History of LAFD

Los Angeles Fire Department

Nestled between the Pacific Ocean and mountain ranges to the north and east, the sprawling City of Los Angeles is considered the major West Coast metropolis. As the second largest city in the nation, it boasts a population of more than 3.8 million people. Los Angeles speaks diversity, from its "melting pot" of ethnic communities to its variety of commercial, industrial, and financial centers.

From a firefighting perspective, the Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) is faced with a variety of fires, ranging from large industrial and commercial structures to single-family dwellings, from oil tankers to hillside brush communities. Covering an area of 470 square miles, with 3,165 sworn personnel and 331 civilian employees, Los Angeles boasts one of the most progressive fire departments in the world.


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 were constructed primarily of adobe and tile, but the storage of hay created hazardous conditions.

In response to fires, neighbors would rush to assist by forming "volunteer bucket brigades." These brigades, using three-gallon leather buckets, 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.


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. In November, 1869, an informal volunteer organization was created, made up mostly of young businessmen and leaders in civic and social affairs.

In 1875, the City Council voted to appropriate funds to purchase a pair of horses for the express purpose of pulling the engine.


The first engine house, erected adjacent to City Hall on Spring Street, was an adobe structure which remained in service until 1884. The apparatus consisted of an Amoskeag pumper and hose cart. It was equipped with 100-foot hose with a one-inch nozzle which could throw a water stream approximately 100 feet in the air, and operated at an ideal working pressure of 80 pounds.


In 1872, the City Council appointed an Engineer, Charles E. Miles, to operate the steam pump. He was the first and only paid employee of the volunteer company and a major influence in the development of the Department. His accomplishments, which are appreciated by members to this day, include the passage of an 1898 bond issue providing $150,000 for the purchase of sites; the construction of 12 municipally-owned fire stations; plans for a Firemen's pension system; and greater efficiency with the fire alarm system.


The history of the Los Angeles Volunteer Fire Department was officiated by the completion of the Plaza Firehouse. At the 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 to this day housing a museum.

In December 1885, the City Council considered the merits of a fully paid Department and moved to finance and control the first fully paid, official Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD). In February 1886, the LAFD officially went into service with four fire stations.


In 1887, the first City-owned fire station, Engine Company No. 1, was established.

Horses played an integral part of the operation. Into the early 1900's, they were stabled inside the firehouse and, at the sound of the fire alarm, were trained to leave their stalls and walk to a point directly beneath the harness.

The first drill tower, constructed at First and Hill Streets, was erected for training purposes. The tower housed a 2,000-pound bell serving as an integral part of the Department's fire alarm system. Attempting to deal with the problem of an inadequate water supply, the Department purchased two chemical engines in November 1891.

The chemical company, capable of controlling small fires without the use of large amounts of water, utilized two 50-gallon tanks containing a mixture of bicarbonate of soda and water. The mixture was activated by a chemical reaction when adding sulfuric acid. The level of success was so great that the Board of Fire Commissioners approved the creation of three additional chemical companies in 1895.


Until the turn of the century, the Fire Department experienced numerous changes in its policies and responsibilities. It was not until the 1900's, however, that the Department began to fully expand its operations such as improved membership benefits, use of motorized apparatus, creation of the Mountain Patrol, and the implementation of the Emergency Medical Service System.


In 190l, the first Fire Department pension system was established for members injured in the line of duty. Prior to this, Firefighters with job-related injuries were not compensated. In 1913, the pension fund was expanded to include service retirement, disability benefits, and assistance to widows and orphans.


One hundred and sixty-three horses, the largest number owned by the Department at any one time, were in use in 1912. They were gradually phased out and, in 1921, were completely replaced by automotive apparatus. This period ranks the eventual changeover from a system of horse-drawn apparatus to completely motorized equipment.


In 1909, the year marked the annexation of the communities of San Pedro and Wilmington, which required the protection of eight miles of waterfront along the Pacific Coast. Two private fire-fighting tugs were used through 1917, and were then replaced by two steam pumpers on a barge.

In 1916, the City purchased its first fireboat, a small wooden vessel, christened the "Aeolian." Three years later, Boat 1 was purchased and put into operation at a fire station located on the Main Channel in San Pedro.

In 1910, the Hollywood area was annexed, giving the LAFD its first motorized apparatus, an auto chemical hose vehicle. Over the years, many other areas were annexed, adding increasing responsibilities to the Department from 29 square miles in 1880 to its present 464.5 square miles.


In 1915, the Department changed over to a two-platoon system, requiring members to work a 12-hour day or 12-hour night shift for a total of 72 hours per week. Until then, members worked full-time with one day off per month and an occasional day or night off without pay. Because of their full-time status, firefighters lived in the engine houses.

Officers and members agreed that the implementation of a two-platoon system improved their quality of life. The 24-hour platoon-duty system was instituted in 1929 while the current system of three platoons went into effect in 1960.


As the Department's responsibilities continued to expand, the administration and members of the Fire Commission and City Council began to recognize the need to promote efficiency in the enforcement of ordinances relating to fire prevention. This resulted in the creation of the Fire Prevention Bureau in 1916.

