March 2, 1866, San Francisco ended its era of volunteer-firefighters
and established its first ever paid fire department. San Francisco
was one of many cities to follow the countrywide trend of instituting
paid fire departments, after several fires devastated the city.
City officials had considered switching to a paid department
since the 1850’s, once they realized a better-funded,
more efficient fire department was necessary to protect a city
so prone to fire disasters.
The switch to a paid fire department
meant great changes in the daily life of a firefighter. Before
1866, firehouses were comparatively less organized and were
the center of the neighborhood’s social life. Since it
was an unpaid profession, volunteer firefighting was not well
respected; volunteers were prone to drinking and gambling, and
firehouses were popular, rambunctious social centers, filled
with parties and dances. However, once the department became
paid, it adopted paramilitary routines and practices, establishing
a tightly organized, efficient system in which each member of
the company served a distinctive, vital role. After the switch
to paid departments, horses, stables, engines and trucks stayed
on the bottom floor, while dormitories and recreation were now
confined to the second floor. Remnants of the jovial volunteer
era lived on nonetheless, in the camaraderie and sense of community
experienced between the men.