’s Memorial, with the names of every Philly fire fighter who fell in the line of duty. There are thirteen names of men who died after a building collapsed on them in Dec. 21, 1910. Eleven more died after being exposed to chemicals fighting a laboratory fire on Oct. 28, 1954.

It goes through the eightwho died in the 1975 Gulf oil refinery fire, up to the most recent tragedy, the loss of firefighter Joyce Craig, who diedDec.9, 2014.

“It’s a good job with great benefits, but this is the other side,” Wright said. “These firefighters are the bricks. They built what we have today.”

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