Fire departments--What's up with engine companies, truck companies, ladder cos., etc.

What’s the origin of these peculiar designations? You know, where one station seems to house differently numbered “companies” of firefighters? I think in L.A. we have “engine” and “truck” companies; while in NYC they seem to have “engine” and “ladder” companies. So what’s the deal?

Trucks and ladder companies are the same thing. Here’s some quick definitions from the Essentials of Firefighting:
Engine company- deploys hoseline for fire attack and exposure protection
Truck/Ladder company- performs forcible entry, search and rescue, ventilation, salvage and overhaul, and provides access to upper levels of a structure
Rescue squad/company- typically responsible for removal of victims from areas of danger or entrapment

It’s all based on traditional military hierarchies. There are not only companies of firefighters, I think there are battalions as well. I don’t think they go up to regiments, and if they use division it’a in an administrative sense.

My sister was in a “squadron” of translators in the Air Force.

ffmdavis covered the jobs of the various companies in a nutshell. Why they are called “companies” has a couple of answers.

If we step into the way-back machine and go back to the 1700’s where the first volunteer department(s) were established, you will see that they were originally (and still are, to an extent I’ll touch on later) private corporations, what one would call a “company” in the same respect that a local building contractor would be called a “construction company” or a utility would be the “electric company.” These companies, some sponsored by insurance companies, others self-contained entities, provided fire protection to cities and towns for many, many, many years. If you discount Boston, who had a paid (call) department in 1678, the first career department was Cincinatti in 1853. Until then, it was the volunteer companies that protected almost all commuties (like Boston, there were some exceptions). As the volunteer companies were phased out in the cities, the concept of the “company” was retained.

In some communites, there still are private volunteer corporations providing fire protection. In southern New England (where I’m most familiar with), Connecticut has quite a few of these companies. I don’t know of any in Massachusetts or Rhode Island (but I could be wrong). Long Island also has quite a number of them.

The other rationale for the “company” concept is the paramilitary organization idea that yojimboguy brought up. The smallest group of firefighters in a department is a company, usually each piece of apparatus is its own company (some department will split companies, Rochester, NY comes to mind, but thats a whole 'nother story). In an ideal world, there would be 5 firefighters and 1 officer (a lieutenant or captain) assigned to each company, each shift. Most departments don’t have this kind of staffing, it seems like 2 firefighters and 1 officer is the norm (which is criminal in my mind, but I won’t rant, I promise). So you have 3 people in the lowest grouping in the system. Not every department uses the following terminology (more of an east-coast thing…the left coast does things a bit different):

Engine, Ladder, or Rescue Company (3 to 6 people)
District (or Battalion): 3 to 5 engines, 2 to 4 ladders, 1 rescue
Divison: 5 or so districts

This can vary based on the size of the department. A large department can have multiple divisions, some can might not even have one (just 2 districts). Each company is lead by a “company officer,” either a lieutenant or a captain. Districts (or battalions) are lead by a District or Battalion Chief, and each divison lead by a Divison Chief. Above the Divison Chiefs are usually the Deputy, Assistant, and Department Chiefs. Smaller departments (those with 2 or 3 engines and a ladder or two) might only have a Chief and a deputy chief. Boston has 12 districts (I think) and 2 divisions.
As if that wasn’t a confusing post…

Don’t forget the original English! In England, what we call a Fire Department, they call a Fire Brigade.

Doesn’t the “engine” also include pumps to raise the water pressure from the hydrant?

Yes. Although I didn’t mention it before, since that’s a required part of the apparatus.

Back in the good ol’ days, there were seperate companies for hose deployment and pumping. Engine companies had a pump, thats it. Hose companies had hose. Thats it. The hose companies usually only had a hose reel, 2 big wheels with a bunch of hose in between. Engine companies had their hand- or steam-powered pump.

With the development of the motorized fire engine, it was realized that you can put the hose on the truck with the pump on it. Thus, the modern engine company was born. Add in a chemical booster tank (sodium bicarbonate in water with a vial of hydrochloric acid…a big fire extinguisher) and you had a “triple combination” pumper (today the booster tank on the truck is counted as the chemical tank of yesteryear). Toss in ground ladders (which are usually carried on a ladder truck) and you have a “quadruple combination” or “quad.” Finally, stick an aerial device onto the truck, and you have a “quint,” a very popular (and very expensive) piece of today’s firefighting equipment. In fact, some cities (St Louis being the first that comes to mind) have abandoned the engine/ladder idea all together and use only quints. But thats another story…

And the English…they just do things strange. Their hoselines are way too small, their ladders are just a truck with a ladder, no tools, their hydrants are buried under flat plates in the street (what happens when it snows?), and they wear strange gear. Then again, they have a much lower fire loss than we do, so perhaps they know something we don’t.

The different apparatuses are housed at different locations, right? Doesn’t this become inefficient if your rescue squad gets on the scene but has to sit around waiting for ladders or for the engine company to show up with their hoses?


It would, but there are many, many more engine and ladder companies than there are rescue companies.

For example, as of 1998, FDNY had 209 engine companies and 143 ladder companies. At the same time, they had 5 rescue companies, 7 squads, and marine, TAC, and haz mat companies.

Info from:
FDNY Rescue 1

Also, there is usually an engine housed with every ladder and/or rescue. Usually. FDNY is kind of odd in that their rescues are housed alone. In Boston, every ladder has an engine in the same station, and the two rescues are housed with engines (and in Rescue 1’s case, a ladder (well, tower unit) as well). Engines are also often housed by themselves, or multiple engines may even be together.

In the ideal world, you have an engine within 1.5 miles of every building you protect, and a ladder within 2.5 miles. Gives you a 2:1 or so ratio of engines:ladders. Rescues are odd ducks, so they’re much more sparse (more than 1 in a department is kind of a luxury, unless its a large city).

Yup. It’s called “building most of your houses out of brick.”