Members worked to reduce fire hazards in industrial and commercial occupancies, ordered safety improvements in passenger elevators and later were involved in lectures on fire prevention to schools, motion picture studios, department stores, and other business establishments. Several years later, an arson squad was created consisting of two Firefighters whose efforts resulted in a 90% conviction rate of apprehended arsonists.


In 1924, the Mountain Patrol was created to improve fire safety in the hillside communities of the City. The area extended from the Santa Monica Mountain Range within City limits, to Griffith Park on the north, and Topanga Canyon on the west.

Because it was often impossible to get equipment and an adequate water supply into remote sections, Firefighters were occasionally forced to improvise by using wet burlap bags to "beat out" a fire.

Due to heavy vegetation in hillside areas, Los Angeles experienced a number of brushland fires such as the 1938 Topanga Canyon fire. In this incident, the Department recalled all off-duty personnel within a three-hour period making this the first time in its history that a total recall was required.

The Mountain Patrol has since evolved into the Brush Clearance Unit. This operation enforces the removal of hazardous brush conditions in the Mountain Fire District and Buffer Zone areas through a contractor compliance program.


In 1925, a "fire college" was created for use by all ranks of the LAFD. Through its activities, the college created a marked increase in efficiency in firefighting methods.


The year 1933 marked a turning point in the Department's alarm system. Prior to this time, all fire stations within the City received all alarms simultaneously, and it was the responsibility of members to determine whether that alarm applied to their area. The "hold out" system was the first of its kind in the country. This made it possible for only the appropriate stations to be alerted to an alarm of fire.


In 1940, the Department witnessed the voluntary retirement of the Chief Engineer, Deputy Chief, three Assistant Chiefs, seven Battalion Chiefs, and 24 Captains. This loss, coupled with the entry of the United States into World War II, marked one of the most serious periods of staffing shortages experienced by the Department.

When Pearl Harbor was bombed, the entire Fire Department was recalled and remained on duty until military authorities said it was safe to resume normal working conditions. Many members were recalled into the Armed Services while the remaining personnel averaged an 84-hour workweek. As the War intensified, the problems of the LAFD became more difficult. There were many serious fires due to code violations, the rush of wartime production, and staffing shortages.


A vigorous program of rehabilitation of the Department was initiated as soon as conditions permitted. Many firefighters returned from military leave, and new members were hired.

In 1947, the largest building program ever undertaken occurred with the passage of a $4.5 million bond issue providing for the construction or remodeling of 35 fire stations and the purchase of new apparatus. That same year, the National Board of Fire Underwriters, in a survey of the City, rated the Department "Class 1." By 1950, Los Angeles had become the fastest growing City in the nation.


The first Fire Department rescue ambulance was implemented in 1927. By 1931, the LAFD had six ambulances, all within the Metropolitan and Harbor areas of the City.

With the expansion of the City, the Department recognized the need to add six additional rescue ambulances to the burgeoning San Fernando Valley. By 1957, this service was operating in conjunction with privately contracted ambulance companies.

In 1970, the first Paramedic ambulance went into service at Fire Station 53 in San Pedro. That same year, all City ambulances were transferred to the Fire Department. In 1973, contracted ambulance services were phased out and the Fire Department assumed complete control of first care emergency medical services throughout the City.

Department history was made in the 1978 Paramedic Ceremony when the first three female Paramedics graduated. To date, the LAFD has 63 first-line Paramedic Rescue Ambulances, boasting one of the most effective services of its kind in the world.


An ordinance enacted in 1928 restricted any building from being taller than City Hall. This was repealed, however, and in 1962 the City permitted construction of its first high-rise building (currently the TransAmerica Building).

With a corresponding increase in high-rise buildings, it was necessary for the Fire Department to establish techniques to combat fires and similar emergencies in this type of occupancy. The Department is considered an authority on modern High Rise Structure firefighting techniques.


By adopting an Affirmative Action program in 1974, the Department also created a Minority Recruitment Unit with the sole purpose of improving the recruitment of minorities. Currently, the Department has members representing every ethnic group in the City and employs women Firefighters and Paramedics.


Always striving to improve its services to the community, the LAFD instituted the Incident Command System in 1976. This was developed to improve emergency operations at high-rise fires, brush fires, large-scale EMS incidents, and devastating earthquakes. It was successfully implemented in the Occidental Tower high-rise fire that occurred shortly after the new Command System was established.


In the 1990's, the Los Angeles City Fire Department has seen its resources and resolve challenged in the Floods and Civil Unrest of 1992 and the Firestorms and Earthquakes of 1993 and 1994. From its beginnings as a small pueblo, the City of Los Angeles has seen its Fire Department meet and overcome many diverse challenges in its service to the citizens. The Fire Department continually works toward the expansion of quality services to the residents of Los Angeles. It is this goal that has made the LAFD one of the most outstanding Departments in the world.

Since the day that the Los Angeles Fire Department was organized, it has risen to an internationally recognized place of technical and professional excellence. Its members, however, have never let diminish those traditional eras of "muscles, courage, and stern" upon which today's devotion to duty was founded.